In the first half of the show, cohost Mickey Huff sits down with attorney Art Belendiuk and media activist and journalist Sue Wilson to talk about the poisoning of our airwaves, with propaganda. Art and Sue outline a case in Baltimore that highlights how media corporation Sinclair is trying to control what we hear and see, and how the FCC is failing in its responsibility to regulate media giants to serve the public interest. In the second half of the show, Eleanor Goldfield quotes from a recent conversation with Yemen-based freelance journalist Ahmed Abdulkareem about what’s happening in his home country, the reasoning behind it, how the people feel, and what the future might hold, particularly in terms of US hegemony in the region.
Sue Wilson is an award-winning journalist, and the producer of the documentary Broadcast Blues. She also leads the Media Action Center. Her recent in-depth article about the Sinclair scandal can be read here. Art Belendiuk is a communications-law attorney with decades of experience. Ahmed Abdulkareem is a freelance Yemeni journalist.
Correction: Sinclair has close to but not more than 39% of the national audience, but they do dominate more local stations in dozens of markets than FCC rules allow.
Video of Interview with Sue Wilson and Art Belendiuk
Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Sue Wilson and Art Belendiuk
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Mickey Huff: Welcome to the Project Censored show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. FCC regulators play the shell game with broadcasters. What really happened in the Sinclair Tribune FCC investigation? That’s the title of a new long form dispatch at Project Censored written by Sue Wilson.
Sue Wilson is an Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist now working to hold the U.S. government and corporate media accountable for their corrosive effects on democracy. She’s a writer, producer, director of the award winning public interest pictures documentary on the media, Broadcast Blues, and reveals the structural schisms in corporate media at Sue Wilson Reports. Wilson heads the Media Action Center, which forced Entercom to surrender its 13.5 million broadcast license for its 2007 killing of Jennifer Strange in an on air contest. Wilson filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case FCC v. Prometheus Radio, excerpts of which are included in her comments to the FCC Quadrennial Review. Sue Wilson, welcome to the Project Censored Show today.
Sue Wilson: Thank you, Mickey, for having me.
Mickey Huff: We are also joined by Arthur Belendiuk, who started his legal career as an attorney with the Common Carrier Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission. Art has been in private practice for over 40 years. His practice is limited exclusively to communications law, and since 1988, Art has been a partner with his Washington, D.C. firm of Smithwick and Belendiuk, P. C. Art, Belendiuk, welcome to the Project Censored Show today.
Art Belendiuk: Hi, how are you? Thank you for having me.
Mickey Huff: It is an honor to have the both of you here, and we have what turns out to be a complicated story, but it’s certainly one that really goes kind of the core of what it means to be a democratic republic and the role that the free press plays in safeguarding us, safeguarding we, the people.
Sue Wilson, you begin your article by saying the airwaves, the air belongs to us, but they are trying to take it away, and in this case, who are they? We’re wondering who they are. Well, this is the corporate media owners, right? So, Sue Wilson, let’s begin with you and talk about this issue of media ownership, FCC regulation, and how everything’s not always what it seems in terms of how ownership rules are enforced, and how the public can actually hold the owners of, the lessors of these airwaves, how we can remind corporate media that these actually belong to the people and in the public interest. Sue Wilson, tell us about this really important case that you’re working on.
Sue Wilson: Well, Mickey, first, you know, I want to kind of ask the listening public here just one really simple question: does anybody think that the media is working for us?
I can hear it now. Everybody’s screaming. “No!” Everybody knows it’s not working for us. And it should be, okay? Now let’s face it. There’s a lot of media that we can’t control. We can’t control Facebook. We can’t control X or whatever it’s called. We don’t really control newspapers, but there’s this one little area of media that we actually do own, and it’s broadcasting. And I understand that, you know, we’re on the radio right now, so your listeners here are really getting that. But there’s a lot of people thinking, well, broadcasting, that’s really old fashioned.
