This week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed decades-old rules that could give conservative Sinclair Broadcasting a big boost in media markets across the country, including Seattle. The regulations, which were put in place to protect the integrity and diversity of local media markets, were eliminated by an FCC vote of 3 to 2.
Sinclair currently owns and operates over 170 television stations across the country, including KOMO, which they purchased in 2013. In recent months, Sinclair has been attempting to purchase the Tribune Media Company, which would increase Sinclair’s market share to 233 television stations in 108 U.S. markets. That’s 73 percent of U.S. households, and includes Q13, a KOMO rival in Seattle.
This sort of merger would not have been possible before Trump. Rules in place since the 1970s have restricted the number of television and radio stations media companies can own in one market, but in May, the FCC relaxed those regulations, and Sinclair announced their bid for Tribune just weeks later.
If this sounds fishy, it is: The New York Times reported that the day before Trump’s inauguration, Sinclair chairman David D. Smith visited Ajit V. Pai, a Obama-era FCC commissioner who would soon be named chairman of the agency. Soon after, Pai undertook a “deregulatory blitz, enacting or proposing a wish list of fundamental policy changes advocated by Mr. Smith and his company. Hundreds of pages of emails and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal a rush of regulatory actions has been carefully aligned with Sinclair’s business objectives.”
This week, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, as well as 13 of their Senate colleagues, requested that the inspector general of the FCC open an investigation into the objectivity of Pai and the FCC.
“We have strong concerns that the FCC’s ongoing review of the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media may be tainted by a series of actions and events that raise questions about the independence and impartiality of the FCC,” the senators wrote to FCC Inspector General David Hunt. They have also asked Pai to recuse himself from all FCC business related to the Sinclair-Tribune merger.
As Cantwell and her colleagues know, what’s good for Sinclair isn’t necessarily good for the public. In July, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver broadcast a segment on Sinclair’s proposed buyout of Tribune. Citing a report from The Seattle Times, Oliver pointed out that Sinclair stations, including KOMO, are required by their corporate parent to air “must-runs,” which are frequently pro-Trump propaganda pushed by a number of talking heads. Crosscut also reported extensively on the segments.
One of the those talking heads is Boris Epshteyn, a Russian-born political strategist, investment banker, and attorney who served as a Trump campaign advisor and briefly worked as an aide in his administration. Epshteyn is also the chief political analyst at Sinclair, and every night he is beamed into Sinclair stations across the country, spewing his pro-Trump messages in between high school sports scores and the local weather forecast.
In August, after President Trump responded to the killing of a counter protester at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville by saying there were “good people on both sides,” Epshteyn, echoing Trump, blamed the left: “Representative Steve Scalise and three others shot on an Alexandria baseball field in June have the bullet wounds to prove that there is plenty of hate and violence coming from the left. Let’s not forget that James Hodgkinson, the shooter, was a left-wing activist,” he said. “The president stating the fact that the fringes of the left and the right are both capable of hate and violence does not mean he is condoning any of it.”
This, like all of Epshteyn’s segments, was aired without disclosing that the man worked for the Trump administration, leaving viewers to assume that their trusted local news source agrees.
KOMO staffers, however, have found a creative way to push back: by airing must-runs in the middle of the night, when the local news is only being watched by people in hospital waiting rooms and all-night 7-11s, as John Oliver pointed out.
But despite KOMO’s valiant efforts to shield their audience from Boris’s Bottom Line, Sinclair’s interference is a major problem for local audiences, says Pam Vogel, a research fellow at the progressive watchdog group Media Matters. Must-runs “force local TV news viewers in Seattle and around the country to take time out of their days to listen to irrelevant hot takes and Trump administration shillings when they're really just looking for the facts.”
Instead of the facts, what viewers are getting is pro-Trump propaganda, and this can have a major impact on both viewers and on elections. Take Fox News. Anyone with a parent whose remote control is stuck on Fox News can attest to how media influences one’s views, and research backs this up: Multiple studies have found that Fox News viewers are the least informed cable news audience, and—perhaps more disturbing—when Fox News enters a new market, Republican politicians are more likely to get elected. A 2006 study found “a significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000,” as well as an increase in Republican vote share in the Senate.
“Our estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 28 percent of its viewers to vote Republican, depending on the audience measure,” the study authors wrote. “The Fox News effect could be a temporary learning effect for rational voters, or a permanent effect for nonrational voters subject to persuasion.”
One of these nonrational voters is Nancy (not her real name), a retired small business owner. Nancy’s son, an English professor, told me that his mom was progressive when he was growing up. She wasn’t radical, but she was a lifelong Democrat who introduced him to people like Lenny Bruce and Frank Zappa. A Hillary Clinton supporter during the 2008 primary, Nancy felt like the news she usually watched was blindly supportive of her opponent, Barack Obama. Nancy wanted a source that was critical of both candidates. She found it in Fox News.
“Within six months,” her son told me, “everything changed.” Nancy became a self-identified “neo-conservative” and started sending her son chain emails about conspiracy theories and the “liberal establishment.”
“It was mind-boggling,” he continued. “She began to live on a steady diet of Fox News. There were TVs in every room in her house, including the bathroom, and every one would be tuned to Fox News. It was like she was immersing herself into this environment of right wing discourse. It completely altered everything.”
Nancy’s shift, which soured her relationship with her son, came after she started watching Fox News, not KOMO, but Sinclair uses exactly the very same scare-tactics as Fox. Why? Because it works. Journalist David Zurawik, who covers local media, spoke about Sinclair recently on CNN: “They come as close to classic propaganda as I think I’ve seen in thirty years of covering local television or national television,” he said. “They’re outrageous.” At least with Fox, viewers presumably know it’s the conservative network; Sinclair, on the other hand, slips their propaganda seamlessly into local news with no warning.
It's not even clear that KOMO will survive the merger. If the Tribune buyout is approved—and after this week's ruling, it seems more inevitable than not—Sinclair will also have ownership over Q13, and at that point, it’s entirely possible that Sinclair will shut down KOMO’s news operations all together, says Dave Twedell, a representative for Local 600, the union that represents photojournalists at KOMO. Not only is Q13 cheaper to run, its workers aren’t unionized, and it hasn’t attracted national attention like KOMO.
“Our members serve the public,” Twedell said. “They have a relationship with the public. But if a corporation buys up a huge number of stations and homogenizes the product, it further degrades the notion of objective local news.”
Twedell isn’t just concerned as a union rep, he’s concerned as a citizen. “One voice shouldn't be that loud,” he says. “If Sinclair wants to spend their money, they can buy a satellite channel or can go on cable. But if they go out over the public airwaves, they are buying credibility built by the federal regulations. We don't want to see Sinclair destroy that credibility.”
As the Trump administration continues to dismantle regulations in the FCC and beyond, the Sinclair/Tribune merger will, in all likelihood, go forth. And when that happens, KOMO staffers may well find themselves out of a job, and Seattle viewers may find that their local news source, which has served the public since 1953, is no more. But for now, they resist: KOMO staffers continue putting out news and stories that serve the Seattle market—and Boris Epshteyn, who you can catch very late at night.