clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sinclair, the pro-Trump, conservative company taking over local news, explained

Sinclair reaches 40 percent of households — and soon will reach 72 percent.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

This month, the 193 local TV affiliates owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group began running a series of promotional segments, warning of a scourge of “fake news” promoted by “members of the media [who] use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’”

The segments, which echo the Trump administration’s anti-media rhetoric, are eerily uniform across all Sinclair affiliates, so much so that Deadspin’s Timothy Burke was able to edit them together into a supercut showing dozens of Sinclair anchors saying the exact same words.

The video is just the most recent example of Sinclair stations’ strong partisan tilt. A recent paper by Emory University political scientists Gregory Martin and Josh McCrain found that when Sinclair buys a local station, its local news program begin to cover more national and less local politics, the coverage becomes more conservative, and viewership actually falls — suggesting that the rightward tilt isn’t enacted as a strategy to win more viewers but as part of a persuasion effort.

A report from the Pew Research Center last year found that 37 percent of Americans say they frequently rely on local TV for news — not far behind the 45 percent of Americans who say they get news from Facebook, and ahead of the 33 percent who say they look at news websites and apps, the 28 percent who watch cable news, the 26 percent who watch national nightly news, and the 18 percent who still read print newspapers.

That makes the partisan tilt of the hundreds of local TV stations that Sinclair owns concerning, especially since the company’s channels reach 40 percent of Americans.

The uproar over Sinclair’s “fake news” editorial prompted furious rebuttals from the company and an intervention from the president, who spoke up in the company’s defense while attacking CNN and NBC — a somewhat confusing comparison for him to make, as Sinclair owns some 25 NBC affiliates:

But Sinclair’s anti-media promos are hardly an aberration. Sinclair has been steadily growing and acquiring new affiliates in more and more markets for decades. It has, in the process, spread a conservative message enforced by mandates on local news anchors, including requirements that they air partisan commentaries by figures like Boris Epshteyn, Sinclair’s chief political analyst and a former Trump aide in both the 2016 campaign and the White House.

Here, for example, is Epshteyn condemning cable news anchors for their use of “curse words” when reporting on President Trump’s description of Haiti and much of Africa as “shithole” countries. “The allegation is that President Trump said the word once in a private meeting. How is it okay to repeat it and splash it onscreen hundreds of times?” Epshteyn asks.

Epshteyn produces as many as nine conservative, pro-Trump segments a week. The “Bottom Line With Boris” videos are “must-runs,” meaning all 193 Sinclair stations must broadcast them.

Another recent Sinclair segment featured former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka ranting about the “deep state” and its efforts to sabotage Trump, and was produced by Kristine Frazao, a former reporter and anchor for the Russian propaganda network RT.

The company is set to become more powerful with its planned $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media, which would add 42 stations to Sinclair’s 193 existing affiliates. The deal has to secure approval from the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Sinclair has already agreed to sell a number of stations to stay below the FCC’s requirement that TV station owners reach no more than 39 percent of US households with TVs.

Let me repeat that: Sinclair is hitting the absolute maximum level of viewer reach that a broadcasting conglomerate of its kind is allowed to have under federal regulations. The 39 percent figure is actually an underestimate because the FCC undercounts reach provided by ultra-high frequency (UHF) channels; measured accurately, the Tribune deal will let Sinclair reach 72 percent of households, Mother Jones’s Andy Kroll notes.

And unlike Fox News, Sinclair programming comes to people on local TV, on channels affiliated with ABC or NBC or CBS or Fox, many of which have existed in their communities for decades before Sinclair bought them. Millions of viewers of those stations have no idea that they’re watching conservative editorials rather than normal local news, which gives Sinclair incredible power to persuade viewers of conservative ideas.

How Sinclair Broadcast Group became a national giant

Sinclair Broadcast Group began in 1971 with a single station, WBFF in Baltimore, under the company’s founder and owner, Julian Sinclair Smith. In 1986 he ceded control to his four sons, who proceeded to, as GQ’s Wil Hylton noted in a superb 2005 profile of the company, “purchase an unprecedented number of television stations, develop their own programming, and presto, create a network.”

Hylton notes that the Smith family’s strategy was unprecedented in broadcasting. Typically, companies that bought local TV affiliates would specialize in one or two national networks: You’d own, say, 15 to 20 ABC affiliates across different cities, or 15 to 20 NBC affiliates, or maybe a few of each. That way, you only had to deal with one or two national networks for negotiating payments, time slots, and the like.

