A few dozen demonstrators held signs and shouted through a megaphone outside the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Hunt Valley headquarters on Sunday to oppose the company’s proposed $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media Co.
If approved by the Federal Communications Commission, the merger would create the nation’s largest broadcaster. Protesters said it would reduce competition between stations and inject right-wing politics into a large portion of the country’s local media.
“We’re calling on the FCC to do its job and protect the public interest and not allow the merger of Sinclair and Tribune Media,” said Susie McShea of Ellicott City, one of the organizers of the demonstration. “The more we talk to people about this, they are really angry and have said, why haven’t we heard more about this? So we want to raise awareness.”
Tribune Media is the successor to Tribune Co., The Baltimore Sun's former owner. Tribune Co. spun off its newspapers as Tribune Publishing, a separate company, in 2014. Tribune Publishing is now called tronc.
Sinclair announced plans to buy Tribune Media in May. The deal would give it 233 television stations that reach 72 percent of U.S. households.
The FCC asked Sinclair this month to show how it plans to comply with TV station ownership limits. Those rules were revised in April to allow companies with stations that broadcast on high-frequency UHF airwaves to count only half those stations’ audience against a national ownership cap.
The cap permits ownership of stations that reach a total of no more than 39 percent of the nation’s television households. Under that rule, Sinclair has said, the merger with Tribune would give it a reach of 45.5 percent. The FCC has asked for a list of stations that Sinclair would sell or is marketing for sale.
Sinclair, which grew out of WBFF Fox 45 in Baltimore, did not respond to a request for comment on the protest on Sunday. On Monday, the company issued a statement that read:
“Sinclair is committed to local coverage of issues that our communities care about, like what we cover on Fox 45 in Baltimore each day. We contribute to the diversity of voices in broadcasting with a variety of our features. Sinclair believes that in order to maintain this commitment to free local broadcast news, scale is necessary. The acquisition of Tribune will ensure we can provide quality coverage here in Baltimore, and in cities across the country.”
In a petition to the FCC last month, Sinclair said the merger would help ensure the future of free, over-the-air television.
“The natural synergies of bringing Sinclair and Tribune together will enable the combined company to invest in unique programming that addresses the news, information, and public safety needs of local communities — programming that will continue to be completely free for the tens of millions of households that do not or cannot subscribe to a paid multi-channel video service,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair filed the petition after groups such as Dish Network filed petitions opposing the merger.
Many of the protesters on Sunday were from the Ellicott City Huddle, a group that was born out of the Women’s March on Washington in January.
Bruce Lippy of Catonsville said he opposed Sinclair’s practice of sending “must-run” conservative-leaning news and opinion segments to its local stations.
“This is going to be so harmful to democracy, period,” Lippy said. “The merger is going to spread so much control to a very conservative media empire that insists on mandatory running of specific pieces all the time. So you’re going to end up reaching into 72 percent of the American local market. It’s going to be a steady drumbeat of propaganda that quite frankly is going to support the GOP and this current president.”
Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s vice president of news, told The Sun in July that “local news is at the heart of Sinclair. We know that our greatest responsibility is serving our local communities by providing relevant information.”
Danilsa Marciniak of Ellicott City said she wanted to let the FCC know that local citizens opposed the merger.
“The concern is the 39 percent cap, they’re going to have viewership that exceeds 39 percent with this merger,” said Marciniak, 54. “The must-runs are not going to present balanced news to our communities so we can be informed and make proper decisions.”
Veronica Clarke of Ellicott City said that there should be “no room for politics in local news” and that Sinclair should stop its must-run segments.
“They’re too big and too powerful,” Clarke said. “It’s coming to, we think, a monopoly status.”