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OPED: The truth about Trump and Sinclair

Jud Lounsbury
Tribune News Service

President Barack Obama was born in the United States. This was never in question until a certain reality TV star made it so, garnering media attention and forcing Obama to hold a humiliating press conference to display his birth certificate proving that he was born in Hawaii.

The first black president was also the first president to be forced to prove he was actually an American.

As we all know, that same reality star became president. There are many reasons this happened, including one that has largely been overlooked. Sinclair Broadcasting Group — the nation's largest local TV owner — reached an agreement with the Trump team that resulted in positive campaign coverage for Trump.

The issue came to light amid the recent controversy over how Sinclair forced its anchors to read the same pro-Trump fear-mongering "fake news" propaganda statement on the air. And, considering that most American voters get their news from local TV stations, Trump's deal with Sinclair turned out to be a Very Big Deal.

Trump's son-in-law and top lieutenant, Jared Kushner, spilled the beans of the secret deal and said that, in return, Sinclair stations got more access to Trump. But after the election, team Trump gave Sinclair something exponentially more valuable than access to a presidential candidate.

It allowed the company to vastly expand its reach and profitability.

Sinclair Broadcasting is not only the biggest owner of local television stations in the country, with more than 170 stations, it is also the fastest growing. Most of its stations have been acquired in just the last 10 years. And the company seeks to acquire 42 more stations held by Tribune Media, allowing it to reach 72 percent of U.S. households.

Previously, Sinclair was prohibited from serving more than 39 percent of households under a statute of the Telecommunications Act.

Last year, however, Trump's Federal Communications Commission, under chairman Ajit Pai, brought back to life the technologically obsolete "UHF Discount" rule. The rule, from the pre-digital era when local stations were hard to tune in to, allowed local stations to be counted as a fraction of the 13 "normal" stations found on the "top dial."

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Of course, today most people get all of the old UHF channels as easily as "top dial" channels, making Trump's resurrection of the old rule not only silly but clearly in violation of both the letter and spirit of the Telecommunications Act. Free Pass and other activist groups are currently suing to prevent the UHF "loophole" and the Sinclair-Tribune purchase from going further, but with corporate masseuse Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, don't hold your breath.

And while Trump is green-lighting Sinclair, he's been blocking AT&T's purchase of CNN's parent company, Time Warner, saying "it's too much concentration of power in the hands of too few."

That would just happen to be the same CNN that Trump repeatedly labels as "fake news," the same sentiments that Sinclair just happened to echo in its recent collective Trump incantation.

In any business, such naked corruption is troubling, but in the press it erodes the freedom of press protections in the First Amendment. As the Washington Post, another "fake news" media outlet that Trump is also threatening with regulatory strife, puts it, "democracy dies in darkness."

— Jud Lounsbury is a political writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, who blogs at uppitywis.org.