Film and TV

Rupert Murdoch May Buy Fox31 Before Group Ripped by John Oliver Can

In July, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver took on the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which was on the verge of purchasing Fox31 and CW2 — though that deal may be off.
In July, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver took on the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which was on the verge of purchasing Fox31 and CW2 — though that deal may be off. HBO via YouTube
The announced purchase of Denver's Fox31 and CW2 by the controversial Sinclair Broadcast Group, which was memorably ripped by HBO's John Oliver for allegedly forcing its hard-right ideology on affiliates while attempting to build a conservative media empire capable of becoming a stealth Fox News, may not happen.

Fresh reports suggest that in a bid to win FCC approval for its May 2017 purchase of 42 outlets owned by Tribune Media, Sinclair is on the cusp of selling ten of them, including the two Denver outlets, to 21st Century Fox and mogul Rupert Murdoch, who in a surprising twist suddenly looks to some observers like the lesser of two evils.

In July, Oliver dismantled Sinclair, which was on the cusp of becoming the largest single group of television stations in the nation. As the host of Last Week Tonight pointed out, Sinclair was already using its stations to spread a conservative message via commentaries by former executive Mark Hyman, whose subject matter has included attacks on so-called snowflakes and a defense of the Washington Redskins football team for refusing to replace a name that many people view as racist. Sinclair's mix also included Boris Epshteyn, a former adviser to President Donald Trump whose own invective flies with the right wing.

Oliver pointed out that Sinclair designated these packages as "must-run," meaning that affiliates have to include them in newscasts, whether local managers want to do so or not. Likewise, Sinclair also mandated that local stations air updates from its "Terrorism Alert Desk," many of which were dubiously sourced; Oliver highlighted one story about ISIS chopping victims in half that was never confirmed by any credible news or government agency.

Less than two weeks after Oliver's jeremiad, Fox31/CW2 news director Holly Gauntt jumped ship to Denver7. While Gauntt has never publicly confirmed that the prospect of having Sinclair handlers dictate portions of her broadcasts was a factor in her decision, the timing of her leap certainly suggests a connection.

Months later, federal regulators still haven't signed off on Sinclair's Tribune acquisitions, which are valued at $3.9 billion. But outlets such as the Financial Times and TV Spy are reporting that Murdoch, who has entered into an agreement to sell 21st Century Fox to Disney and is eager to build the portfolio of his local TV station group, to be dubbed New Fox, is in the midst of finalizing the purchase of ten outlets, including Fox31 and CW2.

News director Holly Gauntt jumped from Fox31 and CW2 to Denver7 shortly after the Sinclair deal was announced.
The deal isn't done yet; it's contingent on the FCC's approving the Sinclair-Tribune pact. The theory is that reducing the total number of stations involved by nearly a quarter will earn the regulators' blessing.

History implies that Murdoch might be a better owner of the outlets than Sinclair. Circa the mid-1990s, Fox31 was owned and operated by Fox Television Stations, but its news operation remained objective and credible rather than deteriorating into an ideological screed machine. That remained the case through 2007, when, as we reported in a post headlined "Rupert Murdoch's Foxy Move," the chairman peddled Fox31 in advance of his buying the Wall Street Journal.

If Murdoch takes the same approach to Fox31 (and CW2) as he did the first time around, the results are likely to produce better news than would be the case if Sinclair comes to town. The devil you know....
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts