JUDY WOODRUFF: And now for a different kind of media story, and a question: Does it matter who owns the TV station that delivers your local news?
Polls show that many Americans trust local news more than other sources. The largest owner of local stations in the country, Sinclair Broadcasting, planning a merger that would make them even bigger.
It is a move that is raising concerns because of Sinclair’s policy of combining news with partisan political opinion.
William Brangham has that story.
MAN: A train derailment in Tennessee.
MAN: Some routine road maintenance has led to a squabble.
WOMAN: We have some breaking news to tell you about. This is out of Bethesda tonight.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Night after night, the country’s largest owner of local TV stations, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, reaches over a third of homes across the nation.
WOMAN: A compromise plan for the controversial Conesus Inn.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Most of us think of local news as just that, local. Stations run local stories, produced and reported by local people.
But if, recently, you tuned in to, say, WVTV, which is Sinclair’s station in Milwaukee, you saw this:
BORIS EPSHTEYN, Former Senior Adviser, Trump Campaign: Does the president have to repeat that fact day in and out for us to believe it?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s Boris Epshteyn, former member of the Trump administration, and now chief political analyst for Sinclair.
And here he was again on WEAR in Pensacola:
BORIS EPSHTEYN: The president is stating the fact that the fringes of the left and the right…
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And on KSAS in Wichita:
BORIS EPSHTEYN: Are both capable of hate and violence doesn’t mean he is condoning any of it.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And, again and again on every single one of the 173 Sinclair stations across the country. On those stations, you might also see these:
MARK HYMAN: We should only tear down the bad statues, one viewer told me. But who decides what is bad?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s Sinclair executive Mark Hyman.
MARK HYMAN: What responsible adult hasn’t pointed to a scar as a reminder to not repeat a foolish act from their youth?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Or these, the weekly so-called Terrorism Alert Desk.
ALISON STARLING: From the terrorism alert desk in Washington, I’m Alison Starling.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sinclair mandates that these clearly conservative editorials and features get broadcast on every one of their local stations. In some cases, stations have to run them as often as nine times a week.
Eric Lipton is a reporter for The New York Times who’s been covering Sinclair.
ERIC LIPTON, The New York Times: They have what they call must-runs, which include Boris Epshteyn, who is a surrogate for Trump, who is on the air, talking about conservative issues.
While the local news stations largely decide what their local news is going to be, you know, covering local government, crime and local issues, there are these must-runs that go on their networks across the United States, which have a decidedly conservative flavor.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This partisan tilt has many free speech advocates alarmed, because not only does Sinclair own such a large chunk of the marketplace already, but it’s hoping to get bigger still.
If a proposed $4 billion merger with Tribune Media goes forward, Sinclair would now reach three out of four American households.
Journalism professor and former Milwaukee station manager Lewis Friedland:
LEWIS FRIEDLAND, University of Milwaukee-Madison: It is a real step in a very different direction to begin to say the most trusted news source of most Americans is going to be allowed to be turned into an opinion organization, an opinion machine for a very narrow, narrowly conservative point of view night after night in local communities.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Television remains the main source of news for many Americans. In 2016, 46 percent of adults said they got their news from local TV stations.
And it’s information they trust; 41 percent of registered voters said they trust local news to tell the truth, while just 27 percent trust national news.
Sinclair disputes having any kind of political bent. Its executives declined to talk with us on camera for this report. But the record shows that the Maryland-based company has used its ownership of stations to push partisan conservative viewpoints for years.
For example, after the 9/11 attacks, Sinclair required anchors and reporters to read messages supporting President George Bush’s efforts against terrorism.
TED KOPPEL: The names and the faces of the fallen tell their own story.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In 2004, when ABC News’ “Nightline” devoted an entire show to reading the names of U.S. service members who’d died in Iraq, Sinclair, which owned seven ABC affiliates at the time, barred those stations from showing the broadcast.
Later that year, in the midst of the presidential campaign between John Kerry and President George Bush, Sinclair mandated all its stations run a special that included clips from a distinctly one-sided documentary that questioned John Kerry’s Vietnam War service.
MAN: I was outraged, and still am, that he willingly said things which were untrue.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And, more recently, Sinclair had its stations run this segment, which called the national media purveyors of fake news.
SCOTT LIVINGSTON, Vice President of News, Sinclair: Unfortunately, some members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sinclair even caught the eye of HBO’s John Oliver, who poked fun at how Sinclair sometimes forces conservative talking points into the scripts that their local news anchors read.
WOMAN: Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russia investigation of President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn?
MAN: Did the FBI have a personal vendetta?
WOMAN: … in pursuing the Russia investigation of…
MAN: … President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This blurring of news and opinion is one criticism of the company. The blurring of news and advertising is another.
MAN: Hey, is it too early to get a fish sandwich?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There are numerous examples of Sinclair stations running what are largely paid promotions masquerading as news pieces.
MAN: More and more patients at Huntsman Cancer Institute are recording their life stories.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Like in this case, where Sinclair stations across the country ran these segments about the Huntsman Cancer Institute. They looked like news spots, but were in fact funded by the cancer center, something viewers weren’t told.
The FCC is still investigating that case.
Sinclair’s bid to buy Tribune Media, and thus expand its reach dramatically in the local news market, has drawn plenty of criticism. Sinclair says critics have it wrong.
They say it’s about economics — quote — “The proposed merger will advance the public interest by helping to shore up an industry buffeted by well-known economic challenges.”
Traditionally, to protect against any one company becoming too dominant, Congress has set certain caps on how many media outlets any one corporation can own in a given market, but the FCC recently changed those rules.
Under the new leadership of Trump appointee Ajit Pai, the FCC has now made it easier to approve Sinclair’s expansion.
Tom Wheeler is the former chair of the FCC. He thinks these new changes are a blow to a free and vibrant press.
TOM WHEELER, Former Chair, Federal Communications Commission: The Trump FCC has, in one very short period, moved to change three basic rules that have been in place to protect the diversity of voices and avoid monopolization of broadcast television market.
We have a society in which the flow of information is crucial to a democracy. And when that free flow of information gets choked off by corporate consolidation, we ought to all worry.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Eric Lipton of The New York Times discovered meetings and correspondence between Ajit Pai and Sinclair executives that he says raise questions about the company’s influence with the Trump administration.
ERIC LIPTON: He met with the executive officers of Sinclair just a few days before Trump was inaugurated, where they made clear to him that they were looking for the Trump administration to roll back some of these restrictions that were essentially limiting their ability to get bigger.
And it was just a matter of a couple of weeks when, all of a sudden, Pai was named chairman and he was actually rolling back the same rules that they had approached him on. And only as a result of rolling back these rules is Sinclair merger was going to be able to go through.
LEWIS FRIEDLAND: It’s not just, as Chairman Pai is suggesting, a simple shift in ownership regulations. It’s actually a shift in our entire broadcast ecosystem.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A final FCC decision on the Sinclair-Tribune deal is expected later this year.
In Washington, D.C., I’m William Brangham for the PBS NewsHour.