Yeah, but it’s ours. And you might be driving an old car, and the guy across the street might have a Lamborghini that’s brand new. You can’t worry about how to take care of his Lamborghini. You gotta worry about taking care of your car. That’s what we have. Broadcasting literally belongs to us because they broadcast these, the very program we’re on right now goes over the air on very small frequencies. And in order to have the right to broadcast on that air, these giant stations have to go and get a radio license. They’re licensed just like we’re licensed to drive a car at the DMV. And if we don’t follow the rules of the road, we can lose our licenses. And just like that, if the big broadcasters don’t follow the rules of the road, they can lose their licenses.
Except that almost never happens, but we’re trying to make that a little more accessible for we the people. Okay. And then there’s another concept about DMV as well. What if the DMV, all of a sudden decided to limit the number of driver’s licenses that we all could have, meaning because there’s only so many frequencies in this air, so only so many people can get licensed to have a broadcast station, right?
Think about if you went down to your local DMV and they said, well, I’m sorry, but I gave all the licenses to my buddies. There’s nothing left for you. Well, guess what? That’s kind of what the FCC is doing within the broadcast industry.
And that’s what this very long piece I wrote really gets into in great detail. It’s a game that they’ve been playing and especially with the broadcast network called Sinclair Broadcasting, letting them have way, way, way more broadcast stations than the law allows. And let’s be clear. The law says these broadcasters, the frequencies belong to us, and that in order to have the privilege of broadcasting, you have to serve the public.
That’s the law. The FCC hasn’t done such a very good job of enforcing that, and in fact, they’re really in the bed, especially with Sinclair to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Mickey Huff: So Sue Wilson, you know, that’s an extraordinary claim, one backed by mountains of evidence historically. I mean, you’ve been involved in these issues around the FCC and the people’s airwaves and corporations sort of using them in their interest, not the public interest. So this is something that we, the people have at our access. This is a part of our civic engagement.
Art Belendiuk, might want to bring you in here just briefly to touch on one of the things that Sue said, legally that you’re saying that these are our airwaves and that there are rules, and the reason I want to bring this up and maybe Art can talk about this, and Sue you certainly can.
We did a piece last fall and Art Belendiuk, I believe you’re connected to this case Steve Macek did a piece on Fox, the Fox news affiliate in Philadelphia and challenges to the broadcast license there.
We’re now talking to you about a challenge happening with Sinclair in Baltimore. The reason I want to bring this up is this is the legal means by which we the people have to safeguard and check that these companies are operating in the public interest. So this is not censorship. This is not the people are taking away broadcast licenses from a from a company because they don’t like the news they’re producing. There’s actually technical legal issues involved where these companies are violating those rules and if you could talk a little bit to that Art and maybe Sue you too.
The reason I’m bringing that up is that we received some criticism at Project Censored because folks said, Oh, you just don’t like Fox News. You’re just trying to get them off the air. You just don’t like Sinclair. You’re just trying to get these cut. You’re just trying to censor the views that you don’t like. You’re not going after, you know, MSNBC or something else. Or you’re not going after CBS for one of their reports. So you’re not going as somebody else.
So come on in here, Art. Talk to our audience a little bit about this, about the legalese and about the fact that this is well within the right of we the people to challenge this.
This is not a form of censorship. Art.
Art Belendiuk: Every, every citizen has a right to petition the government, right? And broadcasters, what they say is, well, we have a First Amendment right. And absolutely they do. But they also, because they are licensed, they also have a responsibility to serve the public interest.
And the Supreme Court, in a very famous case, at least for broadcast attorneys, called Red Lion vs. FCC, said that the rights of the listeners or the viewers is paramount to the rights of the broadcast. So, yes, broadcasters do have a right to broadcast, but they have to do so in a way that serves their local community.
And that’s really what Sue is saying, right? There’s this huge disconnect. We no longer have to serve the local community. We don’t provide local news. We provide some sort of national news. In the case of Fox, we don’t provide news at all. We just make it up as we go along. You know, so it’s all that kind of stuff that we’re addressing.
