Several dozen activists opposed to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media staged a protest Thursday outside the broadcaster’s Hunt Valley headquarters as the company welcomed shareholders to its annual meeting.
Opponents hoped to convince the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice to reject the $3.9 billion deal.
Holding signs that read “Sinclair is extremely dangerous to our democracy,” and “Sinclair equals Trump TV,” opponents chanted “Stop Sinclair.”
“I don’t believe that the merger between these two companies is a good idea for the good of the United States,” said Susan Hughen, a protester from Columbia retired from the IT field. “They would have too much control in one person’s hands, and the policy that they have which makes local stations read a particular statement is not free press, and we need to keep free press.”
The deal, as originally proposed, would give Sinclair control of 233 TV stations, including 42 Tribune-owned stations and a presence in such top markets as New York and Chicago. Under that proposal, Sinclair stations would reach 72 percent of U.S TV households. (Tribune Media was formerly part of Tribune Co., which once owned The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers, but spun them off in 2014.)
In April, Sinclair announced plans to sell 23 stations after the merger as part of its bid to win approval of federal regulators.
As protesters rallied on the sidewalk outside Sinclair’s Beaver Dam Road building, they were watched over by security guards and police officers stationed in the company parking lot. Inside the headquarters, executives took questions from shareholders who applauded efforts to lead a merger they expect will raise the value of the company and its stock.
“The Tribune merger has taken many twists and turns and is taking longer than expected,” said Chris Ripley, Sinclair’s president and CEO, in response to one shareholder’s question about the status of the deal.
Sinclair is in negotiations with the Justice Department, while the FCC is taking public comments through July 12 on the proposed station divestiture plan, he said.
“There is a path forward to getting this done sometime after July 12,” Ripley said. “We had thought under this administration it would be quicker.”
James Patterson, a shareholder from Washington, asked whether “negative press” has affected the company’s business or stock price. Ripley said the company has found no evidence of negative coverage from mainly liberal outlets affecting either, and said “we’re very focused on presenting our side of the story.”
During the meeting, executives also defended recent and controversial on-air promotions in which its TV anchors across the country read identical scripts decrying “fake” news. The promotions were criticized after the website Deadspin produced a video montage, which went viral, showing anchors at local news stations warning of biased and false news on social media and in traditional outlets.
Ripley said it is common practice for anchors to read scripts and that the message received positive feedback in audience testing.
Sinclair’s message was “if you want to know what the facts are, watch us,” Chairman David Smith told shareholders, adding that includes programming such as WBFF Fox 45’s Project Baltimore series of investigations into problems plaguing Baltimore city schools,
Sinclair’s proposed merger has been met with strong opposition from groups worried about the loss of diverse voices in the broadcast industry, a concern heightened by Sinclair’s conservative leanings. Free Press said it and others are concerned that Sinclair will lay off local reporters and replace their coverage with cookie-cutter journalism and forced broadcasts of politically biased commentary.
Many protesters on Thursday echoed those concerns.
Max Obuszewski of Baltimore held a sign that read “enough is enough.”
“I’m against the merger of bringing so many stations together, and I’d be opposed even if it was a more progressive diet of news,” Obuszewski said. “Nobody should have so much concentration of the media. … And you have political messages disguised as news. I’m very offended by that.”
“It’s becoming a monopoly, and we need a variety of news from different perspectives,’ added Janice Sevre-Duszynska of Towson.
Linda McKibben came from Silver Spring to protest corporate and government influence in media.
“It undermines our confidence in all institutions if the press can’t be free,” she said. “It is a basic part of what makes our democracy work well.”
Yosef Getachew, media and democracy program director at Common Cause, said he hopes the rally raises public awareness about a merger he fears will open the door wider for more forced “must-run” segments on Sinclair’s local news channels.
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“We need local stations to air local programming that meets the needs of our communities, and Sinclair is the antithesis of that, and we can’t let them get bigger,” Getachew said. “Right now they are in their shareholders meeting figuring out the best ways to make their shareholders the most money, and we’re here to make sure they answer to the communities they serve.”
Free Press Action Fund, the organizer of the rally, is concerned about media consolidation in general, whether that means Sinclair, Fox, Disney or NBC, overtaking local media ownership, said Craig Aaron, CEO and president of the Free Press.
Sinclair has said the merger will allow the broadcaster to invest more heavily in local news operations and keep pace in a changing media landscape in which broadcasters also compete with online and cable news and entertainment sources.
Sinclair plans to create “a leading broadcast platform with local focus and national reach,” Ripley said in April when the company announced the proposed station sales.
After the meeting, Ripley said it was “unfortunate” that protests were taking place, and that the opposition is largely funded by special interests and competitors who are against the merger for commercial reasons.
“It creates a perception in the public that this is grass roots,” he said.
As the company ended its annual meeting, Smith urged shareholders to “Ignore those people out on the sidewalk.”