"This Pravda-style propaganda," a visibly shaken Joe Scarborough said on his MSNBC show Monday morning, "has to stop." Dan Rather concurred: "It's Orwellian," the veteran newsman tweeted. "A slippery slope to how despots wrest power, silence dissent, and oppress the masses." John Oliver, the discreet Superman of American journalism, performed last rites. "A brainwashed cult," he pronounced.
What is it that has the journalistic class manning their battle stations against the totalitarian menace? This Deadspin supercut of the country's biggest name in local TV news, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, beaming out to each one of its markets the exact same promotional message:
"Sinclair's fake-news zombies should terrify you," ran the headline of a David Rothkopf piece at CNN. You can see what he means—especially given the backstory, as reported a month ago by CNN's Brian Stelter, that the notoriously Republicanoid parent company was making local anchors "uncomfortable" by insisting they record the thing word for word. (There has been at least one refusenik.) Sure, many of the melodramatic sentiments contained within the advertorial were virtually indistinguishable from recent promotional campaigns by The New York Times ("factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever" vs. "the truth is more important than ever") or The Washington Post ("this is extremely dangerous to our democracy" vs. "democracy dies in darkness"), but the hostage-video vibe was unmistakable. When reading from the exact same teleprompter language, the least you can do is smile!
That video above and other such cookie-cutter local-TV segments that Conan O'Brien enjoys mocking were brought to you by a company called CNN Newsource, though there is clearly a difference between syndicated goofball content that stations choose to run and heavy-handed "fake news" lectures that they're ordered to broadcast. As one Sinclairite emailed Stelter last night: "It sickens me the way this company is encroaching upon trusted news brands in rural markets."
Still, a certain sense of perspective and proportion has been noticeably absent from this, a story that has captured media imaginations far in excess to the facially unconstitutional assault on free speech that Congress passed just last month. So in order to encourage more media literacy and make even more new friends on Twitter, here is my list of five things people are getting wrong about L'affaire Sinclair:
1) Sinclair is not remotely a monopoly.
"Sinclair Is Bad for Democracy. So Are Other Media Monopolies," runs the Washington Monthly headline from David Atkins. "Sinclair Broadcast Group is a Media Monopoly Thanks to Bill Clinton," says Colin Kalmbacher of Law & Crime. "Sinclair Broadcast Group and Media Monopolies, Explained," offers Teen Vogue's Danielle Corcione. None of these pieces manage to explain how a company currently prohibited from operating two of the top four stations in a given television market meets any of the various definitions of monopoly.
Sinclair mostly owns and occasionally operates 193 local TV stations across the country (or "nearly 250" in the inflationary math of Law & Crime), including affiliates for ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. (Confused by that? See #3.) As Jack Shafer wrote in Politico last year, "Today, the United States has 1,775 total television stations, about 5,200 cable systems run by 660 operators reaching 90 percent of homes and so many cable channels that TV executives complain about their number. The idea that Sinclair…might banish competing viewpoints from the marketplace reeks of stupidity."
According to Pew Research, only 9 percent of Americans view television without aid of cable, satellite, or internet connection. When we talk about Sinclair's market share and potential "monopoly" status, we're talking about that 9 percent—and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently blocks single companies from owning 50 percent of even that narrow slice, though it sometimes issues waivers based on a complicated and evolving formula. So as measured by the way human beings actually consume audiovisuals, Sinclair has a fraction of the market. Even as measured by the way just 1 out of every 11 people watch TV, the company in practice has an average market share in the "low" 20s, according to Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley in an earnings call last November.
You will these days hear frequent scare-numbers about Sinclair's potential coast-to-coast reach—"a staggering 72 percent of the national audience," warns Norman J. Ornstein. Echoed Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart on MSNBC yesterday: "More than 70 percent of the country is going to be…watching 'news' from Sinclair Broadcasting."
Please note: This number does not describe market share. Nor does it characterize Sinclair's current reach, which is far smaller.
The 72 percent figure describes the number of households that would have access to Sinclair channels if A) its troubled merger with Tribune Co. is approved by both the Justice Department (which has raised antitrust concerns) and the FCC (which is assessing the public-interest angle), and B) those approvals come without the government forcing Sinclair to sell off stations, which in turn would only happen if C) the FCC goes through with a proposed UHF/VHF measurement change. Given that Sinclair has already announced it will sell off stations to meet regulatory approval, and that the Justice Department is increasingly interested in media antitrust, and that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is currently under investigation for whether he pushed ownership rule changes improperly to grease the skids for the Sinclair-Tribune merger, and that this week's fallout from the promo video is increasing the calls to block the deal, the odds of that 72 percent figure becoming reality are roughly zero.
