Update: Tribune Media Pulls Out of Sinclair Deal, Files Lawsuit

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Update, 8/10: On Thursday, the Tribune Media Co. announced it had terminated its agreement with Sinclair Broadcast Group to have the conservative media giant acquire its company. Moreover, Tribune Media has filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Sinclair, alleging breach of contract. The deal would have extended Sinclair’s reach to 73 percent of US households and allowed it to mandate that dozens more stations, including NBC affiliate WHO-DT (Channel 13 News) in Des Moines, air its pro-Trump, media-bashing segments.

Update, 7/21: This article has been updated to note that Sinclair proposed selling KDSM-TV, its Des Moines Fox affiliate station, as part of its deal to acquire Tribune Media.

Original post: Voicing “serious concerns,” the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Monday dealt a potential death blow to television giant Sinclair Broadcast Group’s attempted $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. That’s good news for Iowans in the Des Moines and Davenport areas concerned that Sinclair might soon further expand the reach of its pro-Trump, media-bashing content it forces local stations to air.

In March, the website Deadspin published a compilation of clips from Sinclair-owned stations around the country, showing local anchors all reciting the same script about the “troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country.” The anchors, who included Mitch Fick and Jeneé Ryan from Cedar Rapids CBS affiliate KGAN, went on to warn about the spread of “false news” and reporters who “use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think,” which “is extremely dangerous to democracy.”

When Sinclair announced the planned acquisition of Tribune Media in May 2017, it appeared to have the clear upper hand. Known for its “must-run” pro-Trump propaganda segments, like the one hosted by its Russian-born chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump adviser, Sinclair was in good favor with Republicans in Washington. Although FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was an Obama appointee, he has become a notorious deregulator and allowed the proposed deal to move forward despite antitrust concerns.

Already the largest TV broadcaster in the US, owning over 170 stations including five in Iowa, Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune Media would give it 42 more — among them Des Moines NBC affiliate WHO-DT and another in Moline, Illinois, that broadcasts in Davenport — and allow it to reach nearly 75 percent of households across the country. The deal was made possible to begin with thanks to Pai, who reintroduced a loophole allowing a single company to reach up to 78 percent of US households, doubling the FCC’s 39 percent cap.

“But 14 months later, Sinclair’s deal is headed toward an almost-certain defeat,” Politico reported this week, “with that same FCC chairman … sending the merger on Monday into an administrative proceeding that is tantamount to a death sentence.”

Sinclair had attempted to appease the regulators by offering to sell 21 stations (including its Des Moines Fox affiliate KDSM-TV, for $441.7 million to Standard Media Group). But the terms of the proposed sales soon raised eyebrows. One stipulated that the company would continue to control advertising, help direct news programming, and net up to 30 percent of sales revenues. “This is a technique,” former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told Politico, “that was developed by slick lawyers for the purpose of getting around the rules.” He added, “It borders on regulatory fraud.”

In the end, it appears that Pai has reached a similar conclusion. “The evidence we’ve received suggests that certain station divestitures that have been proposed to the FCC would allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law,” he said in a statement Monday.

The statement went on to say that Pai had recommended that the proposed acquisition be reviewed by an administrative law judge, a time-consuming process that typically kills the corporate deals under scrutiny.

In addition to KDSM-TV, the stations Sinclair currently owns in Iowa are CBS affiliate KGAN and Fox affiliate KFXA in Cedar Rapids, and Fox affiliate KPTH and CBS affiliate KMEG in Sioux City. In addition, it owns KTVO, a station licensed in Kirksville, Missouri, that also broadcasts in southeastern Iowa.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.