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FCC Enables Faster Media Consolidation as Pro-Trump Sinclair Group Seizes Even More Local Stations

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,,
The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a major decision
by the Federal Communications Commission that eliminates a decades-old rule that ensures
community residents can have a say in their local broadcast TV station. The regulation is known as the “main studio
rule,” and it requires broadcasters to have a physical studio near where they have a license
to transmit. This comes as the FCC also announced plans,
at a hearing Wednesday, to abolish long-standing media-ownership rules, including limits on
how many stations or newspapers one company can own in a single market. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testified Wednesday
during a congressional hearing. AJIT PAI: If you believe, as I do, that the
federal government has no business intervening in the news, then we must stop the federal
government from intervening in the news business. And that is why, this afternoon, I shared
with my fellow commissioners an order that will reform our media ownership rules and
help pull the government, once and for all, out of the newsroom. We will vote on this order at our November
16th meeting. The marketplace today is nothing like it was
in 1975. Newspapers are shutting down. Many radio and TV stations are struggling,
especially in smaller and rural markets. Online competition for the collection and
distribution of news is even greater than it ever was. And just two internet companies claim 100
percent of recent online advertising growth. Indeed, their digital ad revenue alone this
year will be greater than the market cap of the entire broadcasting industry. And yet the FCC’s rules still presume that
the market is defined entirely by pulp and rabbit ears. AMY GOODMAN: But opponents say these changes
will accelerate media consolidation, allowing massive corporate media companies, such as
the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group, to buy up and control even more local stations. Earlier this year, Trump’s FCC appointees
revived a regulatory loophole that could allow Sinclair to buy 42 TV stations from Tribune
Media Company, on top of the more than 170 stations it already owns. The deal means Sinclair stations would reach
about 72 percent—almost three-quarters—of U.S. households. This comes as former Fox News anchor Bill
O’Reilly has reportedly been negotiating for a position with Sinclair Broadcast Group. O’Reilly secretly settled a sexual harassment
claim for $32 million in January, the sixth and by far the largest such settlement during
his tenure at Fox, from which he was fired. For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C.,
by Andy Kroll, senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine, where he’s written extensively
about the FCC. His latest story in the current issue is headlined
“Ready for Trump TV? Inside Sinclair Broadcasting’s Plot to Take
Over Your Local News.” Andy, welcome back to Democracy Now! You know, a lot of the meme going around is
that Trump just can’t get anything done, but it sure doesn’t look that way at the
FCC this week. Can you talk about what’s happened? ANDY KROLL: Well, at the FCC this week, as
you described, the commission voted along party lines—three Republicans voting in
favor, two voting in opposition—to eliminate the main studio rule, this rule from about
80 years ago saying that a local TV or radio station needs to have its studio, its primary
studio, in or near the community it serves. And that served a number of purposes, not
only for the community to be able to interact with that station, but also tethering that
station to the community in which it’s reporting the news and delivering some value to the
people who watch it. That rule has been eliminated. And then, as we saw in the clip that you just
showed, the chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, a Republican, former staffer to Jeff Sessions,
now the attorney general, has said that there is a whole bunch more deregulation in the
works. This comes in a year, since President Trump’s
inauguration in January, in which the FCC has consistently knocked down one barrier
after another to enabling a massive deal frenzy, a consolidation in the broadcast business,
which is exactly what companies like Sinclair want, going forward, so that they can gobble
up as many TV stations around the country as they can, and basically dominate the local
news business. NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Andy, before we get
to Sinclair Broadcasting, I wanted to ask you about the context of this attempt—or,
in fact, the overturning of the main studio rule. It’s been in effect, as you said, for several
decades. Has any other administration attempted to
overturn it? ANDY KROLL: No. The rule has been tweaked over time, on several
occasions, to, what they say, modernize it. But the substance of the rule, having that
studio in the community where the viewers, where the people who depend on that TV or
radio station is, that has not changed over time. And the supporters of the rule say there’s
a very clear reason for that. Yes, it’s true that with email and with
social media you can send a message to your TV station, but the rule also gave that sense
of locality. It gave that connection in the newsgathering
and in the—you know, just the connection to a community that is so vital to local news. And that has been a bedrock of broadcast television
for nearly 80 years and has gone unchallenged under Republican administrations and under
Democratic administrations. And now, under President Trump and with Commissioner
Pai at the FCC, that rule is ancient history. NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Andy, before—could
you explain, because—as a result of overturning this rule, all of these different stations,
