WASHINGTON — Nexstar Media Group’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media, which would make it a broadcast giant with more than 200 stations, got a chilly reception from a key House Democrat expected to lead an antitrust subcommittee when the party takes control in the next Congress.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said in a statement the merger “would create the largest local television station owner in the country — a single gatekeeper of local news for most American households.”
“In addition to eliminating direct competition in more than a dozen local markets, this merger would undoubtedly lead to mass layoffs in newsrooms at a time when our free and diverse press is already under assault,” he said.
“Media consolidation does not just raise the specter of less choice and higher prices—protecting and promoting competition in local news markets is critical to our democracy and holding power to account,” he added.
Cicilline has been ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, and is in line to chair the panel when Democrats take control in January.
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Nexstar already owns more than 170 stations that cover almost 39% of U.S. households. Media companies cannot amass holdings that exceed that 39% figure, although they get a discount for their UHF stations. Nexstar also said it will present a plan to divest stations in 13 markets where it has significant overlap with Tribune outlets.
Cicilline did not say whether he would call for a hearing on the transaction, as has been typical for some major media mergers. Regulatory approval, however, is not in the hands of Congress, but the FCC, while the Justice Department also examines transactions to gauge their effect on competition.
Republicans declined to hold a hearing on Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed acquisition of Tribune, but the deal fell apart after the FCC decided to send it to an administrative law judge for review.
Cicilline said, “Without competition, corporate monopolies can influence public opinion by injecting or withholding information from voters and elected officials, as we have seen with Sinclair’s political abuse of local news stations.”
He was referring to Sinclair’s right-leaning op eds that are run across its station platforms. Some public interest groups have pointed to the practice as an example of the threat that consolidation poses to localism.
“We cannot allow this result to happen, and we should all be deeply skeptical of any threat to the livelihood and vibrancy of local journalism,” Cicilline said. “We need more competition than before, not less, to create an economy that has more choices, better jobs, and more accountability.”
A committee spokesman for Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), expected to chair the House Energy & Commerce Committee, also raised concerns about the merger’s impact on media consolidation.
“Such a transaction should be reviewed meticulously to ensure it benefits consumers and the public interest,” he said.”Committee members will take a close look at the proposed merger next year.”