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How to Deal With the Sinclair Media Group

You can't effectively boycott a corporation that dominates the entire media landscape. What you can do is regulate it.
The headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

The headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group in Hunt Valley, Maryland. 

Wherever you live, at least one of your local news stations is probably owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, a right-wing media corporation with deep ties to President Donald Trump's administration. The group currently owns 193 stations around the country, but Sinclair is looking to buy 40 more that would extend its reach to three-quarters of the country. The company has an ugly history in news—baseless slurs against John Kerry and anti-Islamic fear-mongering, for example—but its conduct has gotten worse of late. Most recently, it made headlines for forcing anchors to read Trumpian exhortations against "fake news," after which the company saw widespread coverage of the wicked contract terms that make it difficult for Sinclair employees to quit without taking a huge financial hit. In response, Democratic politicians, celebrities, and columnists are calling for a boycott of Sinclair.

Boycotts are fine, but threats to democracy like the one posed by Sinclair require more than collective consumer action. What we need, instead, is to elect politicians who will implement regulations intended to break up media and other corporate monopolies. As we head toward the 2018 elections in this new age of inequality, it's time for good, old-fashioned trust-busting.

Sinclair, of course, isn't the only massive media corporation behaving badly. Facebook has increasingly come under fire for practices that exploit its users' data. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal grows, more and more people are talking about deleting Facebook, which is, of course, a form of boycott. If Facebook makes you personally unhappy, go ahead and delete it, but remember that even well-organized collective consumer action isn't going to put much of a dent in the company's user base, now estimated at over two billion people. What's more, many people depend on Facebook for basic social and professional contact and don't have the privilege of disconnecting.

Fortunately, there's another way. Instead of individual decisions to boycott, media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan argues, we need to regulate. In the New York Times, Vaidhyanathan writes: "We must demand that legislators and regulators get tougher. They should go after Facebook on antitrust grounds. ... The Department of Justice should consider severing WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger from Facebook, much as it broke up AT&T in 1982. That breakup unleashed creativity, improved phone service and lowered prices. It also limited the political power of AT&T."

We can take the same approach to Sinclair Broadcasting. The FCC has the power to enforce media competition in markets across the United States, but FCC Chairman Ajit Pai relaxed the rules last year just before Sinclair announced its attention to buy Tribune Media (and pick up those extra 40 television stations). That's not a new story. In 1995, then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, recipient of a $4.5 million book advance from Fox Chief Executive Office Rupert Murdoch's publishing house, led the way in making it possible for Murdoch to own both a TV station and a newspaper in the same market—all while relaxing the rules against foreign ownership. The 1996 Telecommunications Act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, paved the way for the media consolidation that's causing so much trouble today. It's almost quaint to think that, before 1996, corporations were restricted from owning more than 12 stations. Now Sinclair is trying to push past 200.

You can't effectively boycott a corporation that dominates the entire media landscape. Sure, corporations can be pressured to stop advertising on a program here or a channel there, but when a corporation is sufficiently vast, its ad revenue will keep flowing. Of course, after 40 years of consolidation, the problem extends far beyond media to nearly every industry, rendering them effectively unaccountable, even to large-scale, collective consumer action. Take Nestle, for example, which just last week was awarded the right to pump more Michigan water into its plastic bottles despite massive public outcry at the injustice of siphoning water away from a vulnerable community. Changing the system is going to require politics, including teaching left-wing candidates that we're ready for a new antitrust movement. One tool to get this started: history.

We’re in a New Gilded Age, a comparison that started cropping up as early as 2013 and 2014, especially in commentary around Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st-Century. It re-appeared in lots of columns and editorials during the 2017 tax debate. Meanwhile, journalists including Matthew Yglesias and Ryan Cooper have begun exploring the politics of Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, who embrace antitrust regulation as a key policy goal. We need much more of this as we head toward the next election.

Let's take the historical metaphor seriously. It's fine to vote with your pocketbook by boycotting, but only if you also vote at the ballot box for politicians who will use the power of government to push back against inequality and the neo-monopolists who truly do threaten our freedom.