Montana Voices: Sinclair brings conservative bias to state’s TV stations

If you are fed up with liberal bias in the news, take heart. Conservative bias is on its way.

David Crisp

In late June, the Federal Communications Commission approved the sale of the 14 TV stations owned by Bonten Media Group Holdings Inc. to Sinclair Broadcast Group. The sale includes three Montana stations: KECI in Missoula, KTVM in Butte and Bozeman and KCFW in Kalispell.

Sinclair historically has operated in smaller markets, but it also is working on a deal to acquire Tribune Broadcasting’s 42 TV stations (none of which are in Montana), giving it more than 200 stations and solidifying its standing as the nation’s largest station group.

Sinclair’s spate of acquisitions was made possible by an obscure FCC change to rules governing UHF broadcast channels—those ultra-high frequency channels that showed up on beyond Channel 13 on old TV sets. Historically, the FCC has tried to limit media concentration by limiting the reach of TV stations owned by a single company to no more than 39 percent of the country. But broadcasters on UHF stations were allowed to discount half of their reach because those frequencies were considered less valuable.

The Obama administration eliminated the discount, arguing that it no longer makes sense in a world of digital TV, cable, online streaming, Netflix and so on. But the FCC under President Trump restored the discount in April, giving broadcasters broad authority to acquire more stations.

Did Trump have his thumb on the scale? Well, one of the FCC commissioners, Mignon Clyburn, complained that she didn’t hear about the Bonten Media approval until she saw it in the news. And New York magazine reported that Trump had asked worldwide media baron Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News, to submit a list of candidates for FCC chairman. In addition, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner told business executives last year that the Trump campaign struck a deal with Sinclair to give it exclusive interviews with the candidate, provided they run with no commentary.

In Montana, Sinclair’s presence gained minor notoriety even before the deal went through. HuffPost (formerly Huffington Post) reported in May that KECI had declined to run audio of U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., body slamming a reporter for the Guardian. The station denied that Sinclair had any influence on the decision.

“We do not put unverified information and audio tapes on the air in any case, political figure or not,” KECI General Manager Tamy Wagner told HuffPost in an email.

Suspicion about Sinclair is understandable. In a “Last Week Tonight” segment, HBO’s John Oliver noted that Sinclair has a history of ordering local stations to air “must-run” commentaries and news stories, mostly leaning to the right and sometimes badly distorted.

In April, Sinclair hired as its chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn, who grew up in Moscow. He was senior adviser to the Trump-Pence transition team and director of communications for the Presidential Inaugural Committee before becoming special assistant to the president in charge of surrogate operations. He left the post in March with no explanation from the White House.

Epshteyn has been a prominent Trump defender on television whose claims included a bizarre allegation that Barack Obama won the 2008 election in North Carolina through voter fraud.

After playing that sound bite, Oliver asked, “Do Trump surrogates even know why they are lying or are they driven by some vague instinct, like when a cat sits inside a box?”

Some Sinclair stations have tried to undercut the chain’s heavy-handed approach by showing “must-run” segments in early morning hours or by leaking examples of Sinclair’s tactics to major newspapers. Sinclair employees complain, quietly, about the company’s lean staffs and hard-nosed tactics in contract negotiations.

Trump supporters may say a little conservative bias in the news media is a good thing to offset all of the liberal bias. Fox News, which likes to exclude itself from “mainstream media” despite its high ratings and its ownership by one of the most powerful media titans in the world, has been trumpeting a recent study that shows 93 percent of the news stories about the new president in his first 100 days were negative. If the trend continues, Trump will surpass Bill Clinton as the president to receive the most negative coverage.

But as the study itself indicates, this isn’t a slam-dunk case. The study by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government notes that most presidents get negative coverage and that Trump’s low “fidelity to the facts” and his hostility toward the media make his negative coverage unsurprising.

“The early days of his presidency have been marked by far more missteps and miss-hits, often self-inflicted, than any presidency in memory, perhaps ever,” the study noted. Even a slight majority of stories on Fox, which was far more favorable to the president than other news sources examined, were negative.

Moreover, the study said, deciding exactly what constitutes a fair and balanced news story is difficult to determine “in the absence of an agreed-upon version of ‘reality’ against which to compare Trump’s coverage.”

Oh yes, that reality thing. If only we could figure out what that is.

For instance, among stories Shorenstein counted as negative was one with this perfectly accurate headline: “President Trump’s approval rating hits a new low.” Moreover, “Fox and Friends,” Trump’s favorite news show, has complained repeatedly that the “mainstream media” are overplaying stories about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Fox has run less than half as many stories about the Russian connection as other news outlets.

But in the first 20 months after the Benghazi attack, Fox ran nearly 1,100 stories on that alleged scandal, including interviews with 144 Republican members of Congress and only five with Democratic congressmen and Obama administration officials. Fair? Balanced?

To that one might add ongoing confusion over exactly what it means to be a liberal or a conservative. A new survey by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of Americans believe that criticism from news organizations “keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done,” but only 42 percent of Republicans agree.

A recent Marist poll found that 41 percent of Republicans, versus 7 percent of Democrats, say that we have gone too far in expanding the right to protest or criticize the government. Forty-two percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Democrats say we have gone too far in expanding freedom of the press.

Republicans claim to be conservative, but their feeble support for the First Amendment suggests a threat to liberal democracy. Perhaps the Sinclair-Tribune deal will make them feel better.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and college professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.