Posted by Guest on October 17, 2017 in Blog

by Sarah Seniuk

Although diversity in the media and news is essential to a well functioning democracy, diversity in media ownership has been on the decline since the 1980s. As of 2014, 90% of the media, including our news outlets, were owned by only six companies.

Sinclair Broadcasting Group, an independent media group, is now another company concocting its own monopoly of local news stations with news of a possible merger with Chicago’s Tribune Media. A leaked internal memo from the president and CEO of Sinclair to employees of Tribune Media demonstrates that Sinclair is confident that their acquisition of Tribune is very likely to be approved. The controversial deal was announced in May, where Sinclair declared its intentions to merge with Tribune Media for $3.9 billion, giving Sinclair control of well over 200 news stations, and the ability to reach72% of the US population (up from the 39% limit previously enforced by the FCC).  Sinclair’s outreach is particularly influential because they control local news stations, which are still widely the most trusted and watched news outlets by many Americans. While Sinclair’s yet-to-be-approved purchase of Tribune’s holdings will have the most drastic increase in their outreach, they’ve been quietly acquiring smaller media groups, including New York-based Bonten Media for $240 million.

This merger is concerning not only because of the monopolizing influence Sinclair will gain with approval, but because of how Sinclair runs their stations. Sinclair Broadcast has a policy of promoting far-right talking points through must-run segments across their stations. These segments are purposefully designed to look like news presentations and are run without banners indicating they are sponsored content—not news segments. Many are even opinion pieces or outright propaganda. Even more problematic, they infringe on the ability of local journalists to maintain their reporting integrity, as Sinclair manipulates the trust communities they have for their local news teams. Some local viewers have called foul but have not gotten a comforting response. Nancy Dafoe, a writer and instructor, contacted her local news station when the news coverage she was watching switched mid broadcast to an announcer discussing a conspiracy:

She told me that she understood my concern that the propaganda ran into the news segment as if it was part of the local news. Then she said, ‘We know it, but we can’t do anything about it. We have to run it.’ In investigating further, all of the ‘news’ promotions the inserted ‘newscaster’ was discussing were previously debunked propaganda, or to put it bluntly: outright lies.

Sinclair’s specific brand of propaganda breeds suspicion and distrust, with regular segments such as the “Terrorism Alert Desk” and Boris Epshteyn’s “Bottom Line With Boris.” Both segments actively promote dangerous policies, absolute support of President Trump, and an environment of fear. In his segment produced for the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Epshteyn claimed that since that time “the threat of terrorism has not diminished. We continue to be under constant threat of attack,” and that while there have been no attacks to the scale of 9/11 “that does not mean, however, that such attacks are not being planned by groups and individuals who hate our way of life and our democratic traditions.” Spliced into his dialogue were images of marching ISIS fighters with guns, and shaky cellphone footage from attacks in Manchester and Paris.

As Sinclair and their must-run segments came under fire following a segment by Last Week Tonight, Epshteyn rose to the defense of Sinclair, choosing to focus on the Terrorism Alert Desk:

Terrorism is not nonsense, … Sadly, in this day and age, it is necessary to cover terror on a regular basis. Whether it’s in New York, Manchester, or in your hometown, terror has become all too real to people across the globe. … The bottom line is that Sinclair strives to keep its viewers informed as well as protected. And it is vital that viewers do not stick their heads in the sand and are aware of the threats facing each and every one of us.

Epshteyn and the Sinclair Broadcast group strive to create a distorted depiction of terrorism in the US, one that singles out Arabs and Muslims. Far-right plots and attacks in the US outnumber those by Muslim extremists by nearly 2 to 1, and more frequently result in death. There is a dangerous brand of propaganda which promotes division and stokes the flames of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment.

A coalition of media and television executives, including the American Cable Association and the Satcaster Dish Network, filed a petition to the FCC in opposition to the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger. Consumer watchdog Allied Progress filed their own opinion with the FCC, raising concerns of “its partisan slant” and “for forcing local stations to air politically biased editorials ahead of elections. Local news is a pillar in any community. … [W]ith the potential to reach 72 percent of American households, this would deny these household the diversity of information sources crucial to the public interest standard.” Allied Progress, and the aforementioned media coalition, called on the FCC to allow for public comment before they move forward with their decision regarding the Sinclair Broadcast Group. The FCC did open the merger to comment noting, Interested persons must file petitions to deny no later than August 7, 2017. Oppositions to petitions to deny must be filed no later than August 22, 2017.” Depending on the outcome, Americans may be forced to work overtime to separate fact from fiction on their local station.

Sarah Seniuk is a 2017 fall intern at the Arab American Institute.