New Ad Warns of Sinclair Impact on Iowa Caucuses, Calls on Grassley to Take Action

POLL: Staggering 72% of Iowans Oppose Merger, 87% Think It’s Important for Grassley To Hold Hearings

[FULL POLL RESULTS CLICK HERE]


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, consumer watchdog organization Allied Progress announced a six-figure television ad buy throughout Iowa, warning that those choosing to compete in the state’s cherished Iowa Caucuses may be forced to face much more than a field of other candidates if the Sinclair/Tribune merger succeeds. The ad calls on viewers to contact Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) who has done nothing in his capacity as chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee to provide greater scrutiny of the merger or the company’s many controversies.

By 2020, Sinclair Broadcast Group could control 33% of local news stations in one Iowa market (Davenport), 40% in its largest (Des Moines), 50% in two others (Cedar Rapids and Sioux City), and 67% in an additional two markets (Ottumwa and Keokuk), providing the media behemoth with an unprecedented ability to shape the early political landscape in future presidential campaigns – a frightening prospect given the recent controversy faced by the company after it forced anchors on dozens of local stations to recite the same political message – word for word.

The ad is accompanied by a new poll showing a staggering 72% of Iowans oppose the Sinclair/Tribune merger, including of 78% of Democrats, 72% of Independents, and even 67% of Republicans. Nearly nine-out-of-ten Iowans also say it is important that Sen. Grassley hold hearing about the proposed merger in the Senate Judiciary Committee he chairs, including 90% of Democrats, 86% of Intendents, and 86% of Republicans. For more on the poll, click here.

“Iowans, like all Americans, trust local media to deliver them straight news about the communities where they live and work, but Sinclair’s corporate owners are forcing local news stations to push their own personal political agenda,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress.

He continued, “Last month Sinclair viewers were force-fed politically charged, anti-media propaganda. That’s just a taste of things to come. Imagine how much worse it could be with the company emboldened by the approval of its merger just as things are beginning to heat up in the middle of the caucuses. Sinclair already has significant control over local television news in Iowa. If this merger goes through, it will cement the company’s outsized influence on presidential elections for years to come. Perhaps that’s why a staggering 72% of Iowans – including 67% of Republicans, oppose this merger.”

“Sadly, Senator Grassley—who has always been a champion for Iowa’s historically important role in choosing future leaders for our country—hasn’t lifted a finger to oppose this monopoly-making megamerger. He’s not held a single hearing in his influential committee which has direct oversight over important parts of this deal. It’s time he did – and almost every Iowan agrees. That’s something you almost never see in polls,” Frisch concluded.

The six-figure, one-week broadcast and cable television ad buy will begin on Tuesday, May 1 and will run in the Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, and Quad Cities markets.

“Road” Script (30 Seconds)

“For Republicans and Democrats, the road to the White House starts in Iowa. But the Sinclair Merger could be a major roadblock for any candidate that disagrees with their out-of-state political agenda. And Chuck Grassley isn’t doing anything about it. Sinclair controls up to two thirds of local TV news broadcasts in much of Iowa and was caught forcing local anchors to recite the same political message. Don’t let Sinclair control even more of Iowa’s local news. Tell Chuck Grassley to oppose the Sinclair Merger.”

