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EDITORIAL: Sinclair’s plan to buy WGN is bad news for local news

Tribune Media, the owner of WGN, called off its merger with Sinclair Broadcast Group on Thursday, Aug. 9 2018.| Sun-Times file photo

The sheep’s clothing has been thrown off, and now we can clearly see the wolf’s fangs.

Those fangs belong to politically conservative Sinclair Broadcasting, and they’re now firmly sunk into WGN-Channel 9, the flagship TV station that Sinclair is back on track to buy — outright this time, no hiding behind third parties — from Tribune Media.

EDITORIAL

Under pressure from federal regulators, Sinclair had to give up the not-so-thinly-veiled pretense that it would operate WGN independently from a third-party businessman — a friend of Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith — who was poised to buy it for $60 million. Sinclair would have provided programming, advertising sales and other services for WGN under the arrangement.

Sinclair, which has been criticized for consistently injecting a far-right slant into its news coverage, was so eager to get its hands on WGN that it quickly jettisoned its plan to keep its fangs sunk into two other major market stations under another sham third-party deal — this time with a company controlled by the estate of a top Sinclair executive’s mother.

WGN, a flagship station with a national audience, was too big a prize for Sinclair to let go. It’s the centerpiece of Sinclair’s planned $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media Co., which also owns WGN-AM 720 radio.

This deal should worry every Chicagoan who cares about maintaining the integrity of independent local news, not to mention reining in media monopolies.

The civil servants toiling in the trenches, trying to do their jobs with integrity despite the abject mess that is the Trump administration, deserve credit here. They gathered information that led Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed Federal Communications Commission chair, to call foul on Sinclair’s sham.

“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,” Pai said.

He called for hearings that likely would have killed Sinclair’s plan — if the company hadn’t backtracked when it saw the writing on the wall.

But, hey, according to Sinclair, it was press reports on those third-party deals, not scrutiny from the FCC, that killed their plans.

In other words, “fake news,” not the “deep state,” another favorite Trump bogeyman, did Sinclair in.

Either way the blame goes, Sinclair scores points with a president who already considers it “far superior” to CNN, and to “Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

And make no mistake, this surely looks like a deal done for right-wing political gain, not business advantage. Even though Sinclair already owns more TV stations than any other broadcaster in the country, why would it give up two major market TV stations to get one?

Except the one Sinclair covets is in a deep-blue city that sits right in the heart of America.

We feel for the reporters and producers, the videographers and anchors at WGN. They deserve far better ownership than a company led by a CEO who cozied up to Trump during his campaign and told him: “We are here to deliver your message. Period.”

If you need more evidence of the troubled waters the station might be headed for, heed the warning of the former Sinclair political analyst who wrote that the broadcaster’s right-wing bias “should be troubling for a democracy that values a free press.” Any newsroom is in trouble when the owners give the editorial team talking points and stories and pre-written scripts.

We hope WGN’s anchors aren’t forced to read scripts bashing “fake news,” as other Sinclair anchors were forced to do earlier this year. No journalist should be forced to bow to the editorial whims of owners, of any political stripe.

But if they are, at least we’ll know who to blame.

It won’t be an a Maryland auto dealer whose only TV experience is a friendship with David Smith.

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