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Why the looming sale of PHL17 is a threat to democracy

Could PHL17 - once TV's home for the Phillies - become the home for pro-Trump propaganda in Southeastern Pennsylvania?

Protesting the controversial “Nightline”  decision in 2004 at the Sinclair Broadcast Group headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md.
Protesting the controversial “Nightline” decision in 2004 at the Sinclair Broadcast Group headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md.Read moreHANS ERICSSON / AP

For more than a half century, the Philadelphia TV station now branded as PHL17 was the place where baby boomer kids flipped on the Wee Willie Webber Colorful Cartoon Club as soon as they got home from school, where teens grooved to Dancin' on Air in the go-go 1980s, and where Schmitty, Lefty, and the rest of their Phillies squad marched toward their first world championship in the long hot summer of 1980.

If a planned sale of the station — along with dozens of other TV outlets from coast-to-coast — to the Sinclair Broadcast Group wins approval from federal regulators, PHL17 may become the go-to place on your local remote for pro-government curve balls from the "Terrorism Alert Desk" and a blast of commentaries dancin' on rhetorical hot air in support of President Trump during the run-up to the 2020 election.

Experts caution that Sinclair's ultimate plan for the Philadelphia station is a little unclear because — unlike most of the 42 stations in 33 key markets that it seeks to acquire in its pending deal to buy Tribune Media — PHL17 doesn't currently have its own in-house-produced nightly newscast where Sinclair could plant its conservative propaganda flag. But the industry watchers still express alarm about the bigger national picture — less local journalism and less choice for viewers, with the federal government in the process of twisting the licensing rules in a way to benefit a media company that so enthusiastically cheerleads for the head of that government, Trump.

Craig Aaron, the president and CEO of Free Press, an advocacy group that fights against media consolidation, said the massive Sinclair deal "puts too much media power in the hands of one company," especially because the firm's business model lays off independent journalists covering local stories, like corruption in City Hall, and instead orders stations to run commentaries from a handful of right-wing national pundits who push pro-GOP — and increasingly, pro-Trump — propaganda. "We need competent sources of local news, and the Sinclair model is to eliminate them."

Sinclair's $3.9 billion push into untapped local markets may be the last puzzle piece in the move that more than anything else defines Donald Trump's America. Success will create a seamless media bubble for the president's rabid base, from the blather of Fox & Friends when they turn on their TV in the morning to right-wing talk radio as they drive to the supermarket to the antiliberal diatribes, some of it "fake news" or even manufactured on Russian content farms, in their Facebook feed, now bolstered by Trump-boosting commentaries from the president's former aide Boris Epshteyn on their local Sinclair-owned TV news. All while the president brands the traditional news media as "enemies of the American people."

What's revealing about this scheme is that the Sinclair acquisitions of local TV outlets are heavily focused in the presidential swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and, of course, Pennsylvania — where the Trump-lovin' broadcaster would own a station in every key media market after gaining PHL17 and Fox43 in Harrisburg. That's a huge twofer for Sinclair, since in addition to its unbroken web of pro-Trump agitprop, the company will reap hundreds of millions of dollars from battleground-state political spending. That's your modern kleptocracy at work.

As Sinclair, based in Maryland, has grown its coast-to-coast reach, it has also found — with too little fanfare — new and creative ways to boost its far-right agenda, dating back to the early 2000s when its ABC affiliates wouldn't air a Nightline episode simply listing the names of American troops who had died in Iraq, an act apparently seen at Sinclair HQ as antiwar propaganda. Its affiliates did, however, broadcast on the eve of the 2004 election a documentary called Stolen Valor that slammed the Vietnam War-era record of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a piece heavily promoted by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Affiliates also ran a mix of news pieces and a dishonest infomercial that slammed Barack Obama during his presidency, most under the banner of "must-run" commentaries.

That trend has only increased in the Trump era, with the hiring of Epshteyn, who worked on the 2016 campaign and for a short time in the White House, and whose Trump-talking-point commentaries "must run" a whopping nine times a week. Viewers who switch on their local news on a day when things aren't going well for the Trump White House won't get that story, but instead will get a "Terrorism Desk Alert" on the fighting in Syria or on condemning the Muslim treatment of women. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner cut a deal giving Sinclair access to Trump in return for favorable coverage.

I realize that a lot of you are saying at this point: So what? The First Amendment not only permits but implicitly encourages an opinionated media, and liberals certainly have their own outlets, like MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, to name just one. There's nothing inherently wrong with conservative commentary on your high-def screen. But what Sinclair and its allies in the Trump administration are seeking to pull with this Tribune acquisition is radically different — upending the once-cherished ideal of diverse, locally based voices, replacing that quaint vision with a large, centralized media monopoly. And they are deliberately gaming the federal licensing rules to get there.

As investigative journalists from the New York Times reported this week, Sinclair chairman David Smith met with the FCC commissioner whom Trump was naming as its chairman, Ajit Pai, on the day before Trump's inauguration to map out the plan for radical deregulation that the FCC has largely carried out since January — lifting the cap on how many stations a broadcaster like Sinclair could own, as well as relaxing other restrictions in ways that would benefit the Trump-friendly company's bottom line.

It's not front-page news — not surprising in a time of nuclear bluster and white-supremacist marches through American cities — but the average citizens should still be alarmed. For one thing, all the "must-run" pro-Trump blather emerging from Sinclair's offices kills any chance for real journalism on local issues. Hannah Jane Sassaman, policy director of Media Mobilizing Project, based in Philadelphia, told me that activists in Harrisburg have been pleased with the coverage that Fox43 gives to immigrant-rights issues — and are alarmed that such reports might dry up under Sinclair. "A conservative media that uses dog whistles," Sassaman said, "is being expanded to our broadcast news outlets. That should be terrifying."

That said, the picture in Philadelphia is fuzzy. Some analysts have wondered whether Sinclair ultimately aims to flip PHL17 to another buyer. The channel's current lineup, with a short morning news show and a 10 p.m. newscast produced by 6ABC/WPVI Action News, doesn't offer at the moment the opportunities for running conservative commentary that exist at other stations that it's buying. But that could change quickly if the sale goes through.

Regardless of what happens on the local level, Sassaman is right that the prospects for U.S. democracy are terrifying. One of the gateway drugs for authoritarian rule is state control of the mass media. If Americans in key battleground states start getting spoon-fed pro-White House propaganda in between their local weather and the 76ers' highlights, we're much farther down that rocky road than we ever want to be.

The good news is that while the path for FCC approval of the Sinclair-Tribune deal appears to be well-greased, the sale is still not final. Both Sassaman and Aaron from Free Press — which has challenged the sale on both the legal and regulatory front — urged citizens to contact the FCC and register their objection. (Here's the FCC contact page). They also recommended calling public officials, from Mayor Kenney to members of Congress, to urge public hearings or at least strong condemnations. It's worth a shot because the stakes are so high. Like a batter facing a Steve Carlton fastball from the glory days of Sunday afternoon baseball on Channel 17, this dangerous scheme needs to be struck out.