After subjecting the American public to more than two years of near-daily pro-Trump commentary that ranged from morally appalling to just aggressively tepid, Sinclair Broadcast Group is reportedly relegating chief political commentator Boris Epshteyn to the sales department. As a researcher who’s tracked every one of his segments, I’m relieved -- but also worried about what's to come.
Epshteyn has been the deeply uncharismatic face of the right-wing local news giant since the spring of 2017, when he began regularly producing right-wing political commentary that Sinclair sent out as “must-run” segments to its local news stations across the country. But on December 11, NBC News reported that Sinclair was ending Epshteyn’s commentary segments, along with those from liberal commentator Ameshia Cross. Their final segments will air today, and Epshteyn will reportedly transition to a role in “sales.”
Since June 2017, I have been engaging in a task I would never wish on another human being: I have watched every single “Bottom Line with Boris” segment he’s ever narrated for Sinclair. (As of publishing, there have been at least 603 and one more to go.) I’ve written dozens of posts about this person and the horrifying things he’s said in defense of Trump.
And here is my bottom line: Epshteyn is a cheap knock-off with no charisma -- and, more important, he’s a bully.
Epshteyn joined Sinclair fresh off a stint in the Trump administration and, before that, on the presidential campaign. He was a Trump spokesperson who reportedly terrorized the nation’s green rooms off-camera, and he’s a personal friend of the president’s adult sons. A few months after Epshteyn started his new role at Sinclair, HBO’s John Oliver memorably described him as “a rejected extra from The Sopranos in a J.C. Penney tie whose voice sounds like Sylvester Stallone with a mouthful of bees.”
Seventy-five percent of his segments were so utterly boring I couldn’t get through a single 90-second clip without accidentally zoning out and having to rewatch it. But the other 25% were completely depraved. He is most well-known to the general public as the talking head who defended the tear-gassing of migrants at the southern border, dismissed the cruelty of separating children from their parents and holding them in cages in camps, and implied that child rape is a major consequence of illegal immigration.
I’m elated to no longer have to watch him every day. And I’m significantly more elated that the millions of people who are just trying to catch the traffic report or some local sports updates aren’t going to have to see it anymore either.
But I’m also not optimistic at all -- because bullies stick together. And Sinclair is also a bully.
The company infamously cuts corners, in all senses of the word. It is known for abusing regulatory loopholes to buy up more and more local news stations, and then taking the stations over and cutting local anchors with close community relationships. Local journalists face a difficult choice if Sinclair takes control of their station: They can stay and fight through the corporate cuts and the “must-runs” or they can leave quietly and re-enter a market dominated by other Sinclair jobs. Some have been subjected to unusually restrictive contract clauses limiting their ability to find new work; some have even been sued by their former employer, which brings in more than $3 billion in annual revenue.
Its owners’ support for conservative causes didn’t begin with Epshteyn and won’t end with him, either. Sinclair has a long history of openly engaging with right-wing politics and, of course, it’s a giant corporation that would benefit from deregulatory policies supported by the right. And the Smiths -- the family that founded and owns Sinclair -- have thrown some of their financial support to particularly notorious Republicans, like racist criminal Joe Arpaio and Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), who physically assaulted a reporter just days before receiving the donation.
In keeping with the myriad ways conservative politics overlap with xenophobia and racism, Sinclair has shown no signs of slowing down its anti-Muslim fearmongering “Terrorism Alert Desk” segments. Sinclair also suggested in its announcement about Epshteyn and Cross that the company will be making room for more local investigative reporting instead, like their Seattle station’s highly problematic special programming on homelessness in the city.
Sinclair also still employs other right-wing thugs: namely, former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka and former Fox News host Eric Bolling. Bolling has been hosting a weekly political show for Sinclair since April, and he appears to be the new face of political analysis for the company. He was a host at Fox News until 2017, when he left amid reports he sent unsolicited images of genitalia to multiple co-workers. (When this was first reported, he threatened the reporter with a lawsuit, too, in a classic bullying move.)
On his Sinclair show, Bolling has given friendly interviews to seemingly every member of the Trump administration including the president himself, some more than once. He’s also hosted a gamut of right-wing grifters and conspiracy theorists, including his “friend” Alex Jones, who currently faces a lawsuit because of his claims that the deaths of 26 young children and school employees in the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting were a hoax.
Boris Epshteyn was merely one convenient indicator of the sum total of Sinclair’s toxic, bullying behavior. And I haven’t even mentioned the single most enraging aspect of it all, which won’t change one iota with the end of his commentary segments: Sinclair is bullying you. Sinclair is bullying us all.
From the start, what made the Sinclair beat most appealing to me at Media Matters was the layers of nefariousness. Much of its nationally produced news programming is as conservative as Fox News, but it’s also highly dishonest in a structural way, and with an arguably even more personal cost.
The whole reason this $3 billion company has grown and thrived for so long is because it flew under the radar. No one is tuning into their local news stations and seeing a Sinclair logo on the screen, and it’s even harder to trace the company to the dozens of stations it operates via legal agreements because it’s not technically allowed to own them at all. Like a lot of local news, what actually airs on many Sinclair-controlled stations is also a black box; it’s difficult to track the content of so many newscasts on smaller stations in any systematic way.
All of these factors swirl together to underpin Sinclair’s greatest bullying tactic of all: exploiting everyone’s trust in their local news. At least when you watch Fox or One America News or listen to Rush Limbaugh, you know what you’re signing up for. Sinclair, on the other hand, is banking on being able to surprise you by slipping in some conservative talking points between weather and community news, just as the local anchors you know and trust cut to commercial break. It’s fundamentally unethical behavior that damages media credibility as a whole, and it’s a cowardly and disrespectful way to treat your audience.
Sinclair leadership mandated these segments in the first place, of course, because they knew no one would voluntarily choose to hear Epshteyn’s garbage of the day. It’s scary because they clearly didn’t care about what they owe their viewers as stewards of our public airwaves.
But what scares me even more is what lessons they may have learned. Bullies don’t usually just give up randomly one day; sometimes their tactics just change. What if this time around, the propaganda becomes better, more charismatic, less clumsy -- easier to watch but harder to notice?