The Sinclair Situation: It’s a Matter of Ownership and Exploitation of Resource

Due to crazy ISP connection problems, I couldn’t post to the blog Monday and Tuesday, so I didn’t have a chance to comment on the whole Sinclair anti-Kerry documentary thing in a more timely manner.

A reporter from the daily U of I newspaper called me today for a comment and his first question was, “Is it illegal?” Of course, my answer was “I don’t know, it depends on what laws your talking about.” It’s not illegal under the “equal time” law, and I don’t know enough about federal election law to say anything useful. Though, I understand that the DNC intends to file a complaint with the FEC charging Sinclair with making an “illegal in-kind contribution” to Bush.

(I went on to try and give a more nuanced perspective on the situation and Sinclair in general — I’ll be curious to see the article and if any of this sunk in, or if I’ll just come off like a typical left-wing “Sinclair is bad” pundit. Ah, well, that’s the risk of talking to the mainstream press.)

What I do know is that the management of Sinclair Broadcast Group is a bunch of greedy, right-wing whackos that have no particular respect for broadcasting or journalism. While those qualities don’t quite set them apart in the broadcast industry (though it does put them at the far end of the spectrum), what does set them apart is the depth of their clueless ideological furor, and the extent to which they’ll allow it to undercut their profit motive.

According to USA Today, Sinclair’s plan to air the anti-Kerry doc isn’t making investors happy, sending Sinclair stock down to the lowest point since 1995. Further, Sinclair is apparently “barely profitable and laden with debt.”

I’ve been watching Sinclair closely for about two years, when they started to consolidate their power in the TV industry and announced their NewsCentral program, replacing local news with a nationalized broadcast. I admit it can be hard to get incensed about the loss of local TV news, since it tends to be pretty piss poor to begin with. But Sinclair leads the pack in both obliterating any service to local communities while force-feeding reactionary right-wing content as its replacement.

Personally, I’m glad to see people get wise to Sinclair and put them under the microscope (especially if the sun is shining through it). I don’t particularly care about the anti-Kerry documentary, per se — it’s all just political theater to me.

In certain respects, I agree with what Siva Vaidhyanathan writes on Eric Alterman’s blog:

There have been many calls for the FCC or FEC to step up and investigate whether this proposed broadcast is an “in-kind” contribution to the Bush campaign or some violation of communication law. I think such calls are inappropriate and unwise. I think it’s important to distinguish between consumer/citizen uproar — which I applaud cautiously — and FCC or FEC intervention, which I oppose.

Except for the fact that the likes of Sinclair are always glad to use government regulatory power whenever it suits its purpose, and so I’m glad to see it used against them, I generally concur. The problem is not Sinclair, the problem is the system that allows Sinclair to amass 60+ stations and operate them without regard to the needs of their local communities.

Vaidhyanathan comes from a more liberal viewpoint that is more tolerant of our corporate media. Nevertheless, I can agree with the principle behind his statement:

Let’s encourage rich, loud, messy engagement with politics, even if it means allowing shallow, dishonest propaganda once in a while. We should just answer back with better information and more attractive answers. Sorry folks. This is what democracy is all about.

The major problem is that corporate media like Sinclair have a dispropotionate access to and monopoly on the public airwaves that others lack, making it difficult to “just answer back” with an equivalently loud and pervasive voice.

In the end it’s not a question of narrow political ideology, republican vs. democrat or right vs. left. It’s a question of ownership and the exploitation of the power that it confers. Sinclair owns the stations, which allows them to do what they want, and they have the balls to baldly take advantage of it. To answer back we (not the DNC and not Kerry) need a voice of equivalent or stronger power — or we need to strip them of their illgotten influence.