Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik: Trump, Sinclair and FCC — can presidential tweets save a dying deal?

On Tuesday night when an explosive tape recording was played on CNN with Donald Trump discussing what is being widely described as hush money for a former Playboy model he allegedly had an affair with, what was the president tweeting about?

His anger over a week-old decision by the Federal Communications Commission casting doubt on whether it will approve the sale of Tribune Media to the Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group for $3.9 billion.

Trump denounced the FCC’s action as “sad, unfair and disgraceful.”

While one might want to question the president’s ability to prioritize, I think the takeaway is how important the Sinclair deal is in the mind of Trump. That’s what fascinates and worries me.

I have been arguing for over a year that the big danger of this deal is not just that it will make the right-wing broadcaster the largest TV station group in the nation with a reach into 72 percent of American homes. My concern is that Sinclair will put all that reach and clout in the political service of a Trump messaging machine that already includes Fox News, Newsmax, Breitbart and other smaller right-wing platforms.

And it had shown a willingness to do that by making Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign and White House aide, its chief political analyst in April of 2017. It has also forced all Sinclair stations that present news to carry his “Bottom Line with Boris” commentaries. Always in uncomfortably close service to the Trump message, they have evolved into straight-up propaganda.

There’s no other good reason to put them on the air; this is a guy who has all the TV skills and on-screen charisma of Chelsea Clinton when she was a hopelessly-over-her-head correspondent of the blessedly-dead NBC newsmagazine, “Rock Center.”

For the last year, I have been writing regularly about what looked to me like the rise of a right-wing messaging machine that extended from Trump’s social media in the White House through Breitbart News in digital, to Fox News in national cable, and potentially Sinclair at the local broadcast level. Giving Sinclair access to three-quarters of American homes would complete the coup, and all that was needed to make that possible was FCC and Justice Department approval for the sale. For most of the last year it certainly looked like the Trump-appointed FCC chair, Ajit Pai, was working overtime to make that happen.

Until he wasn’t on July 16, when he stunned media analysts by not only recommending to the commission that the deal be referred to an administrative law judge for further review but suggesting that Sinclair was being deceptive in its filings before the commission.

“Based on a thorough review of the record, I have serious concerns about the Sinclair/Tribune transaction,” Pai’s statement said. “The evidence we’ve received suggests that certain station divestitures that have been proposed to the FCC would allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law.”

Sinclair has denied any deception.

The full FCC has since referred it to for a hearing before an administrative law judge, which could mean a delay of several months, if not outright rejection of the deal.

The great unanswered question is why the about-face for Pai, who has declined to go beyond his statement.

My hypothesis? I think the widespread protests, social-media enmity and fierce criticism especially from scholars and media researchers to Pai’s successful effort in December to reverse net neutrality rocked the FCC chairman out of the conservative Washington policy bubble he was living in with Trump in the White House and an army of like-minded deregulators loosed on federal agencies.

I guarantee you Pai will live in academic infamy if nothing else for betraying the democratic promise of the internet in handing control of it over to a few media giants. But beyond that, I think the real-world seriousness and enormity of what he did with net neutrality hit home in some of the threats he and his family have received since.

In November, Pai charged on the “Fox & Friends” morning show that protesters against his net neutrality stance had “crossed a line” in putting signs on the lawn of his home with his children’s names and the statement: “They will come to know the truth. Dad murdered Democracy in cold blood.”

That’s rough stuff. Far worse, a June 29 release from the Justice Department said, “A California man was arrested today in Los Angeles on charges of threatening to kill the family of Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, for Pai’s role in repealing regulations relating to net neutrality.”

I think Pai saw how Trump treated his former attorney, Michael Cohen, the source of the Trump tape played on CNN Tuesday night, and decided the downside of doing Trump’s dirty work on shady deals wasn’t worth it any more when it threatened to touch his family.

In fairness, it must be noted that Trump is not the first president to have politicized and abused the FCC.

Democrat Lyndon Johnson bullied the agency shamelessly during his time in Congress and the Oval Office to obtain licenses, favorable commission rulings and affiliation deals for radio and TV stations in his home state of Texas. He further tried to force the commission to deny licenses to potential competitors.

In post-World-War-II America of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, broadcast licenses issued by the FCC were licenses to print money, and Johnson amassed a fortune off a handful of Texas radio and TV stations, starting with KTBC, an Austin radio outlet his wife, Lady Bird, bought in 1943 for a reported $17,500 with her inheritance. She bought an Austin TV station in 1952, which also became a CBS affiliate.

Biographer Robert Caro meticulously documents the strings LBJ pushed and pulled — from the chairman of the FCC to CBS Chairman William Paley — to make the stations cash cows.

Perhaps the best comparison to Trump’s attempt at using the FCC for his own political ends is to that of Republican Richard Nixon in the 1960s and ’70s.

With his vice president, former Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, out front attacking the “liberal” media, and his henchman, Charles Colson, backstage threatening owners like Paley with FCC and Justice Department trouble if they didn’t provide more favorable coverage, Nixon provided the template for Trump’s press bashing.

One of Nixon’s key strategies was to use threats of antitrust suits by the Justice Department against the networks to try to make them toe his line, according to tapes from the National Archives obtained through a court battle and transcribed for the Washington Post and Newsweek in 1997.

Nixon’s aides also threatened the licenses of network-owned stations, which were a huge source of revenue and were directly regulated by the FCC as the networks themselves were not. (Baltimore’s WJZ-TV is an example of a network-owned station today. It is owned by CBS.)

Trump’s Tuesday night tweet while most of the rest of the media and political worlds were focused on the CNN tape recorded by Cohen came on the eve of a House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on communications and technology oversight hearing on the FCC.

No pressure there.

But Pai didn’t back down Wednesday.

“I stand by our decision,” Pai said in the hearing when asked if he agreed or disagreed with Trump’s criticism of the commission’s action against Sinclair.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has opposed the Sinclair deal from Day One, remained the strongest voice of resistance against the deal.

"Too often during the last nine months the agency acted at the behest of the corporate forces that surround it, shortchanging the American people. You can see that clearly with our roll back of net neutrality,” she said in prepared testimony.

But, she added, "I would be remiss if I did not mention the agency’s recent decision regarding Sinclair Broadcasting. When I last appeared before you nine months ago, I alone expressed concern about how the agency had bent and twisted so many of its media policies to serve the business plans of this one company. This changed last week when the agency adopted an order designating the proposed Sinclair-Tribune transaction for hearing. I want to thank my colleagues — and the chairman in particular — for the effort to reach consensus on this matter."

The question now is whether the chairman will be able to hold his nerve as Trump ramps up the pressure.

And he will ramp up the pressure.

The core message of Trump’s Tuesday night tweet: This is not over yet.

Trump has so corrupted the regulatory climate in this country that I won’t call the Sinclair-Tribune dead until I see it on its back in a coffin with a stake through its heart.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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