Every citizen, and there’s nothing that Fox or Sinclair or anyone else can do, if you sit down, you want to write a letter to the FCC. The FCC also has rulemakings and dockets. You can, it’s so easy, it’s one of the few things that on the FCC website that actually works really well. You can go into a docketed proceeding, for example, they’re doing net neutrality right now, and you can file your comments as a citizen.
Doesn’t have to be formal, you don’t need a lawyer. Just say, hey, this is what I think, this is what I want. You have absolutely that right, and at least in theory, the FCC is supposed to listen to you.
Mickey Huff: Okay, so Sue Wilson, let’s go back to you. And so what exactly is this case about in Baltimore, around Sinclair, and the FCC? Start unpacking this. Again, it is a long piece. People can read it for free at ProjectCensored.org. But Sue Wilson, walk us into this and help us start understanding what’s at stake here.
Sue Wilson: Well, several years ago, Sinclair Broadcasting wanted to merge with Tribune Media. It would have created a real giant monopoly over the local broadcast stations.
And everybody thought it would sail through because that’s normally what happens, but surprise, surprise, surprise, the FCC’s own Republican chair, Ajit Pai, called a hearing going, wait a minute, something doesn’t smell right with this. And in fact, what they said is whether Sinclair was the real party in interest with the WDM, KDAF, and KIH applications.
What they’re talking about here, they’re smelling the rat and understanding that, and Art can describe this better than I can, but what Sinclair has done is they have created what a lot of people call sidecar companies. I would call them front companies. Why don’t I toss it to Art to describe this.
Art Belendiuk: So what happens is through a series of agreements, the company like Sinclair can take over another company. It owns it pretty much lock, stock, and barrel, and the FCC has turned a blind eye to that.
In the merger with Tribune because it was so large the FCC said, look guys, you really do need to get rid of some of these television stations. And Sinclair said, sure, no problem. We’ve got these front companies that we can offload them. And that even for the FCC, that was just too much, right? And so they set them for hearing to determine whether they had, a) lied to the commission and whether these truly were front companies, which of course they were.
Once that happened, Sinclair had no place to go. There was no way it was going to address that issue in open court. And it immediately dropped its attempt to acquire Tribune, which was a big win. But more importantly, those unresolved issues, the misrepresentation, lack of candor, those issues remained and still had to be resolved. And this is where Sue came in with the FOIA request.
Maybe I’ll turn it over to Sue and she can explain, and I’ll pop in a little later.
Sue Wilson: Well, thanks, Art. And you know, we have to go back even to the judge. There was a judge that was going to hear that initial case that Ajit Pai had ordered. And she actually said that the behavior of a multiple station owner before the commission may be so fundamental to a licensee’s operation that it’s relevant to have qualifications to hold any station license. And she was specifically calling for – we have to have a hearing on this, and that hearing could come in the form of another petition to deny the renewal of stations.
Now, I want to get into this FOIA thing and at the end, I want to talk though about the case that has been languishing that Art has at the FCC for three years.
That’s the case that should bubble to the top and resolve all these issues. But let’s find out what the FCC really did. All right, we filed this Freedom of Information Act request. It took more than two years of litigation to finally pry these documents out of the FCC’s hands. All right. Now, the FCC…
Art Belendiuk: Sue, can I interrupt for a second?
You’re getting there, but I think you need to explain to your audience. These issues, these misrepresentation issues were left hanging. And so what Sinclair did was it ran to the commission and said, you got to make these issues go away. And so they had this secret procedure, which no one was allowed to participate in. No one, this is the government that serves us right? All of this was secret.
Sinclair produced some paper, the FCC looked at and said, boy, if we had only seen this in the first place, oh, we wouldn’t even designated you for hearing. It was all just one big misunderstanding, but you guys got to be more careful. So pay us $48 million and go on your merry ways.
And that’s where Sue came in and said, no, no, we want to see these documents, right. And the commission said, no documents. What? No, no, no, you don’t get to see the documents, you know, surely you’re kidding . And that’s where we got into a two year litigation over the document.
Sue go ahead.
