Merger of American media giants can increase partisan reporting

Merger of American media giants can increase partisan reporting
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I worry that as we focus on Russian bots on Twitter influencing elections, we’re ignoring a bigger threat to democracy and the political process right here at home: the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group with Tribune Media Company. I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that in politics, little things can become big things. The unexpected can become the undoing before you know it, and truth trails behind. In 2000, it didn’t matter Al GoreAl GoreDem Murphy wins New Jersey governor's race CNN to air sexual harassment Town Hall featuring Gretchen Carlson, Anita Hill GOP gov hopeful veers to right in New Jersey MORE never actually said that he invented the internet. People came to believe he did. It became a character distorting meme. Impressions are created at a digital pace in politics, often when you’re busy fighting the daily fires of rapid response and feeding the beast of today’s message and tomorrow’s news cycle.

So just think what a Sinclair takeover of local television news could do to the American political process. Democratic voters know not to take anything they see on Fox News without a giant grain of salt. But imagine what happens if your local news broadcasts are hijacked by partisan messages, even subtle acts of political sabotage. It would be handing Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE the ultimate weapon of mass distortion, and with it the power to help choose Democratic nominees and mortally wound electable candidates before they even get out of the gate.

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Hyperbole? Not so much. Sinclair has told us exactly who they are and what they intend to do for more than 13 years. I’ve lived it firsthand. I was the national press secretary for the 2004 John KerryJohn Forbes KerryKerry: Trump's rhetoric gave North Korea a reason to say 'Hey, we need a bomb' Russian hackers targeted top US generals and statesmen: report Trump officials to offer clarity on UN relief funding next week MORE campaign. A month before the election, with the race a dead heat, Sinclair ordered its 62 stations to broadcast an anti-Kerry “documentary” closely linked to the smear artistry which made the term “swiftboating” an integral part of the American political lexicon.

But if the Swift Boat veterans ads at least came with a disclaimer acknowledging political content, the film Sinclair planned to air was subtly subversive: After the local news, this “documentary” would appear on their screens without warning. The New York Times media critic wrote that the film had “distortions” that were “intended to hurt Mr. Kerry at the polls.”

Courageously, Sinclair’s Washington bureau chief spoke out and described the media company’s decision to mandate airing of the 45 minute film as “biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election.” In return for his candor, he was summarily fired. A former FCC chairman argued it was the official “use of the Sinclair airwaves to pursue a smear campaign.”

Ultimately, only when dozens of corporate advertisers threatened to withdraw their patronage from Sinclair, the company folded. The documentary didn’t air. But dozens of news cycles, hundreds of thousands of dollars in court litigation, and untold amounts of news oxygen were spent debating the controversy, knocking the Kerry campaign off message in the home stretch of the election. We were debating Sinclair, essentially fighting off a third party undeclared super PAC posing as a media company smearing the nominee’s character while simultaneously running against an incumbent president.

If this is what Sinclair is, do you really want to hand it the keys to more than 230 local television stations, transmitting over 500 primary and multicast television channels? Is it really good for our democracy to create a right wing media Frankenstein covering 108 media markets? Would it have consequences that in dozens of markets, a reconstituted Sinclair-Tribune would call the shots at more than one “big four” station?

You don’t have to look far to see the future. Fresh from the Trump campaign, Boris Epshteyn, was named Sinclair’s chief political analyst, filling precious local news minutes for almost 14 minutes each day, reaching 2.2 million American households with his alternative facts based “commentary” beamed in from thousands of miles away. Rubberstamp the merger and Boris’s bombast would penetrate 72 percent of our living rooms.

Imagine what could happen to politics if Sinclair becomes the dominant local news gatekeeper. What could it do? Flash forward to 2018 and 2020. Insidiously laundering smears, negative memes and caricatures through local news to help pick political winners and losers would be straight from the Sinclair playbook. The past after all is prologue. They could easily frame local coverage and influence debates. They could prolong a primary season by weakening frontrunners, elevating fringe candidates, giving artificial oxygen to partisan blowhards, depleting potentially winning candidates of carefully husbanded resources, helping to nominate unelectable Democrats, or helping to elevate extreme Republicans.

With their time tested tactic of depopulating local news of trusted anchors, “disappearing” reliable “gatekeepers” the way Pol Pot eliminated dissenters, there wouldn’t even be news voices in key markets with the stature to help primary and caucus voters distinguish between truth and tall tales. Just think of the election eve surprises that a Sinclair broadcast could offer before the Iowa caucuses. There’s no shortage today of people and platforms aiming to divide Americans. They don’t just reside in the Kremlin. Think twice before greenlighting a merger that would enable even more “trumpization” of American politics.

David Wade was national press secretary for the 2004 John Kerry campaign and served as spokesman for vice presidential nominee Joseph Biden for the 2008 Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny Russian social media is the modern-day Trojan horse Trump records robo-call for Gillespie: He'll help 'make America great again' MORE campaign. He is founder of the strategic communications firm Green Light Strategies.