But let's pretend for a moment that 72 percent of households nationwide have access to Sinclair-operated stations, rather than its current 39 percent. What kind of "staggering" reach is that? Well, here are the types of TV networks you see at the three-in-every-four-households level: Create. Ion Television. Bounce TV. Ever heard of them? It's true, more people watch local news than niche cable content (on which more below). But there is no way on God's green earth that seven out of 10 Americans will be watching Sinclair's broadcasts, ever.
The misapplied word "monopoly" is an open invitation for the government to use prohibitive force in the name of freedom. As Atkins writes at the Washington Monthly, "Preserving democracy will require breaking up the monopolistic corporate control of media across all media platforms. Facebook and Google must control far less of our news. Sinclair must be broken up and local news content remanded back to local control. Clear Channel must be broken apart, and a greater variety of voices must be allowed to flourish while AM/FM radio is still a part of people's media diets. The very few corporations that control the vast majority of our news and programming must forced to break apart as well. Only then will a true diversity of voices be born." Don't say you haven't been warned.
2) Sinclair is not Uncle Grandpa's single source of news.
In a spirited MSNBC exchange with me about Sinclair yesterday, Capehart fretted, "What happens when you only have one source [of news]?…And that one source is perpetuating falsehoods and lies?"
The word "have" there papers over two separate concepts that are routinely conflated in discussions about journalism-consumption: media diet and media access. Media diet is what we choose to consume (so, replace "have" in the sentence above with "use"); media access would turn the verb into "have access to." Libertarians are concerned with the latter. Anti-media-consolidation types routinely invoke the former—i.e., the ungood media choices that Uncle Grandpa makes.
— Michelle (@ECappell) April 2, 2018
So is Uncle Grandpa really trapped in a world with no choices? Well, as mentioned above, only 9 percent of adults consume TV through an antenna (as of last August). Only 11 percent do not go online. Only 15 percent do not access news on mobile devices. And just 23 percent do not get at least some news on social media. That leaves the maximum share of Americans living in comparative information deserts (which will nonetheless be likely to have at least some print media and radio, at minimum) at 9 percent, likely smaller. Are these all old coots barking at the TV?
Many of them, sure. One third of senior citizens do not use the Internet. The olds also like to watch more TV news—82 percent, compared to 23 percent of adults under 30. But here's a crazy stat: More people aged 65 or over have a cable or satellite subscription (84 percent) by far than any other age cohort; and only 7 percent use an antenna. And even within that remaining 7 percent slice, let's not forget that Sinclair is generally prohibited from owning two of the top four stations in a given market—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox all reach 97 percent of the country. If Uncle Grandpa is watching only his Sinclair local, or maybe Sinclair + Fox News, that's his choice in a competitive media market.
In fact, all the media-consumption velocity these days is of older folk adopting newer technologies at the direct expense of local TV news. "The share of non-internet users ages 65 and older decreased by 7 percentage points since 2016," reports Pew in one survey. "For the first time in the Center's surveys, more than half (55%) of Americans ages 50 or older report getting news on social media sites. That is 10 percentage points higher than the 45% who said so in 2016." Result?
Americans are relying less on television for their news. Just 50% of U.S. adults now get news regularly from television, down from 57% a year prior in early 2016. But that audience drain varies across the three television sectors: local, network and cable. Local TV has experienced the greatest decline but still garners the largest audience of the three, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.
The journalism establishment, long contemptuous of local television's tabloid vapidity, is now panicking about it precisely when its influence is heading toward the edge of a cliff.
3) Sinclair is the product of anti-media-consolidation rules.
Ever wonder why a rando Maryland company like Sinclair could own and operate Big Four TV stations? A good deal of the credit goes to rules that were supposed to stop media consolidation. Indeed, those regulations enabled precisely the kind of cronyism that many critics of the Sinclair-Tribune merger are warning about this week. I hand the floor over to former FCC Chief Economicst Thomas W. Hazlett:
[S]tation limits do virtually nothing to stop "media concentration." And, ironically, the very existence of Sinclair as the country's largest TV station group owner is a product, to a very large degree, of just these rules.
