Editorial: The prospect for partisanship in local TV news

The nature of WGN-TV's motto as "Chicago's Very Own" television station may be changing soon, and the prospect has implications for more than just one of Chicago's top broadcast outlets. Indeed, the impending sale of WGN's parent company could have reverberations throughout the region and the country. They may change altogether our expectations of news delivery on local TV.

For decades, the underlying principle of local-broadcast licensing on public airwaves has been assurance of responsiveness to community needs and local control of a station's operations. Changing technology has forced adjustments to the standards for measuring such control and responsiveness, but none have been so tested or posed so great a threat as the likely sale of Tribune Media Company, WGN's current owner, to Baltimore, Maryland,-based Sinclair Broadcast Group. The $3.9 billion sale would give Sinclair, already the largest operator of television stations in the United States, access to more than 70 percent of U.S. households - almost double the access currently allowed under Federal Communications Commission rules.

The implications of such vast influence over the ideas and information presented to Americans are the very root of the FCC's decades of regulation over the broadcast industry, and Sinclair's specific management of its stations is a classic case in point. Sinclair is known for mandating that all of its stations include specific social and political commentaries expressing the ownership's conservative views. In addition to blurring the lines between news and opinion, Sinclair has also been inclined to blur them between news and advertising. Just last December, the company was fined $13.4 million for broadcasting "news stories" on its stations about a cancer foundation without informing viewers that the "reports" actually had been paid for by the foundation.

Lest you be inclined to slough off worries about the Sinclair-Tribune deal as liberal whining about the company's conservative politics, consider this ominous warning from none other than Republican former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose conservative credentials are well-established: "This transaction would set a terrible precedent by opening the door for ABC, CBS, and NBC to also buy many more TV stations," DeLay wrote for Politico. "At that point, nothing can stop liberal Northeast corporate executives from telling homes in the heartland what to think."

The prospect of such an environment for local broadcasting is chilling to contemplate. For a vivid example of just how chilling, check out a YouTube montage titled "This is very dangerous to our democracy" that went viral over the weekend showing TV anchors from Sinclair stations across the country reading a corporate-mandated criticism of the very news media they are a part of. Media reporter Robert Feder, whose column regularly appears in the Daily Herald, also discussed the merger in his online column Sunday.

Imagine a climate in which corporate interests thousands of miles away constantly inject their views and values into hundreds of "local communities" and selectively exclude views and values with which they disagree. Imagine a climate in which "local interests" are dictated and defined by faceless executives with no stake or experience with local communities.

We've already seen the detrimental effect that overly partisan news coverage on the cable networks has wrought. Now, with the Donald Trump-controlled FCC's approval of the Sinclair purchase expected almost any day, that divisive and unreliable experience may be coming to local media. When that happens, the notion of "Chicago's Very Own" may be just a cynical mockery of the proud, unifying concept it is supposed to represent.

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