The Smiths, however, chose to buy up stations indiscriminately. The 193 Sinclair stations include ones affiliated with NBC, ABC, Fox, CBS, The CW, and Univision alike.

Sinclair also began to develop workarounds to FCC regulations barring ownership of more than one commercial station per media market. The Smith brothers had their mother create a shell company to buy up stations that Sinclair legally could not, “promptly leasing the broadcast rights to Sinclair under a loophole known as a Local Marketing Agreement,” as Hylton explains. The FCC figured out what they were doing and fined Sinclair as well as the shell company, but enabled them to keep going with that loophole in the future.

That ability to work around limitations on owning multiple networks in a given city or region has helped fuel Sinclair’s incredible growth. Mother Jones’s Kroll reported that Sinclair is set, after the Tribune deal, to own two or more stations in 69 media markets across 46 of the 50 states. It will have at least one station in 39 of the top 50 media markets and seven of the top 10.

Sinclair’s regulatory gamesmanship was aided, Hylton writes, by its cultivation of relationships with influential politicians. The Smith brothers became prolific fundraisers for their local Congress member, Robert Ehrlich of Baltimore County, Maryland.

“In 1998, Sinclair had filed a request with the FCC to purchase fifteen new stations, some located in cities where the company already owned stations, but FCC commissioner Michael Powell had been reluctant to approve the deal,” Hylton writes. “Ehrlich fired off a series of letters to Powell, mincing no words. He reminded Powell that he was a member of the House committee that oversees the FCC and its budget, questioned whether Powell had been influenced by liberals like Jesse Jackson, and threatened that if the Sinclair request was not approved soon, he would ‘not hesitate to call for a congressional investigation.’ By the end of the year, fourteen of the fifteen purchases were approved.”

When Ehrlich ran for governor in 2002, the Sinclair networks backed him extensively, including by instructing their Baltimore station’s reporters to dig up dirt on the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, according to Hylton.

The Smiths also gave Ehrlich a helicopter to use, free of charge, in violation of state campaign finance rules; Ehrlich, once he won the election, would pay Sinclair $60,000 from the state budget to produce a set of ads that “featured the new governor popping up in people’s homes to help with household chores,” as Hylton put it.

Sinclair has been broadcasting conservative programming for well over a decade

Both Kroll and Hylton date the Smith brothers and Sinclair’s interest in politics to their desire to curry favor with the FCC in the late 1990s, as their aggressive approach in acquiring networks began to attract regulatory scrutiny.

But somewhere along the way, the Smiths appear to have become conservative true believers. In response to a request for an interview from New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi this past November, David, the principal Smith brother in the company, declined to talk, writing in an email, “The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble [sic] which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility.”

This pivot began to deeply influence Sinclair programming in the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sinclair ordered news anchors at its local affiliates to read statements in support of Bush and the war on terror: “The management … stands behind the president and our nation’s leaders in the vow that terrorism must be stopped.”

That same year, the company began airing “The Point,” a regular commentary segment from political analyst Mark Hyman, an archconservative prone to saying things like, “Terrorist leaders would dearly love to see President Bush replaced with Sen. [John] Kerry.” (“The Point” ceased airing in 2006, but Hyman returned for regular commentaries in 2010 and continued them until early this year, when he stepped aside for health reasons.)

In 2004, Sinclair announced it would send its own reporting team, including Hyman, to Iraq to report on “good news” stories that the mainstream media was ignoring as the country descended into anarchy and civil war in the wake of the American invasion. “There might be real accomplishments for the U.S.-led occupation, said Mark Hyman, Sinclair’s vice president for corporate affairs, but if so, they are being drowned out by the constant barrage of stories about guerrilla actions against coalition troops,” David Folkenflik, then of the Baltimore Sun, reported.

In April 2004, Sinclair refused to air an episode of Nightline in which Ted Koppel read the names of every American killed in Iraq, saying the episode “appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.”

Later that year, it ordered its affiliates to air a documentary called Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal attacking Democratic nominee John Kerry’s anti-Vietnam War activism and claiming that it contributed to torture of American POWs in North Vietnam; after a public outcry, Sinclair eventually backed down and only aired five minutes of the documentary, plus four minutes of the pro-Kerry documentary Going Upriver.

