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  • Even some Trump allies are worried about Sinclair's expansion

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Yesterday was the last day for critics to urge the Federal Communications Commission to stop conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media Company. President Donald Trump’s administration, which frequently tries to promote right-wing outlets as part of its war on the mainstream press, has bent over backward in order to reward Sinclair for its favorable coverage, while the merger has drawn criticism from consumer watchdogs like Allied Progress and media consolidation foes like Free Press. But they aren’t the only ones objecting: Some pro-Trump media companies have also taken sides against the merger because they worry Sinclair’s growth will impact their own bottom lines, forcing the administration to choose between its staunchest press allies.

    Sinclair is already the nation’s largest local news provider, thanks to its ownership of 173 broadcast television stations in communities across the country. If its attempt to purchase Tribune’s 42 broadcast television stations is approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the result would be a broadcast goliath reaching more than seven in 10 U.S. television households -- nearly double the audience cap mandated by Congress. The deal would have been unthinkable if Trump-appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai hadn’t rolled back a key Obama administration regulation in April that had prevented Sinclair from further expansion.

    The merger raised the hackles of NewsMax Media Inc, which owns a right-wing cable channel and website and has called for the FCC to slow down the process and seek additional information. In a filing, the company warned that the prospect of a combined Sinclair-Tribune company raises “serious competitive concerns” and that “press freedom and media diversity may be seriously harmed by this transaction.” NewsMax CEO Christopher Ruddy has said that the deal raises “so many serious concerns about the concentration of media power.”

    The conservative cable news channel One America News Network (OANN) also wants to delay the sale, telling the FCC that the “transaction raises competitive concerns and questions of law.”

    Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox is one player that did not weigh in during the comment period. Sinclair’s increasing power in the conservative media space could prove a threat to Fox News. But Fox also owns dozens of broadcast stations, and the FCC’s deregulation bent could also benefit the company’s own expansion plans. Instead of taking its would-be rival on at the FCC, Fox is reportedly considering dumping Sinclair as an affiliate partner.

    As for Trump, he wants to help Sinclair because the network has been a key media ally. After several cycles of support for Republican presidential candidates, the network stepped up its game in 2016, making a deal with the Trump campaign during the election cycle by providing positive coverage in exchange for access. After the election, Sinclair hired a former Trump adviser and required every one of its stations to regularly run his pro-Trump propaganda segments. Sinclair’s conservative “must-runs” are every bit as slanted as Fox News coverage, but Sinclair is more insidious because its viewers don’t expect that level of ideological content from their local news channels. Because so many Tribune media stations are located in big cities and swing states where Sinclair didn’t previously have a platform, the merger could provide a sizeable benefit to Trump’s re-election campaign.

    But NewsMax has also been a staunch supporter of the president -- in fact, it was one of Trump’s first real media allies in his political rise. The would-be Fox rival started giving him a platform as early as 2006 and regularly promoted a potential Trump run for president during the 2012 cycle. Described by reporters as the “Trump whisperer” and the administration’s “Zelig,” Ruddy is a close friend of the president who regularly advises Trump and his aides and is often quoted by reporters and appears on cable news as a kind of unofficial spokesperson. In turn, the Trump presidency has been good for NewsMax, which has received unprecedented access; during his first 48 press briefings as White House press secretary, Sean Spicer called on the network’s correspondent more than any other reporter but Fox’s representatives.

    OANN, another would-be Fox, is no slouch either -- as The Washington Post noted, the network became “one of President Trump’s favorite media outlets” because its coverage depicts his administration as “a juggernaut of progress, a shining success with a daily drumbeat of achievements.” OANN White House correspondent Trey Yingst was one of Spicer’s go-to questioners, and Trump called on him at a January press conference.

    Trump has sought to lift up conservative news outlets throughout his tenure. But as the OANN and NewsMax filings demonstrate, in this fractured media environment, he can’t help one of his media allies without hurting the others.

  • Pro-Trump outlet Sinclair is turning local news into Trump TV. Here's what it looks like.

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Local television news giant Sinclair Broadcast Group has been making headlines in recent weeks as it seeks to both double down on its requirement that its stations run mandated conservative commentary segments and vastly expand its reach into new major cities across the United States.  