Sue Wilson: You know, doing my research for this piece, I discovered the dirty little secret. And the dirty little secret is that these regulators, and this is not the full commission, the five commissioners we so often hear about, these are the bureaucrats who have their job for 20, 30, 40 years at the FCC.
And what happens is big broadcasters like the NAB start inviting them to their parties and their conventions, and the state conferences invite them and pretty soon the regulators are all partying with the regulated. And so it’s very easy then for them to say, well, we’re just going to go behind these closed doors because we’re all buddies here, we’re just going to settle this on our own. And who’s ever going to know?
One of the key pieces I found too, is that it’s gotten so bad, this dynamic has gotten so bad that the FCC now has different rules for different companies. As my friend Art Belendiuk says all the time, they have one set of rules for Sinclair and a different set for everybody else.
There’s a lawyer named Steve Lovelady who wrote about this saying they don’t even have any rules written down. They just decide what rules they want to apply to you or you or you. And Sinclair apparently gets the big pass. But let’s talk about what we learned from these 450 pages of documents that we got –
Mickey Huff: Which are linked to the article. I just want to make sure that folks know that this is very meticulously sourced and linked. So if folks want to go and read the article at projectcensored.org and other places online, I am encouraging you to check that out because all the things that Sue and Art are talking about are linked there.
Go ahead, Sue. I’m sorry.
Sue Wilson: Thank you very much for that. First of all, they wanted to examine Sinclair’s finances. And what we learned behind closed doors that Sinclair is not providing what they call gap financials. And I’m going to ask Art if he would talk about that.
Art Belendiuk: Okay, sure. More importantly, what happened was they had to come in and address the misrepresentation issue, that is that they’re not in control. And so, the FCC said, well, produce documents, show us why you’re not in control, right? And, of course, the documents were just garbage. I mean, it was just stuff that they filled in. It was some 450 pages. Now in a little AM proceeding, they got what 16,000 or 19,000 pages of documents at a little AM station.
Here’s a company that has a hundred television stations. They were happy with 450 pages, but here’s what happened. You know, you would think they would ask for audited finances. Were they audited? No. Were they produced under generally accepted accounting principles, something that I have to do for my law firm or my business? No, right?
They use something called broadcast cash flow. And broadcast cash flow is something you use to create estimates of what you think your business is going to do. It’s garbage in, garbage out. So they came up with this set of broadcast cash flow numbers. They provided some documents and some publicly available documents and the commission said, well, that’s fine.
Well, how does that address the misrepresentation issue? How does that address the control issue over these other stations, right? What control do they have?
Well, they, in Cunningham, they set Cunningham, which is supposedly an independent company, they set the president’s salary, right? They set the budget for the television stations that Cunningham has. So to be clear, Cunningham cannot change a light bulb at a station without Sinclair’s approval. That’s nonsense. There’s no indication that Cunningham in any way is independent. They have a long set of options that allow them to buy out Cunningham at any time. And even though they can’t own Cunningham, they can assign their right to buy it out to someone else.
So the first time that the nominal owner of Cunningham’s, you know what Sinclair, I disagree with you. They’ll say, that’s fine, you’re fired. Because really you’re fired is exactly what they’re going to say, right? What this guy does? I don’t know. I think he is paid a modest salary for signing documents that are put in front of him.
And that’s what Sue discovered, right? What she discovered was there was nothing there, right? There was no one. There was no one behind the curtain, right? That’s what she discovered.
Sue Wilson: Well, I want to go back to these options for a minute, because this is very important. It was widely reported that in this Sinclair Tribune merger, and they were using, setting up a new front company called WGN TV, to purchase WGN Superstation, which everybody remembers, right?
And it was widely reported that they would have an 8 year option to repurchase that station. They, meaning Sinclair, would have an 8 year option to repurchase that station from WGN TV. But if you look at the fine print, and indeed Newsmax filed its own petition to deny these broadcast licenses said it in their petition, that comes with five additional eight year option periods.
You add it all together, Sinclair has a half a century option to purchase these stations that they pretend they don’t control.
