An investigation of FCC, SEC documents in a citizen-filed 'Petition to Deny' licensing for three stations controlled by the media behemoth may finally help put an end to the 'sham' control of our public airwaves...
Originally published at BradBlog.com
Baltimore's crowded TV market highlights the shell game that media goliath Sinclair Broadcasting plays across the nation to illegally dominate the information Americans can consume over our public airwaves. The agency tasked with overseeing those airwaves, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has long turned a blind eye to allow Sinclair, the very powerful purveyor of rightwing propaganda, to violate US law.
Sinclair and FCC
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Congress passed the Telecommunications Act [PDF] so no single television company could dominate the news and information available to "We the People" in any single market or even nationwide. Under the law, a single TV company is permitted to reach no more than 39% of viewers in the United States over all. In a single local broadcast market, one company may apply to own two stations --- if there are nine or more stations in that market.
Baltimore has just eight stations, and three of them are actually owned by Sinclair: WBFF, WNUV, and WUTB.
Sinclair lawyers (who also represent Cunningham Broadcasting and Deerfield Media) will say Sinclair owns WBFF, Cunningham owns WNUV and Deerfield owns WUTB. But, in a September 1 legal Petition to Deny the renewal of all three stations' licenses, due to both the shell game and the lies Sinclair has told to protect its unlawful ownership, Republican attorney Art Belendiuk researched Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) documents to prove that both Deerfield and Cunningham are actually both controlled by Sinclair.
"Sinclair controls three television stations in Baltimore, while the FCC rules do not permit it to control more than one," the petition, filed on behalf of local viewer Ihor Gawdiak, argues, while detailing how the shell game of nominal ownership by the other two companies is simply meant to mask Sinclair's violation of federal law...
In its application to merge with Tribune Media last year, the FCC balked when Sinclair tried to transfer two Tribune stations in Texas to Cunningham and Chicago's Superstation WGN to Baltimore car salesman Steven Fader, the buddy of Sinclair CEO David Smith. After Sinclair valued WGN at a mere $60 million (TV stations in the tiny Iowa market are valued higher), the FCC cried foul and called a hearing [PDF] to investigate, questioning "whether those proposed divestitures were in fact 'sham' transactions."
On page 14 of that order, the FCC reminded "licensees that they must retain ultimate control over their programming and core operations" to remain licensed.
As the Baltimore Sun summarizes the characterization of Sinclair's "sham" in the Petition to Deny filed in Baltimore, "Sinclair owns almost all the [other two] stations' assets, guarantees or assumes their indebtedness, approves transactions, expenses and policy decisions and owns options to buy the companies, stations and licenses at below-market value. Sinclair controls personnel and programming," the petition says.
Under a probe by federal regulators, Sinclair eventually withdrew its merger application with Tribune, knowing that lying to the FCC exhibits a lack of character, which would have put their licenses at risk. That should lead to Sinclair losing all of its licenses.
FCC Administrative Law Judge Jane Halprin said [PDF] in dismissing the Tribune merger application: "[T]he misrepresentation and/or lack of candor allegations raised in this proceeding is warranted as part of a more general assessment of Sinclair's basic character qualifications to be a Commission licensee." She insisted the FCC further investigate Sinclair's misrepresentations as the real party in interest of Cunningham and Deerfield, via a license challenge or other public means. "This alleged deception was ostensibly aimed at allowing Sinclair to bypass the Commission's multiple ownership limitations. ... Certainly, the behavior of a multiple station owner before the Commission may be so fundamental to a licensee's operation that it is relevant to its qualifications to hold any station license."
Matt Wood, of media watchdog Free Press told the Sun that Sinclair has used such deceptive ownership arrangements "to control more stations than they're actually allowed to under FCC's local ownership rules," describing the actions as "an abuse of FCC rules."
Rather than scrutinizing Sinclair publicly, the FCC's Media Bureau hatched a backroom deal in May 2020 and issued Sinclair (with media revenues of $1.26 Billion in the quarter ending June 30) a paltry $48 million fine [PDF] for their attempted scam in the Tribune merger proposal. The $48 million was touted as the largest FCC fine ever levied, but it includes an earlier $13 million fine that Sinclair simply never paid. And in a case of regulatory de'jÃ vu, the FCC levied a fine against Sinclair way back in 2001 --- for exactly the same shell game the mega corporation continues to play.
In settling the matter quietly behind the scenes, FCC legal experts insist the FCC violated the law. "Once the FCC set a public hearing to determine Sinclair's qualifications to hold licenses, it has to finish it publicly," argued the Republican attorney Belendiuk.
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