Key Findings from Poll

  • Iowans are strongly opposed to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed takeover of local stations. Voters oppose the proposed Sinclair/Tribune merger by a 62-point margin (10% support/72% oppose), with roughly half (49%) “strongly” opposed. Opposition also extends across party lines, with 78% of Democrats, 72% of Independents, and 67% of Republicans disapproving of the deal.
  • Iowans believe it is critical for Sen. Grassley to call for Senate hearings to review the Sinclair deal. Nearly nine in ten Iowans (87%) believe it is important for Grassley to call for hearings on the deal, including 62% who say it’s “very” important. Again, Iowans’ attitudes on the issue extend across party lines, with 90% of Democrats, 86% of Independents, and 86% of Republicans all saying that it is important.
  • Sen. Grassley stands to lose the good will of Iowa voters if he fails to hold hearings on the deal. Grassley currently holds a positive favorability rating among Iowans (51% favorable/35% unfavorable) but moves deep underwater (17% favorable/69% unfavorable) when Iowans are asked to consider how they would feel about him if he did not hold hearings on the deal.
  • Iowans have a litany of concerns about the deal, from Sinclair’s history of firing local news employees to the degree of control the company would have over local broadcasts:
    • 90% are concerned (including 76% who find it “very concerning”) with Sinclair’s history of requiring local newscasters to read political talking points, and firing reporters for not following their political directions;
    • 88% are concerned (66% very concerned) that Sinclair would control stations in 72% of U.S. households and exceed the long-standing 39% federal cap for broadcasters;
    • 87% are concerned (63% very concerned) that one East Coast company would control up to 67% of local newscasts in parts of Iowa and 40% of local newscasts in the state’s largest market;
    • 85% are concerned (63% very concerned) that Sinclair has fired local news employees and closed newsrooms after taking over local stations;
    • 84% are concerned (60% very concerned) that Sinclair has a history of cutting off access to college sports and reporting on weather, traffic, and other local issues to use it as leverage in negotiations with cable and satellite TV operators;
    • 84% are concerned (56% very concerned) that there have been no hearings in the U.S. Senate to examine the proposed deal and question experts, regulators, or company officials about it.

Sinclair In Iowa

Sinclair currently owns or operates nine local news stations in Iowa. If its merger with Tribune is approved by the FCC, Sinclair will gain a foothold in Davenport and gain a station in Des Moines-Ames, giving it a total of 12 stations the state.

In Iowa, Sinclair controls as much as 67% of local news stations in the markets where it operates. If the merger is approved, Sinclair will also control 40% of local news stations in Des Moines, the state’s largest market, and gain a foothold in Davenport.

Cedar Rapids-Waterloo-Dubuque, IA

Sinclair owns or operates two (50%) of the local news stations in this market.

  • KCRG-TV (ABC)
  • KFXA (FOX) – Sinclair Operated, Service Agreement
  • KGAN (CBS) – Sinclair Owned
  • KWWL (NBC)

Davenport, IA

Sinclair does not currently have a local news station in the Davenport market. If the proposed merger with Tribune Media is approved, Sinclair would own or operate 33% of the local news stations in this market.

  • WQAD (ABC) – Sinclair will acquire in Tribune merger.
  • MNTHD (MyNetwork TV) –Sinclair will acquire in Tribune merger.
  • KGCW (CW)
  • KLJB (FOX)
  • KWQC (NBC)
  • WHBF-TV (CBS)

Des Moines-Ames, IA

Sinclair owns or operates one (20%) of the local news stations in this market. If the Tribune merger were approved by the FCC, they would own or operate two (40%) of the local news stations in this market.

  • KCCI (CBS)
  • KCWI-TV (CW)
  • KDSM-TV (FOX) – Sinclair Owned
  • WHO-DT (NBC) – Sinclair will acquire in Tribune merger.
  • WOI-DT (ABC)

Ottumwa, IA / Kirksville, MO

Sinclair owns or operates two (67%) of the local news stations in this market.

  • KTVO (ABC) – Sinclair Owned
  • KTVO (CBS) – Sinclair Owned
  • KYOU-TV (FOX)

Quincy, IL/Hannibal, MO/Keokuk, IA

Sinclair owns or operates two (67%) of the local news stations in this market.

  • KHQA-TV (CBS) – Sinclair Owned
  • KHQA-TV (ABC) – Sinclair Owned
  • WGEM-TV (NBC)
  • Sioux City, IA

Sinclair owns or operates two (50%) of the local news stations in this market.

  • KCAU (ABC)
  • KMEG (CBS) – Sinclair Operated, Service Agreement
  • KPTH / KPTP (FOX) – Sinclair Owned
  • KTIV (NBC) 