Art Belendiuk: Well, and if the owner refuses to renew that option after 48 years, if he’s still around, they can just fire him and find someone else. It’s an option in perpetuity. And the commission said, yeah, nothing wrong here.
Nothing to see.
Sue Wilson: Yeah. And one of the things that struck me most, there’s one particular document that I really worked through. And 13 times, and remember, we’re talking about the regulated partying with the regulator, they put it in writing. Sinclair is telling the FCC, well, you always let us do this before: 13 different facts that they were responding to. Well, you let us do that before, you let us do this before. This has been a game that has been perpetrated, and accelerated by the FCC itself.
Mickey Huff: And so, because Art, you have this petition, this is why they’re being called back to the table again and again? I mean, again, this is basically Sinclair saying, like, we don’t understand what’s going on. Because the rules weren’t being enforced and now there’s obviously a wrench thrown in the works.
Art Belendiuk: Yeah, that petition covers that plus other indicia of control. I use Cunningham as a shorthand. They’ve got about a half dozen front companies, they use Cunningham as the biggest one.
But we came in and we said, look, this indicia of control, and we said, look at what they’re telling the Securities and Exchange Commission. They’re telling the Securities and Exchange Commission that we’re in control of these stations, at least financially. So at least one of the indicia of control that we control financially, that’s there.
They control financing, they control programming, they control personnel. Right, so all the indicia of control are there.
We put that to the FCC, we filed that in a petition, and it’s been sitting there for three years. The renewal cycle is eight years. So I don’t expect to see a decision for at least another five years.
I may not live that long. I’ve got a lot of gray hair.
Mickey Huff: Well, Art, I mean, I just want to pause for one minute on that point, Art, and not the gray hair that we have and all the other things we share. But I imagine we share a legal concern that how is it that these stations just basically get a pass, they just basically have a rubber stamp renewal period and they can go on for eight years, years at a time?
I mean, it wasn’t always this way.
Art Belendiuk: So, in Baltimore ,you’re allowed to own one television station. In certain markets you can own up to two. The rule’s complicated, I won’t go into it for your audience.
Here’s what they got: Sinclair is operating three stations, and if those are not owned and operated, then I don’t know what I’ve spent the last 40 years doing.
Right? They’re clearly under Sinclair’s control, within any interpretation of the FCC’s rules.
Mickey Huff: So, Sue Wilson, let’s bring you in here. You conclude the document by talking about Sinclair’s CEO, David Smith. You talk about his interesting business associate, Stephen Fader.
Basically at the end too, you’re saying there’s a time for a reckoning. So can you talk to us here? We have about four minutes left. Can you kind of talk to us about where we are and a little bit more about the CEO of Sinclair David Smith?
Sue Wilson: Oh, yeah. Well, David Smith, yeah. He, he’d set up his buddy, a car dealer buddy to run WGN. This is a guy who runs car lots. He never ran a broadcast station in his life. Somehow he is going to be operating this.
But I think what’s really important here is that at this point, the petition to deny that Art has in Baltimore is critically important to tear the band aid off of this whole wound and clean it out.
And I must add that, you know, David Smith just bought the Baltimore Sun. Now remember, Sinclair’s Corporate headquarters are located where? In Baltimore. So now they have one newspaper plus three TV stations in Baltimore. Once upon a time, there were rules against that. You couldn’t do that, but the FCC keeps changing their rules. So bottom line, it’s time for us, as we the people, to start exercising our muscle power.
It’s time for us to start shouting at the FCC saying, look at that petition to deny. And it’s even time for people like me to be teaching people like all of you listening, how you can step up and file your own petitions to deny.
Mickey Huff: Now, I think that’s important. Go ahead, Art Belendiuk, please come in.
Art Belendiuk: I just want to say one thing in defense of Fader. He’s much more qualified than David Smith’s mother, who used to run Cunningham and had no broadcast experience, and Anderson, who used to be a financial guy and also had no broadcast experience, right? That’s who they put up.