Sinclair arises in the niche carved out by the limits imposed by the FCC on broadcast networks. Those companies fund far more quality journalism in both national and local news markets. But with FCC rules limiting their transmissions, firms like Sinclair rush in, protected from "Big Media" competition.
In reality, broadcast networks pump their shows all across the U.S.A. CBS owns no broadcast outlet in Greenville, S.C.—or Seattle or Houston or Washington, D.C. Yet its shows, from "The Big Bang Theory" to "60 Minutes," reach TV sets everywhere. They travel through CBS broadcast affiliates, cable, and satellite where they compete with the programs of national cable networks: CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, C-SPAN, Bloomberg, BBC America and Vice. What matters to consumers is the variety of their program choices, not where they get it.
So who cares about the station cap? Private equity funds and Wall Street deal-makers. They create "station group owners" that fill the void when networks are barred from owning their affiliates. Then they lobby to get the rules relaxed, inviting more bidding, pushing up station prices. It's an insider's game in an intra-industry skirmish.
4) Political slant is not a good reason for media antitrust.
You might think that the newspaper industry, whose left-of-center tilt is so lopsided that you can measure the percentage of self-identified Republican journalists in the single digits, might be shy about invoking "political bias" as a reason for the government to block a media company's expansion. And you'd be wrong.
Here's the Boston Globe editorial page:
The [Sinclair promo] has the feel of state-run television, unmistakably echoing President Trump's harangues against the media. Little surprise that he tweeted a defense of Sinclair, and an attack on "Fake News Networks," on Monday morning as outrage spread.
Already the largest owner of local television stations in the country, Sinclair is proposing a $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media's 42 stations. Here in New England, that would mean the broadcaster, which already owns stations in Rhode Island and Maine, would have a presence in Connecticut—subjecting even more of the region's viewers to the dubious "must-run" segments Sinclair regularly foists on its affiliates.
That's not just speeches by anchors. There are also centrally produced stories, like one that ran suggesting voters shouldn't back Hillary Clinton because of the Democratic Party's proslavery history.
The broadcaster's political bias may not even be the most compelling reason to restrain its growth.
How can I put this gently? You don't want the federal government in the business of picking journalism winners and losers based on its perception of their biases. To invoke Donald Trump as a reason for doing so is one of the dumbest displays of logic I have ever seen on a newspaper editorial page. And that's saying something.
5) The media industry is uncommonly dynamic.
Fewer than two decades ago, many of the same people going crazy over Sinclair this week were pounding the drum for antitrust action, using the same dystopian language ("new totalitarianism"!), because…AOL bought Time-Warner. The hysteria was ludicrous on its face, yet pointing that out at the time was a lonely business.
Back then, newspaper companies still routinely made 20 percent profit margins, Washington's antitrust technology panic was centered on Microsoft's Web browser, and Mark Zuckerberg was in high school. It's almost a banality to point out that things in this sphere change rapidly, and yet the whole premise of media regulation is to stand athwart creative destruction, yelling "Slow down!" We bitch on Twitter about Sinclair's media monopoly after watching an MSNBC segment on our iPhones with a YouTube app.
Being afraid of Sinclair right now is a lot like worrying about the Gannett newspaper chain in 1999. Both are unlovable, acquisition-happy cost-cutters who look to dominate rapidly shrinking legacy markets while praying for some New Media lifeline to save them when the profits dry out. As ever, business models that rely on captive, sedentary audiences do not have a bright long-term future. Sinclair, too, shall die.
How hard is it for a single company to dominate a local journalism market, even temporarily? Take a look: "Industry research firm BIA/Kelsey divides the local $147.8 billion local advertising pie as so: broadcast TV, 13.4%, cable, 4.5%; digital and mobile's 22.2%; radio, 9.6%; print newspaper, 8.3%; direct mail, 25.5%; and other, 16.5%."
So yes, Sinclair's promotional video was gruesome, if perhaps not quite the harbinger of incipient despotism. Making employees read proof-of-life messages is no way to retain talent, or to prevent more viewers from abandoning local TV news. The proper response is not to mobilize the federal government on journalistic, political, or even media-concentration grounds. The proper response is to point in the direction of corporate HQ, and laugh.
Bonus video: Thomas Hazlett on media regulation: