Zurawik: Sinclair's grab for power, glory leaves it a badly damaged brand facing $1 billion lawsuit

President Trump's has been tweeting about 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.

Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group's now-failed takeover bid for Tribune Media brought it a kind of national scrutiny it had never faced in its history, particularly for its conservative politics. From the moment it was announced, I predicted the deal would make Sinclair the most hated company in America. But I never imagined it would end as miserably as it did this morning for the Hunt-Valley-based broadcaster, with Tribune walking away from the deal and announcing a $1 billion lawsuit against Sinclair for its conduct in handling the deal.

In May, when Sinclair announced its purchase of Tribune, the deal looked like slam dunk to make the Hunt-Valley-based company the largest broadcaster in the country. But not today.

"Given the developments of the last few weeks, and the decision by the Federal Communications Commission to refer certain issues to an administrative law judge in light of Sinclair's conduct, it's highly unlikely this deal would ever receive FCC approval and be completed, and certainly not within an acceptable time frame," Tribune CEO Peter Kern said in a statement. "As for the lawsuit, we are confident Sinclair did not live up to its obligations under the merger agreement and we intend to hold them accountable."


Couple that with what had been a super-friendly FCC chair in Ajit Pai suddenly reversing course last month and suggesting Sinclair had been less than straightforward in its attempts to get under ownership caps by setting up deals with business associates to hold licenses for stations Sinclair would run, and you have a very serious image problem to say the least.

The head of the company you were about to partner with for the last 15 months and the chair of the FCC are both calling you shady — and one of them is willing to take on the president of the United States who appointed him and the other is going to court to prove it in what is sure to be a long and costly process.


And that is only the start of of Sinclair's woes on this the first day of the rest of its corporate life after flying too close to the sun and falling to earth in a ball of molten wax.

Sinclair management regularly pushed back against me when I wrote about what I see as its right-wing politics. It did so even after it named former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn its chief political analyst in April 2017 and he delivered the closest thing I had seen to classic propaganda in more than three decades of covering the medium. The company's pushback included an emphasis on what Sinclair executives described as its responsible journalism.

Media columnist David Zurawik discusses Sinclair taking a perilous political path with Boris Epshteyn. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

Good luck with trying to sell that, folks, in the wake of the tweets from President Trump saying how much he loved Sinclair and how great it was compared to what he calls "fake news" at such industry leaders as The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and NBC.

Having Trump endorse your journalism as he calls the mainstream press the "enemy of the people" is like having Harvey Weinstein endorse your company's treatment of women in the workplace.

And in case the mass audience hadn't picked up some on the press criticism of Sinclair, there was that Deadspin video, which went viral, showing Sinclair anchor after anchor mouthing the same script like automatons or propaganda puppets.

Deadspin's video of Sinclair anchors parroting the same Trumpian message helped the public get the point in a way previous coverage didn't.

Let's not forget John Oliver's satiric attack on Sinclair on his HBO show early last summer.

Oh, yeah, Sinclair got above the radar in its grab for glory — way above the radar, which makes for so long a fall today.

This attempted takeover and the way Trump was pushing for it with his FCC chair initially moving heaven and earth to make it happen went against everything the Communications Act of 1934 stood for in its effort to make station license holders broadcast to some extent in the public interest. The action by Tribune is a victory for all the forces that opposed such politicization and power.

"The collapse of this merger is as major a victory for American consumers as it is a defeat for the propaganda pushers at Sinclair," Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress, a Washington-based consumer watchdog organization opposing the Sinclair-Tribune deal, said in a statement this morning. "Dozens of communities will now be sparred from nightly force-feedings of content advancing the fringe political agenda of the media behemoth's owners."

This is also a victory for the Baltimore-area citizens who started organizing last summer against the deal with educational meetings at public libraries and pickets outside Sinclair headquarters in Hunt Valley. According to emails they sent me, some were members of the Ellicott City Huddle, a political action network.

A few dozen Maryland residents hoisted posters and shouted through a megaphone in opposition to Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.’s proposed $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media Co.

Just as voters in Baltimore County were reminded that every vote matters in the recent election for county executive, so should the actions of these residents be seen as evidence that even a handful of concerned citizens can make a difference by educating, organizing and gathering to protest against what seemed at the time like overwhelming corporate and political muscle.


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