Sinclair Holding Iowa Viewers Hostage

  • Mediacom Communications filed an antitrust lawsuit against Sinclair in 2006 for “holding [its] customers hostage” after Sinclair demanded one bundled payment from Mediacom for carrying the signals of stations in more than a dozen markets. [“Mediacom files lawsuit against Sinclair,” The Associated Press, 10/06/06; “Mediacom Communications Files Antitrust Suit Against Sinclair Broadcasting Group,” Business Wire, 10/06/06; M.D. Kittle, “TV war drags on; Mediacom hands out antennas and pleads for political support in dispute with Sinclair,” The Telegraph Herald, 01/09/07; “Mediacom CEO Calls on the U.S. Congress to Hold Hearings on Retransmission Consent Abuses and Sinclair Matter,” Business Wire, 01/13/07; Thomas P. Graves, “Iowa General Assembly Schedules Hearing on Discriminatory Practices of Sinclair Broadcast Group,” Business Wire, 01/12/07; “Week in review: 2 suspects in custody in armed burglary case,” The Telegraph Herald, 01/10/10]
  • Sinclair stations in Iowa and a dozen states were pulled from Mediacom’s cable lineup for several weeks because Sinclair demanded more money from Mediacom for programming retransmission. [Ryan Denham, “Fox 43 in jeopardy for some Mediacom, station owner in price tiff,” The Pantagraph, 12/29/09; Sinclair Broadcast Group, Press Release, 01/16/07; Steve Tarter, “Mediacom-Sinclair stalemate continues – Cable company plans Bears events at bars,” The Peoria Journal Star, 01/11/07]
  • The Iowa Cable & Telecommunications Association criticized Sinclair for not negotiating in good faith to keep its Iowa cable systems at reasonable prices, saying “it is obvious that Sinclair’s unilateral actions have discriminated against Iowans.” [Thomas P. Graves, “Legislation Needed to Protect Iowans from the Discriminatory Practices of Sinclair Broadcast Group,” Business Wire, 01/08/07]
  • After Sinclair pulled its broadcast from Mediacom’s cable lineup over a financial dispute, Mediacom spent “significant costs in equipment and overtime” out of its own company coffers to give customers in Iowa rabbit ear-style antennae so that they could continue viewing TV programming. [Jeff Wilford, “Mediacom customers seek antenna kits to view dropped channels,” Waterloo Courier,01/08/07]
  • During the blackout that resulted from Sinclair’s financial dispute with Mediacom, Iowa Hawkeyes fans became irate because they could not view Iowa sports games. [M.D. Kittle, “Hawkeyes fans crying foul; Mediacom cable subscribers miss game on TV thanks to fight with Sinclair,” Telegraph Herald, 01/26/07]
  • Some customers paid out of pocket for rabbit-ear antennae during the Sinclair-orchestrated blackout, leading David Sanders of Rantoul to note, “‘It’s not right for cable customers to become victims of a corporate war.’” [Tim Mitchell, “Mediacom-Sinclair dispute: Rural TV viewers lost without their ABC,” The News-Gazette, 01/09/07; Ryan Denham, “Fox 43 in jeopardy for some Mediacom, station owner in price tiff,” The Pantagraph, 12/29/09]