But in its personnel decisions, the company stuck by its anti-Kerry message. When Sinclair’s Washington bureau chief, Jon Leiberman, called the attempt to air Stolen Honor “biased political propaganda,” he was promptly fired.

Sinclair was back in the news the first week of 2005, when USA Today’s Greg Toppo revealed that Armstrong Williams, a prominent black conservative commentator, had taken $240,000 from the Department of Education in exchange for commentary praising the No Child Left Behind Law. The Government Accountability Office would eventually issue a report declaring the payments illegal.

Sinclair was a key part of the scheme; Williams aired an interview of Education Secretary Rod Paige (his financial patron) on Sinclair networks, as well as interviews with then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Vice President Dick Cheney. While other news outlets cut ties with Williams, Sinclair maintained the relationship after the controversy. Williams even did Sinclair a solid in 2013 when he purchased two TV stations from them to help them avoid FCC ownership rules — while signing deals to make sure Sinclair was still in control.

In 2008, Sinclair raised eyebrows yet again for running an ad attempting to tie then-Sen. Barack Obama to Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers. The ad declared that Obama was “friends with Ayers” and that his “political career was launched at Ayers’s home.” (It wasn’t.) This was an ad, not Sinclair original programming — but, the New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg noted, it was an ad that Fox News and CNN declined to run due to legal concerns.

In 2010, Sinclair faced another uproar for running sleazy political ads — this time, a 25-minute infomercial from the National Republican Trust PAC called “Breaking Point.” Here it is, in three parts:

The ads, narrated by E.W. Jackson — an ultra-right-wing minister who has decried yoga as leading to Satanism, and who’d later achieve attention as the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 2013 — paints a picture of President Obama as a pawn in a shadowy conspiracy meant to “mak[e] billionaire George Soros rich.”

Obama, Jackson says, “does not view America from an America-centric perspective, but instead from an outsider’s point of view, often with hostility.” The video shows clips meant to imply that Obama is a Muslim (like him saying “as-salamu alaykum,” telling an interviewer that “if you took the number of Muslim-Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world,” and saying, “Islam is a part of America”) with sounds of Muslim prayers and chants of “Allahu akbar” in the background.

“During his presidential election, he wound up with a record-shattering $750 million in his campaign,” Jackson said of Obama. “To this day, he refuses to report from whence it came. One reason might be that some of it originated from the terrorist group Hamas, which also endorsed Obama for president.” (If you want to see from whence it came, here’s the publicly released data on donations to Obama. Hamas is not one of the sources.)

The company repeated these kinds of shenanigans in 2012, releasing a vehemently anti-Obama and pro-Mitt Romney half-hour news special on the Monday before Election Day and airing it on affiliates in Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, and West Palm Beach, Florida. Unlike the 2010 infomercial, this was official Sinclair news programming, not an ad.

Here’s a viewer-recorded video of a portion of the special:

In recent years, the company has dipped even further into conservative advocacy. In 2015, it hired former CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson to host a weekly news show; Attkisson had become a prominent Benghazi conspiracy theorist, and claimed that the government had hacked her laptop to delete her writing (it appears that she was mistaken and her backspace key was stuck).

In 2016, the company initially backed Ben Carson, Armstrong Williams’s longtime friend and confidant, as Mother Jones’s Kroll notes. “A precampaign hourlong biographical infomercial about Carson was carried on multiple Sinclair stations, and WJLA, the Sinclair station in DC, ran an ad promoting it,” Kroll writes; the infomercial, predictably, was produced by Williams.

After Carson left the race, the company’s loyalties shifted to Trump. In December 2016, Jared Kushner told a group of business executives that the Trump campaign had cut a deal with Sinclair for better coverage. In exchange for more access to Trump, “Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary, Kushner said,” Politico’s Josh Dawsey and Hadas Gold reported. “Kushner highlighted that Sinclair, in states like Ohio, reaches a much wider audience — around 250,000 listeners — than networks like CNN, which reach somewhere around 30,000.”

In a statement, Sinclair denied the deal was unusual and claimed it had offered a similar deal to the Clinton campaign.

Sinclair’s purchase of Tribune Media in 2017 sparked rampant speculation that Sinclair had ambitions to challenge Fox News as a national force in conservative media, perhaps by taking Tribune’s WGA America (which reaches 80 million households, to Fox News’s 90 million) and turning it into a news network. The hiring of Trump loyalist Boris Epshteyn seemed to further these suspicions, and the “fake news” script only further suggests the company is growing more ambitious in its national programming.