    Plenty of recent major profiles of Sinclair have discussed its unusual tactic of designating certain conservative commentary segments it produces in its national studios as “must-runs,” meaning that every Sinclair-owned local television news station -- all 73, across 33 states and the District of Columbia -- is required to air them. The Sinclair brand has been openly right-wing for decades, causing controversy when executives similarly mandated the airing of an anti-John Kerry documentary and chose not to run a Nightline episode they viewed as critical of George W. Bush in the early 2000s.

    The latest Sinclair profiles often focus on the “Bottom Line with Boris” segments starring former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn, who is now employed as Sinclair’s chief political analyst. Epshteyn has been producing 60- to 90-second commentary segments several times a week since Sinclair hired him in April. Last month, Sinclair announced it would be upping Epshteyn’s segments from airing three times per week to nine.

    Employees at Sinclair stations across the country, from Seattle, WA, to Washington, D.C., are expressing concerns about the clearly conservative must-run segments pushed by Sinclair executives. 

    Anchors at individual local news stations owned by Sinclair are seemingly not required to introduce the segments in any particular way before running them; in fact, employees at at least one station have said they try to run the segments along with commercials “so they blend in with paid spots.” The on-air segments themselves have no built-in disclosure that Epshteyn was until recently employed by the same White House he now regularly lavishes with on-air praise (online versions of his commentary note his White House connection). Viewers also might not know that Sinclair’s efforts to expand to new cities across the country and corner the markets in mid-sized cities in battleground states are possible only because of the deregulatory efforts of the administration Epshteyn loves so dearly.

    Sinclair is empowering Epshteyn to broadcast regular segments effusively praising his former employer to local TV news viewers across the country who aren’t signing up to watch garbled propaganda every evening. His segments often seem to lazily tow the administration’s line on a given news story, when they bother to address a story at all -- sometimes his segments are glaringly focused on subjects that have nothing to do with whatever embarrassing headlines Trump is making that day.

    There are a few key examples of Epshteyn’s propaganda you may have already seen, like the video from June in which he mirrored the Trump administration’s war on the press by declaring the White House press briefing “a circus and a distraction,” or last weekend’s jaw-droppingly ill-timed defense of 10-day White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

    But these aren’t isolated examples. Here are five other “Bottom Line with Boris” segments that your aunt in Cedar Rapids may have unwittingly watched. Judge for yourself.

    Trump’s trade policies are good and so is “America first” as a slogan!

    In Epshteyn’s July 14 “Bottom Line with Boris” segment, he defended Trump’s use of the dog-whistle “America First” slogan and asserted that Trump is “strengthening” U.S. trade policy.

    From the beginning of the segment:

    America first. That has been President Trump’s slogan since the campaign, and it continues to be the mantra of the administration when it comes to international trade. What does an “America First” trade policy mean? It means fair trade, smart trade, taking a hard line with our trading partners, including our closest allies.

    CNN is biased against Trump!

    In Epshteyn’s June 28 “Bottom Line with Boris” segment, he focused on echoing Trump’s talking points casting CNN as biased and pushing a highly misleading (and embarrassing) video of a CNN medical producer discussing the network’s political coverage from right-wing video artist James O’Keefe.

    Epshteyn concluded that CNN was “struggling” to report on the facts writ large:

    It’s also important to further focus on CNN’s digital presence. The network’s website is supposed to be delivering news. However, it is dominated by opinion-based headlines and articles with more commentary than impartial fact. The bottom line is this: CNN, along with other cable news networks, is struggling to stick to the facts and to be impartial in covering politics in general and this president specifically.

    States should cooperate with Trump’s “voter fraud” commission!

    In Epshteyn’s July 5 “Bottom Line with Boris” segment, he encouraged states to cooperate with the Trump administration’s bogus voter fraud commission, which experts have said could actually be used to suppress legal votes.

    Epshteyn concluded:

    The extent of voter fraud in our elections has been hotly debated between the left and the right. The president's commission has been established to come up with a factual, impartial answer to that question. The states should do everything within their power to cooperate with the commission, and that’s the bottom line.