Mickey Huff: Yeah, which is an indicator that these are financial arrangements. There’s no real journalistic integrity or ethics or desire to inform the public or any of these things.
Sue Wilson: And think about this. Think about the impact of one station far exceeding the 39 percent limit. The law says one broadcast station can only reach 39 percent of audiences watching television. And the reason for that is to prevent propaganda, from preventing our air from being poisoned. Okay?
And instead what’s happening is that broadcasters are steamrolling with the FCC to just allow one great big broadcaster to propagandize the United States of America. They’re poisoning our air and we gotta fight against that.
Mickey Huff: And yeah, and I’m following the metaphor and you know, Sinclair was the company that infamously had the top down marching orders where everybody at all the stations read exactly the same thing about their concern for information control and their concern, and it’s like, I mean, the irony is just, it’s just.
Art Belendiuk: They were running commercials during the news. Not in breaks, but in other words, as news.
Mickey Huff: Yeah. Yeah. Like ads as news. Yeah. We see that more and more. We’ve covered the issue of pink slime in the era of news deserts. This is even more problematic because you can have these, basically kind of front companies setting up as news orgs in communities.
We the people, as you always say, Sue, these are our airwaves. We’re the ones that suffer and we need to, well, we need to clean the air. We need to clear the air in a lot of ways. And I appreciate that analysis that you’ve had for us.
And it’s also important that, I know, even though we’re talking about Sinclair right now, and we talked about Fox before, the state of the corporate media in the U.S. is in a remarkably bad place.
It’s not just that it’s Sinclair and Fox. MSNBC and CNN promote their own kinds of propaganda and mis- and disinformation, but this program today and this segment is specifically looking at the ownership issues and FCC oversight and regulations.
And so I don’t want our listeners to lose sight of that, right? Because it’s really easy for people to say, well, you know, Fox and Sinclair are low hanging fruit, but you let all the other ones off. No, we don’t let anybody off the hook at Project Censored. But this issue is very specific, it’s legal, it involves federal regulating agency bodies that should be working for we the people.
Sue Wilson and Art Belendiuk are doing tireless, often thankless work, and often without pay to expose this kind of corruption and to try to educate the American public as to how this works now, versus how it could work or should have been working historically, meaning in the public interest.
I know we don’t have much time left, but I do want to give you all a quick 30 seconds. Art Belendiuk, anything you want to share about people following your work or the case or any last words for you and then we’ll go to Sue Wilson. Art?
Art Belendiuk: You’re welcome to contact me, I think it’s important if you’re listening to this, and you think this is something you want to be involved in, then contact the FCC.
In the Fox case, there were so many comments, they designated a docket, which makes it real easy. It’s docket 23 to 93. You can go in there and file your comments and that’s a really important way to be active and to let the regulators know that you’re watching what they’re doing.
They can’t be doing this stuff behind closed doors.
Mickey Huff: Very important. Sue Wilson, from you, final words and places where people can follow your work in this important case.
Sue Wilson: I just want to say to everybody out there, remember that if you turn on your radio or your local TV stations, that information, that belongs to you.
And I want to really let you know that, you know, shout about what’s wrong. Meet with your local broadcasters. If they won’t go along with what seemed to be reasonable demands, we have been very successful in the town of Sacramento and getting local broadcasters to do simple things like putting five minutes of political election news on in 60 days before an election, but it took six years for us to do that.
But you can have impact locally and also you can have impact with the FCC. What I’d encourage you to do, especially on the Sinclair case, contact the FCC and say, WTF, come on, why aren’t you hearing this?
Mickey Huff: So Sue Wilson, yeah, WTFCC for sure. Sue Wilson, Media Action Center, Art Belendiuk, thank you both so much for joining us today about this very important issue.
You can read this piece in all of its detail at projectcensored.org. FCC regulators play the shell game with broadcasters. What really happened in the Sinclair Tribune FCC investigation? Art Belendiuk, Sue Wilson, we’ll be contacting you again later on in the spring or summer and hopefully see some updates in this case. Art and Sue, thanks so much for joining us on the Project Censored show today.
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