Sinclair’s History of Playing Politics

  • In March 2018, Sinclair anchors were required to recite “a script warning of ‘biased and false news’ — word for word” across the country. The video “stirred concerns about the reach of Sinclair… and about its pro-Trump bias.” In March 2018, Deadspin released a “chilling video featuring local news anchors of stations owned by the conservative television empire Sinclair Broadcast Group across the country reciting a script warning of “biased and false news” — word for word.” The video “stirred concerns about the reach of Sinclair, which owns or operates nearly 200 television stations across the country, and about its pro-Trump bias disguised in what many unassuming viewers may believe to be run-of-the-mill local news.” [Timothy Burke, “How America’s Largest Local TV Owner Turned Its News Anchors Into Soldiers In Trump’s War On The Media,” Deadspin, 03/31/18 and Emily Stewart, “Watch: dozens of local TV anchors read the same anti-“false news” script in unison,” Vox, 04/02/18]
  • Since 2015, “Sinclair has ordered its stations to run a daily segment from a ‘Terrorism Alert Desk’ with updates on terrorism-related news around the world.” “More recently, Sinclair asked stations to run a short segment in which Scott Livingston, the company’s vice president for news, accused the national news media of publishing ‘fake news stories.’” “Sinclair’s willingness to use its stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda” has drawn concern from “some of its journalists concerned about intrusive direction from headquarters.” [Sydney Ember, “Sinclair Requires TV Stations to Air Segments That Tilt to the Right,” The New York Times, 05/12/07]
  • One Sinclair employee claimed Sinclair devoted corporate resources to a story because it affected Vice President Duncan Smith’s property. An April 17, 2001 broadcast on WBFF-Baltimore “covered efforts by environmental groups to clean up the North Branch of the Potomac River in western Maryland,” so far from WBFF’s Baltimore headquarters (160 miles) that locals couldn’t even tune into the story. The employee said that WBFF’s producer, Craig Demchak, was approached by Sinclair VP J. Duncan Smith, who said, “‘”Craig, we need this story, it’s affecting my property. We’ve got to slam these people.”‘” The staffer added, “‘If it had been anybody else’s property, would they be sending the helicopter there to see it? No way in hell.’” The newscast also featured an interview with “a representative of Safe Waterways in Maryland (SWIM), an advocacy group founded by” Duncan Smith. [Paul Schmelzer, “Sinclair Broadcast: The Puppetmasters,” AlterNet, 02/16/05; Safe Waterways in Maryland, 06/07/04, accessed via archive.org]
  • After his arrest for soliciting a prostitute, Sinclair Chairman David Smith cut an “unusual” plea deal; as part of the agreement, Smith “ordered his newsroom employees to produce a series of reports on a local drug counseling program, which counted toward Smith’s court-ordered community service.” According to a former Sinclair reporter, “‘The judge was outraged. He said, ‘How can employees do community service for their boss?’” [Eric Klinenberg, “Beyond ‘Fair and Balanced,’” Rolling Stone, 02/24/05; Eric Boehlert, “Sleaze and smear at Sinclair,” Salon, 10/22/04]
  • In February 2004, Sinclair sent a news crew to Iraq to report on what it claimed “are the positive, ‘untold stories’ that the ‘liberal media’” didn’t report. Sinclair executive and commentator Mark Hyman and Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman, painted “a picture of a world where the United States – largely through the presence of troops – has improved the lives of millions, in ways large and small.” That April, “Sinclair pulled an edition of ABC News’ Nightline from seven ABC stations because it was devoted to reading the names of troops killed in Iraq,” claiming that the segment “was intended to hurt President Bush” and appeared “‘to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.’” The decision resulted in “a torrent of protest” “from viewers, media watchdog groups,” and Senator John McCain, who called the move “‘deeply offensive.’” [David Folkenflik, “In Iraq, going for the upbeat,” The Baltimore Sun, 02/18/04; David Folkenflik, “Sinclair’s TV program on Kerry is called illegal donation to Bush,” The Baltimore Sun, 10/12/04; Bill Carter, “THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAQ: THE MEDIA; Debate Over ‘Nightline’ Tribute to War Dead Grows, as McCain Weighs In,” The New York Times, 05/01/04]
  • Sinclair faced controversy for its plans to air “a documentary attacking Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry’s military record just before the” 2004 presidential election. The documentary alleged “that North Vietnamese captors used Kerry’s statements about atrocities committed by American troops during the conflict as an excuse to torture U.S. prisoners of war.” Sinclair planned to run the program on all its 62 stations, but backed down after Democrats argued that airing the anti-Kerry documentary amounted “to an illegal corporate campaign contribution to President Bush” and there were “calls for an advertiser boycott.” Instead, Sinclair aired excerpts of the documentary during “a program that analysts said was more balanced.” [Paul Farhi, “Under new ownership, WJLA-TV takes a slight turn to the right,” The Washington Post, 09/16/14; David Folkenflik, “Sinclair’s TV program on Kerry is called illegal donation to Bush,” The Baltimore Sun, 10/12/04; William Booth, “Docu-Trauma; For Political Films, the Box Office Is More Bombo Than Boffo,” The Washington Post, 11/02/04; “Federal Elections Commission Finds No Violation By Sinclair; Complaint by the DNC is Dismissed,” PR Newswire US, 07/28/05]
  • Sinclair commentator Mark Hyman—then Sinclair’s vice president of corporate relations—announced “that any network that refused to air the anti-Kerry documentary were ‘acting like Holocaust deniers.’ He also said that even if the documentary was a gift to Bush, the effect was balanced by the existence of suicide bombers in the Middle East, since after all, ‘Every car bomb in Iraq would be considered an in-kind contribution to John Kerry.’” [Wil S. Hylton, “Not Necessarily the News,” GQ, 11/06/05]
  • Sinclair fired its Washington bureau chief, Jon Leiberman, after he spoke out against the anti-John Kerry documentary, calling it “‘biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election.’” Sinclair sued Leiberman for damages a year later, alleging that he had violated his contract by speaking publicly against the company. Sinclair threatened legal action after Leiberman began working at a Baltimore radio station, alleging it violated a noncompete clause in his contract. Sinclair Chairman David Smith also personally “protested a decision by the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication to give Leiberman a special professional citation.” [Nick Madigan, “Sinclair sues ex-employee for damages, pact violation,” The Baltimore Sun, 10/20/05; Nick Madigan, “TV reporter files lawsuit against Sinclair over his dismissal; Leiberman alleged bias in Kerry documentary,” The Baltimore Sun, 12/09/05]
  • Sinclair “produced two infomercials timed to coincide with the 2010 and 2012 elections,” which were criticized as an attempt “to influence political views days before an election.” Less than a week before the 2010 election, Sinclair stations aired Breaking Point: 25 Minutes that Will Change America on stations in a number of swing states. The “vicious 25-minute infomercial” referred to President Obama as a “‘socialist,’” claimed that “the views of Democrats are ‘far too extreme for Americans to accept,’” and “accused President Obama of raising campaign cash from” “the terrorist group Hamas.” The National Republican Trust PAC, which paid for the infomercial, claimed, “This film will change this election and catapult Conservatives into Congress if enough voters see it before Election Day.” [Chuck Tryon, Political TVNew York: Routledge, 2016; “Fox affiliates run infomercial in swing states suggesting Obama funded by Hamas, wants to ‘kill some crackers,’” RawStory, 11/01/10; National Republican Trust PAC, 11/16/13 accessed via archive.org]
  • In late 2013, “after The Seattle Times wrote an editorial criticizing Sinclair’s purchase of KOMO, Sinclair ordered KOMO to do a story critical of the newspaper industry, and of The Seattle Times in particular.” In January 2017, “KOMO journalists were surprised” when the “station’s news director, who normally avoided overtly political stories, instructed his staff to look into an online ad that seemed to be recruiting paid protesters for President Trump’s inauguration.” The ad had been “seized on” by “right-leaning media organizations” “as proof of coordinated efforts by the left to subvert” Trump. Apparently, “the order had come down from Sinclair.” [Sydney Ember, “Sinclair Requires TV Stations to Air Segments That Tilt to the Right,” The New York Times, 05/12/17]
  • After being purchased by Sinclair in 2014, WJLA-TV, Washington’s ABC affiliate, Sinclair began “a partnership with the editorially conservative Washington Times to feature content” from the newspaper. WJLA employees alleged that “some of the stories ordered by Sinclair on a ‘must-run’ basis don’t meet the station’s long tradition of non-partisan reporting.” [Paul Farhi, “Under new ownership, WJLA-TV takes a slight turn to the right,” The Washington Post, 09/16/14]
  • During the 2016 campaign, Sinclair “gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump” and portrayed Hillary Clinton “in an unfavorable light.” Sinclair, whose “internal documents” showed a “strong tilt toward Trump,” scored 11 “‘exclusive’” interviews with Trump during the final three months of the campaign “in critical states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio,” 10 with Mike Pence, and 10 with other Trump surrogates. Two days prior to the Wisconsin primary, “Sinclair managers asked Sinclair-affiliated stations in Green Bay and Madison, Wis., to air extended portions” of a Trump interview. [Paul Farhi, “How a giant TV company helped Trump’s campaign,” The Washington Post, 12/22/16]
  • Sinclair, in the months leading up to the 2016 general election, required its stations to run “news stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton.” Local “stations were required by managers in Washington to make room in their evening newscasts or morning programs for” features such as, “‘Why did Hillary Clinton struggle with disclosing her medical diagnosis?’” and “‘Donald Trump Reflections of 9/11,’ which also included a package in which Ivanka Trump discussed what she would do in a Trump administration.” [Paul Farhi, “How a giant TV company helped Trump’s campaign,” The Washington Post, 12/22/16]

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