TV stations and radio stations, can be increasingly consolidated. Now, one of the companies under which these
stations have been consolidated is Sinclair Broadcasting. But this media organization, very few people
know about. So could you tell us about this broadcasting
channel? ANDY KROLL: Yeah. I like to say that Sinclair Broadcast Group
is the most influential media organization that most Americans have never heard of. It owns nearly—owns or operates nearly 200
local TV stations around the country. It has a tremendous influence over the local
news business. And it marries that influence, that size,
reaching into 40 percent of households right now, with a unabashed conservative and pro-Trump
agenda. You see that in the kind of programming that
Sinclair produces and sends out to its local stations. These are called “must-run segments.” They take, you know, basically, a shamelessly
pro-Trump message, repeating talking points of the administration’s through its commentators,
and putting that into the local news. And as you mentioned earlier, Sinclair is
eyeing a deal to acquire 42 new stations around the country, giving it a reach to almost three-quarters
of American households. So this is a massive broadcast company, set
to get even bigger. And it has a distinct conservative viewpoint
that it is intent and bent on projecting out to the millions of people who watch its television
channels. AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean when you
say “intent and bent on.” Your headline of your piece, “Ready for
Trump TV? Inside Sinclair Broadcasting’s Plot to Take
Over Your Local News.” What are the edicts being handed down? ANDY KROLL: Well, Sinclair is a pioneer in
what’s known as the “must-run segment.” This is a segment that is produced by Sinclair’s
corporate headquarters here in the D.C. area and also in Maryland, that it produces, and
then it sends out to its stations around the country—again, almost 200 of them—and
says, “You are required to run this 90-second commentary or this two-minute editorial.” That content, that is being distributed out
around the country, has a very clear, unequivocal conservative, partisan bent to it and, frankly,
a pro-Trump bent to it. You know, the lead political analyst, if you
could call it that, at Sinclair is a man named Boris Epshteyn, former Trump campaign aide
and a former Trump White House aide, who left the administration and immediately went into
this role at Sinclair. His segments are called “Bottom Line with
Boris.” They are distributed, and they are required
to run every day at Sinclair stations. And these are basically Trump talking points. And, I mean, you can go on YouTube, you can
watch all of his clips in a row. They are 100 percent toeing the Trump line. And if they’re not that, they’re softball
interviews with Trump administration officials. AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, of course, people
might know who Boris Epshteyn is, because during the campaign he was one of his spokespeople,
always interviewed on TV. This is one of Boris Epshteyn’s recent commentaries. BORIS EPSHTEYN: It is important to note that
voter fraud goes beyond stealing or miscounting ballots. Intentionally improper voter registration
is absolutely a type of voter fraud. The Commission on Election Integrity has gotten
to work. … The extent of voter fraud in our elections
has been hotly debated between the left and the right. The president’s commission has been established
to come up with a factual, impartial answer to that question. The states should do everything within their
power to cooperate with the commission. And that’s the bottom line. AMY GOODMAN: And that is required by every
station to run, Andy Kroll? ANDY KROLL: That’s correct. You are— AMY GOODMAN: This is— ANDY KROLL: Yes, that’s right. AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip from a Sinclair
station, featuring former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka. The show was broadcast earlier this month. SEBASTIAN GORKA: You do not make legislation
out of outliers. Our big issue is black African gun crime against
black Africans. It is a tragedy. Go to Chicago. Go to the cities run by Democrats for 40 years. Black young men are murdering each other by
the bushel. AMY GOODMAN: “By the bushel.” That’s former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka
referring to “black African [gun] crime” on “black [Africans],” saying black men
are killing each other “by the bushel.” Andy Kroll? ANDY KROLL: Sebastian Gorka, of course, another
alumnus of the Trump White House, who, upon leaving, went immediately to Sinclair and
is now a talking head at Sinclair. So you see this trend of Trump officials going
to Sinclair Broadcast Group and then them being put on the airwaves and either pushing
a completely crazy message, that Sebastian Gorka just did, on a segment that was supposed
to be about guns in America— AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I think “outright racist”
is a very— ANDY KROLL: Outright racist, yeah. AMY GOODMAN: —more accurate way to describe
it. ANDY KROLL: Yeah, it’s hard to find the
words to describe what that was. You have Boris Epshteyn, as well. His segment, that we just listened to, is
basically advocacy for the Trump administration in its deeply flawed, inept supposed commission
on investigating voter fraud, which, of course, in most cases, doesn’t exist. So, you have this message, and you have stations
around the country that, in a lot of cases, just want to do local news. But as they come under the Sinclair umbrella,
they are being told by headquarters, “You will run these segments.” In Boris Epshteyn’s case, Sinclair doubled
down and tripled the number of times that Boris Epshteyn was required to be run by its
stations. And so, this is the progression we’re seeing
this year. So we’re only seeing a more pro-Trump message,
at the same time that Sinclair is looking to gobble up more stations and consolidate
its control. NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, could you talk, Andy,
