Last month, the Baltimore County Council decided to bestow Sinclair Broadcasting with hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars. Those funds will join another $1.3 million showered on the conservative telecommunications giant from the state of Maryland. And if the rapidly expanding company makes good on its plan to employ 367 more people in the county, it won’t have to pay a cent of it back.
Wade Kach, the county councilman who represents Hunt Valley, where Sinclair’s corporate headquarters are located, called the hand-out a “win-win for everyone.” But is it?
Sinclair Broadcasting is no struggling local business on the brink of bankruptcy. It is the largest TV station operator in the United States, with a $3.9 billion takeover of another corporate giant, Tribune Media, in the works. Nor is it lacking in powerful political connections. In just the last six years, Sinclair — which George W. Bush’s FCC chairman called “the most dangerous company most people have never heard of” — has tripled in size, apparently thanks to a series of ethically questionable quid pro quo arrangements in Annapolis and Washington D.C.
In 2002, then-Congressman Bob Ehrlich secretly pressured the FCC to fast-track Sinclair’s acquisitions, in exchange for which he got to use a company executive’s luxury helicopter. By the time that story got out, Mr. Ehrlich had ascended into the governor’s mansion.
During the 2016 election, Jared Kushner boasted about a quid pro quo deal with Sinclair in which Sinclair would give the Trump campaign favorable coverage in exchange for interview access to the candidate. It now appears that a promise to help Sinclair circumvent federal limits on media ownership in the Tribune takeover may also have been part of the deal.
Mr. Kushner denied any such provision, but one was faithfully fulfilled nevertheless. During the campaign, Sinclair aired 15 exclusive interviews with Mr. Trump and zero with his opponent. Ten days after taking office, Mr. Trump’s FCC head, Ajit Pai, gutted the rules with neither due process nor any real opportunities for public comment so that Sinclair could buy Tribune.
And on Monday, President Trump tweeted that “Sinclair is far superior” to other “Fake News Networks,” all but guaranteeing the controversial deal goes through. And when it does, Sinclair stations will reach over 70 percent of U.S. households, creating a monopoly on local TV stations that threatens to raise the price of cable television and reduce programming choices, as Maryland state attorney general Brian Frosh and others have warned.
Many commentators have noted how the ideologically charged “must-run” segments that Sinclair requires its stations to air on local news shows are corrupting the long-standing tradition of non-partisan programming on local television news. Tellingly, the now-disgraced provocateur Steve Bannon reportedly considered forging a partnership between extremist website Breitbart and Sinclair.
Even without such a partnership, Sinclair requires its stations to run bits that condemn the mainstream news media as “fake news” and that showcase commentary from partisans who offer what Slate has called “industrial-strength” propaganda. That’s especially concerning given that, according to the Pew Research Center, local television news is among Americans’ most trusted sources of information.
But whatever one thinks of Sinclair’s programming, the real question is whether its business requires subsidizing with hard-earned taxpayer dollars. The fact is, profitable, multi-billion-dollar corporations such as Sinclair do not need special perks from our public coffers. Right now, when our local coffee shops, sno-cone stands, auto repair companies and other small businesses want to expand, they take out bank loans. Is there any reason why Sinclair and other corporate giants can’t do the same?
Most importantly, there are so many better ways to spend our public funds. We could support small local businesses that sustain the local economy and our communities. We could replace and restore our crumbling and overcrowded local schools. We could fund more addiction treatment and recovery slots, expand our public parks and greenways, or work to fix the holes in our transit system. Lavishing precious public dollars on corporate giants who don’t need it — while our local businesses, schools, and communities go without — makes no sense.