Culture

Who’s Afraid of Sinclair Broadcast Group? John Oliver

(Photo: Laurence Agron/Dreamstime)
The talk-show host hyperventilates over a routine business deal.

The Right is gaining more platforms to deliver its take on the news, and this trend is posing a danger to the historically unbiased, nonpartisan, straight-down-the-middle reporting of the major media. Who says so? Why, John Oliver.

His fans are right: He has a gift for irony. Oliver was so exercised Sunday night that he delivered a flustered 19-minute tirade on the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is in the process, pending regulatory approval, of acquiring 42 local TV stations from Tribune Co. Oliver calculates that Sinclair will, after the merger, command the broadcasting power of 215 local stations whose most-watched evening newscasts, he says, reach a combined 2.2 million people. “And that is a lot!” Oliver says, although it actually isn’t, unless you think six-tenths of 1 percent of the country is a lot of the country. Sinclair is, moreover, hardly the only media outfit competing for attention from those 2.2 million people, but cue hysteria about corporate mind control.

Citing the cost of the proposed Tribune sale, Oliver said, “It is a little disconcerting to learn that something you’ve only just heard of is throwing around four billion dollars.” For extra comic effect, he might as well have delivered that comment from inside a hermetically sealed plastic bubble stamped “out-of-touch coastal elite,” as Sinclair has been a media powerhouse for some time, albeit mostly in smaller markets that Oliver has seen only from 30,000 feet above. Even before the Tribune deal goes through, Sinclair is the largest U.S. owner of local TV stations (measured by coverage), but after the purchase it will pick up additional affiliates in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, and Dallas. Sinclair is already big. It is about to get huge.

The scandal, to Oliver, is this: Sinclair has been putting right-wing or pro-Trump flourishes on local news. Two Sinclair honchos, Mark Hyman and Boris Epshteyn, star in conservative video commentary segments that are distributed to TV stations on a “must-air” basis.

So Sinclair orders outlets it owns to do things it wants. This is about as newsworthy as noting that fish swim. Yet Oliver’s idea of a gotcha was pointing out that many Sinclair anchors introduced a story with exactly the same words: “Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russian investigation against President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn?” Sometimes Sinclair stations conduct polls with questions slanted so as to nudge respondents toward a desired answer, a technique that is so common in the polling world you might as well call it “polling.”

Sinclair distributes a daily segment called “Terrorism alert desk.” Oliver believes terrorism isn’t sufficiently prevalent to be worth a daily segment, but if he wants to be in charge of Sinclair’s news judgment, he should buy the company, which is currently worth three and a half billion dollars. After a Sinclair broadcaster is seen intoning that “an ISIS flag was found hanging in a neighborhood in New Hampshire,” Oliver adds mockingly, “in other alerts, my grandma heard a loud noise.” Oh? Oliver must be unaware of the national panic that ensues when, say, a noose is found hanging on a black professor’s door, as one did at Columbia Teachers College in 2007. (It later emerged that the professor was the target of a plagiarism investigation for which she was later fired. No one was ever charged with placing the noose, the timing of whose appearance appeared overly convenient.)

Was it unfair of Sinclair to point out that the Democrats used to be the party of slavery, the KKK, and Jim Crow laws? You could argue that. What you can’t deny is that this sort of thing goes on from the other direction all the time. The Media Research Center, a news site that is devoted to calling out liberal media bias, does not lack for material. George Mason University political scientist Tim Groseclose has estimated that, in an environment free of media bias, the U.S. as a whole would vote like Texas or Kentucky.

George Mason University political scientist Tim Groseclose has estimated that, in an environment free of media bias, the U.S. as a whole would vote like Texas or Kentucky.

Oliver should be more supportive of a company that promises to keep placing sitting ducks for him to unload on. Hyman is so stiff as a commentator he makes Bill O’Reilly look like Bruno Mars. The Moscow-born Epshteyn, a former Trump adviser, is hardly the person fans of the president should want making the case that the colludin’-with-Putin story is rubbish, and as Oliver noted, Epshteyn talks as if he had “a mouth full of bees.” Comparing Sinclair’s messaging to Fox’s is a bit like comparing putt-putt golf to the Masters.

So why is Oliver so scared? Because, high up in his tower inside the redoubt of progressivism, he looks down and sees the Right’s barbarians attacking from every direction. Local newspapers, long a quiet haven for liberalism (Barack Obama beat John McCain in newspaper endorsements by a score of 273 to 172), are dying out. The Right dominates talk radio and has achieved a strong position on the Internet and in cable news. The Trump-supporting American Media, home to National Enquirer and run by Trump pal David Pecker, just bought Us Weekly from ultra-liberal Jann Wenner. When Sinclair completes its purchase of Tribune, the Right will reach a new level of influence in local news.

True, the Left still owns and operates Hollywood, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, nearly every major newspaper, and virtually every glossy magazine from Time to Teen Vogue. But there is no reason why that must continue, and many media properties are in distress, looking for buyers. Conservative plutocrats are relearning, as if waking up from a long slumber, that influencing the political direction of the country means influencing the conversation in the country. What if Philip Anschutz owned Condé Nast? What if the Koch Brothers owned CBS? What if Robert Mercer, who has bought some $50 million worth of shares in Time Inc., bought that company, the home of magazines such as Entertainment Weekly and People in which Obama gets treated like Beyoncé and Trump like cancer?

What if the Right, in short, controlled anything close to half of the major media outlets in this country? The reason the scenario gives John Oliver nightmares is this: Progressives get queasy when considering their likelihood of winning political arguments on the merits. If they lose their ability to run the American media like a college campus where they can ignore, shout down, or shut out opposing viewpoints, there’s no telling what might happen.

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