about the founder of Sinclair Broadcasting Group, David Smith? ANDY KROLL: Yeah. David Smith is a media mogul with an incredible
amount of sway over what goes on on the local airwaves. He’s not well known on the level of, say,
a Rupert Murdoch, for instance, even though the two men would, I think, consider themselves
contemporaries or competitors. David Smith built a small family company that
had three TV stations, starting in the mid-’80s. They were based out of Baltimore. And he—by finding ways around the law and
taking advantage of ways that the law was changed—in this case, deregulated—in the
past few decades, he has grown Sinclair into this conservative TV behemoth that it is today,
and one that stands to get even bigger if the Tribune Media merger goes through. David Smith, longtime donor to mostly Republicans,
though Democrats, as well, who are in a position to help his company. And today, you know, he throws a party for
a Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas. He travels in a, you know, elite, rarefied
group of Republican supporters. He’s even bragged about dining at the White
House with the president. So he is right at the top of a Republican-industry-donor
pyramid, if you will. But he has managed to avoid the amount of
attention that, say, a Rupert Murdoch or some other international media moguls that we do
of have attracted. AMY GOODMAN: And the merging of Sinclair and
Tribune? I mean, these are the smaller local stations
that dot the United States, you know, crisscross the United States. ANDY KROLL: That’s right. The deal would give, again, 42 television
stations from Sinclair—or from Tribune into Sinclair. It would add more of those dots on the map,
as you mentioned. Right now, Sinclair has no presence in Colorado. This would give it a major presence in Colorado. But it would also bring stations in the three
largest media markets in the country into the Sinclair company: New York, WPIX; KTLA
in Los Angeles; and WGN, one of the most famous broadcast companies in America, in Chicago. So this would really seal Sinclair’s position
as the sort of dominant broadcast company—and, of course, given that many more tens of millions
of people who would be potentially seeing Boris Epshteyn, Sebastian Gorka, potentially
Bill O’Reilly. AMY GOODMAN: Now, when we were talking about
Sebastian Gorka, just to understand, as he’s talking about black African violence here
in the United States, who he is, the whole controversy around him wearing that pin at
the inauguration, of the Vitézi Rend, the newspaper The Forward reporting members of
the Vitézi Rend elite order confirmed Gorka took a lifelong oath of loyalty to the Hungarian
far-right-wing group, listed by the U.S. State Department as having been under the direction
of the Nazi government of Germany during World War II. I mean, just the significance of what is being
required by these local stations to run all over the country? ANDY KROLL: Yeah. And Gorka is—if you watch that clip, or
the roundtable that that clip comes from, which is available on Sinclair’s website,
I mean, Sebastian Gorka is more or less given an open mic to say what he thinks about, in
this case, quote-unquote, “guns in America.” We see where he took that theme. But he was a foreign policy aide in the Trump
White House. He was not a domestic policy expert. He was not someone working on the issue of
guns, for all that we know. And yet he is just given this platform, as
he has been on several other occasions with Sinclair. The company seems to have no qualms, given
the background that you describe, the fantastic reporting that The Forward has done on his
past. They seem to have no problem giving him that
platform, just as they reportedly seem to be considering an arrangement with Bill O’Reilly,
someone who, as you mentioned, has settled sexual harassment claims for tens of millions
of dollars when he was at Fox News, to the point that Fox fired him. AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain that last part. What do you understand is the state of these
negotiations? And have they been stopped by this latest
news of his $32 million settlement with a Fox host for sexual harassment? ANDY KROLL: What I’ve heard and what I’ve
seen reported in the past week is that there are negotiations underway between Sinclair
and O’Reilly around either—whether it would be bringing him in as a host or a commentator
or some kind of arrangement or partnership between O’Reilly having his own—potentially
his own program, his own platform, and Sinclair as the megaphone, if you will, projecting
that program, projecting O’Reilly out, using its empire of stations. Now, Sinclair has denied that it is talking
with O’Reilly, and has repeatedly done that, though the reporting, that doesn’t go for
the official comment from Sinclair, would suggest otherwise. I will say that I, you know, have talked to
people in and around Sinclair, and among the rank and file, if you will, there is kind
of shock and disgust that—in light of O’Reilly’s sexual harassment settlements and all the
allegations at Fox, that Sinclair would be thinking about considering a partnership with
him has a lot of people there upset, concerned about their futures, whether they want to
work there if Bill O’Reilly joins the company in some capacity. AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andy Kroll, we want to
thank you for being with us. We’ll certainly link to your piece. Andy Kroll, senior reporter at Mother Jones
magazine, where he has written extensively about the FCC and Sinclair Broadcasting. His piece published this week, we’ll link
to, “Ready for Trump TV? Inside Sinclair Broadcasting’s Plot to Take
Over Your Local News.” This is Democracy Now! When we come back, an undocumented teenager
in detention in Texas prevails over the Trump administration. She finally this week gets the abortion she
has been seeking for weeks. Stay with us.

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