Over the holidays, a bizarre mailer materialized in more than 10,000 mailboxes across the country, including that of an Indy reporter. It riffed on the classic Christmas tale of the Grinch, but with a contemporary media-world twist. Imposed on the body of Dr. Seuss’ titular character was the face of former Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn, beneath the title, “How Sinclair Stole the Airwaves!”
According to Karl Frisch, executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit Allied Progress, the organization’s holiday-themed mailer was sent to employees of the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division and key members of Congress—namely, those serving on House and Senate commerce committees (in other words, none of Montana’s delegation). The goal, Frisch says, was to bring a little levity to Allied Progress’ criticism of broadcast giant Sinclair’s proposed merger with the Tribune Media Company. The mailer also went out to reporters who have covered the controversial merger and, Frisch says, to employees at Sinclair-owned stations like Missoula’s KECI.
“It’s a big problem all around when a company that has absolutely no connection to the community owns so much of the local media landscape,” Frisch says.
Sinclair announced plans to acquire Tribune last May, roughly a month after reaching a $240 million purchase agreement for Bonten Media Group Holdings, then-owner of KECI, KCFW in Kalispell and KTVM in Butte and Bozeman. That deal was finalized in early September. The $3.9 billion Tribune acquisition is still awaiting approval by the FCC, with the commission’s 180-day timeline for a decision set to expire later this month. According to Sinclair’s FCC application, the merger would give the company access to 72 percent of American households, a scale made possible last year by an FCC rule reversing an Obama-era ownership cap.
The Tribune deal doesn’t directly affect any Montana-based stations, as Tribune doesn’t own any here. However, groups including Allied Progress and Free Press contend that FCC approval would lead to an erosion of local coverage, pointing to Sinclair’s practice of crafting news content the Washington Post claims favors “conservative causes and candidates.” Following his departure from Trump’s communications office last spring, Epshteyn joined Sinclair as the company’s chief political analyst, producing regular commentaries for distribution to Sinclair’s stations.
Frisch considers Sinclair’s bid to consolidate such a large swath of the broadcast world a particularly troubling development for largely rural states like Montana, where people rely heavily on local stations for news, weather and sports. Just because no Montana stations are subject to the Tribune acquisition, he says, doesn’t mean other acquisitions aren’t on the horizon. Hence the push to keep elected officials, the FCC and the media focused on the issue even during the holiday lull.
“What we’re looking at right now is not the meal,” Frisch says. “We’re looking at the appetizer.”