Last Week Tonight and John Oliver captured the overall feel of Sinclair’s coverage, including Epshteyn’s contributions, in a segment last July about the Tribune purchase:

Local stations purchased by Sinclair are in for an alarming change

Last year, the Emory political scientist Greg Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu released a landmark paper finding that Fox News’s consistently pro-Republican, anti-Democrat coverage meaningfully shifted votes. They estimated that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008.

Moreover, they found that the company wasn’t maximizing its viewership. It could have been slightly less conservative and gotten better ratings as a result. But instead, it sacrificed viewership to increase its power of persuasion by ramping up the amount of conservative argumentation viewers see, even if doing so cost some Democratic viewers. CNN, by contrast, just set programming in ways that maximized viewership.

Sinclair is doing something similar. Martin and Emory’s Josh McCrain, in a more recent paper, used the fact that Sinclair sequentially buys up affiliates to measure the impact of its ownership on local programming. In particular, they looked at the effect of Sinclair buying 14 new stations in 2017. The results they found were perhaps predictable, but no less striking.

The 14 stations “moved to the right on the ideological dimension … relative to other stations in the same media markets,” they write. “This change brought the acquired stations closer in line with the pattern of coverage at existing Sinclair-owned stations, at the cost of a small decline in viewership relative to the stations’ same-market competitors.”

The viewership decline, they found, was concentrated in Democratic-leaning areas. But it was relatively small, in the scheme of things. “The vast majority of viewers watching before the acquisition date continued to watch afterwards, despite the substantial changes in political content,” Martin and McCrain write. “For these non-switching viewers, the ideological valence of their news diet lurched rightwards following the acquisition.”

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reached similar conclusions in an investigative piece on what happened when Sinclair bought WJLA, an ABC affiliate in Washington, DC. “In the most recent campaign, WJLA, and Sinclair stations around the country, gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to candidate Donald Trump compared with his rival, Hillary Clinton, according to internal documents supplied by people at WJLA,” Farhi wrote.

The network was asked to air “must run” stories about Hillary Clinton’s email server and her personal health, but no similar stories about Trump’s tax records. There was, however, a must-run story called “Donald Trump Reflections of 9/11” and a puff piece about women campaigning for Trump.

Many Sinclair viewers don’t know their local news is peddling a conservative message

Say what you will about Fox News, but its viewers more or less know what they’re getting. That doesn’t mean it’s not persuasive — Martin and Yurukoglu’s study demonstrates that it is — but it has been a solidly conservative channel more or less since its inception. Its viewers mostly know that, and its staffers definitely know that.

Part of what’s so concerning about the Sinclair Group is that it’s taking over existing local TV brands, often to the consternation of those stations’ staff. CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that anchors at Sinclair-owned stations responded angrily to the “fake news” script that went viral last week, decrying it as “manipulative” and saying things like, “At my station, everyone was uncomfortable doing it.” Yolanda Harris, one of the anchors behind the biased 2012 election special, tweeted in response to criticism, “didn’t have a choice dude” and “I need my job.”

Mary Nam, an anchor at the Sinclair-owned KOMO in Seattle, also took to Twitter to express her frustration in response to Trump’s tweet about Sinclair:

A news director at one station wrote in an all-staff email, quoted by Stelter: “Let me be absolutely clear here ... These MUST Run. If they do not, my job is on the line. I don’t say that to scare you by any means but I do say this so you understand how serious SBG is about this project.” (Even so, a Madison, Wisconsin, station is refusing to air the promo, in spite of the danger that puts the affiliate in.)

One Sinclair journalist messaged the LA Times’s Matt Pearce to show a provision in their contract requiring them to pay back 40 percent of their base pay, times the amount of time left in the contract, should they quit. That kind of provision isn’t just punitive — it’s arguably illegal and unenforceable. But it could certainly intimidate staffers out of leaving, even if they strongly disagree with the editorial choices their owner makes.

The past month has seen a deserved focus on the possible role social media, particularly Facebook, plays in spreading political misinformation. But Sinclair is a good example of how political media, including outright conspiracy theorizing, can spread through more mundane and less technologically novel means too. Local news isn’t sexy or new. But it’s a mainstay of millions of Americans’ news diets. And Sinclair is profoundly changing it in a way that helps the Republican Party and the Trump administration.