The Media Today

Sinclair flies too close to the sun

August 10, 2018

The end came Thursday for Sinclair Broadcast Group’s expansive ambitions, and it was even uglier than expected. Tribune Media not only walked away from a deal with Sinclair worth $3.9 billion, it also filed a $1 billion lawsuit, alleging that Sinclair had engaged in “unnecessarily aggressive and protracted negotiations” with government regulators. The merger would have brought Sinclair programming to nearly three-quarters of American households, including major markets like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Sinclair, based in Maryland, is already the nation’s biggest owner of local television stations. Over the past year, it has drawn increased attention from media watchers—thanks in part to HBO’s John Oliver and Deadspin’s Timothy Burke, who exposed the Orwellian nature of the canned messages that Sinclair executives sent down for broadcasts. By the spring, Sinclair had become known for the efforts of its conservative owners to imbue local news programming with their views.

Thursday’s decision by Tribune caps a stunning turnaround for Sinclair, which, until recently, seemed poised to become a conservative media behemoth. After initially appearing supportive of the Sinclair-Tribune merger, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reversed course last month, saying that he had “serious concerns” about the deal. Shortly thereafter, when the FCC referred Sinclair’s bid to an administrative law judge, the deal looked dead. But Tribune’s massive lawsuit came as a surprise.

RELATED: What it’s like to watch Sinclair—and why that’s the story 

The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik, who was reporting on Sinclair well before it became a national story, says that Tribune’s decision was  “a victory for all the forces that opposed” politicization and centralized power in local news. “Sinclair got above the radar in its grab for glory—way above the radar, which makes for so long a fall,” he writes. The winners from yesterday—in addition to local news viewers who won’t be subjected to Boris Epshteyn’s propaganda—are competing conservative outlets, who had long feared the merger .

In the aftermath of the scuttled deal, Tribune is expected to seek other suitors. One possibility, reports CNN, is Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, which is selling off most of its entertainment properties to Disney, but will still control broadcast, sports, and news networks. As for Sinclair, its ambitions to create a rival to Fox News can be seen sinking deep under water.

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Below, more on the fallout from Tribune Media’s decision to walk away.


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Update: This post has been updated to include Laura Ingraham’s response to the backlash to her comments. 

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.