    Trump's Department of Veteran Affairs is crushing it!

    In Epshteyn’s July 11 “Bottom Line with Boris” segment, he celebrated the Department of Veteran Affairs’ report that it had fired numerous employees, declaring that Trump was “not wasting any time cleaning up the department” and was “delivering on those campaign promises.”

    Epshteyn concluded:

    The president made veterans issues a focal point of his campaign and his administration is now delivering on those campaign promises. We have to honor our veterans. We owe them proper treatment. Both the structure and substance of care of our veterans have to improve dramatically. The VA is unquestionably taking steps in the right direction. The bottom line is as long as Secretary [David] Shulkin and his department continue down this road, the VA will regain the trust of the American people and our veterans will receive the care they duly deserve.

    Don’t trust any national media to report on James Comey!  

    In Epshteyn’s June 11 “Bottom Line with Boris” segment, he covered former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before Congress on June 9. Epshteyn’s commentary did not focus on the substance of the hearing, but rather on three aspects Epshteyn says the “national media” failed to cover, including its own “inaccurate” reporting on Russia.

    Epshteyn’s concluded that viewers “learned much more about the president’s opponents and his critics” during the hearing than about anything related to Trump. OK.

  • How Trump's lawyers, Sean Hannity, and a Sinclair outlet tried to cover up Trump Jr.'s Russia meeting

    Trump's legal team suggested giving Trump Jr. meeting details to Circa, spinning meeting as "setup” by Democrats

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    President Donald Trump’s legal team proposed using the Trump-friendly media outlet Circa to promote the evidence-free claim that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians during the 2016 presidential election was a Democratic “setup.” Not only did Circa run with the story on July 8, two days later, Fox News host Sean Hannity was more than happy to further the story with Circa’s Sara Carter and John Solomon, frequent guests on Hannity’s shows.

    On July 31, The Washington Post reported that when Trump’s legal team recently discovered incriminating details about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a possible Russian agent, the lawyers proposed an alternate version of the encounter “be given to Circa, an online news organization that the Kasowitz team thought would be friendly to Trump.” The Post additionally noted that “the president’s legal team planned to cast the June 2016 meeting as a potential setup by Democratic operatives hoping to entrap Trump Jr.”

    Circa’s Carter wrote about Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian in a July 8 article which included a statement from a spokesman for Trump’s legal team, as well as the assertion that “the president’s legal team said Saturday they believe the entire meeting may have been part of a larger election-year opposition effort aimed at creating the appearance of improper connections between Trump family members and Russia.”

    On July 10, Fox host Sean Hannity invited Carter and then-fellow Circa reporter John Solomon to discuss whether “this whole meeting with Donald Trump Jr” was “possibly a setup” (emphasis added):

    HANNITY: All right, Sara Carter, let's go to you and your reporting along with John. Good to have you both back, by the way. Let's start with your reports about was this possibly a setup? In other words, this whole meeting with Donald Trump, Jr. -- is this a very different story than the American people are being told?

    SARA CARTER: Yes, I think there's a story here that people aren't getting from the mainstream media. And one is this. Natalia Veselnitskaya -- she was the attorney that Donald Trump, Jr., met with -- was actually connected to a company called Presevan Holding, which was run by a Russian named Dennis Katzik . And Dennis Katzik actually hired Fusion GPS. Remember, this was the security investigative firm behind the Christopher Steele dossier. So the Christopher Steele dossier, which has been disreputable, which people have not been able to prove anything, that tried to connect, you know, Donald Trump to the Russians, was actually the company that this woman was working for.

    So it makes sense. And I know that congressional investigators are looking into this. What was her connection to Fusion GPS? And how does that play out with the meeting that she held with Donald Trump, Jr., which he said he did not know prior to that meeting exactly who she was and what she was representing. So that is a very, very important part of this story.


    HANNITY: Do you believe that this was a setup by the DNC and this Fusion group that we're talking about?

    JOHN SOLOMON: You know, there's not enough facts and evidence to assume that yet. I think there is clearly a lot of people that were working at once, and what overlays they have and what intersections they have, we don't know in part because Fusion GPS hasn't answered a lot of the questions that the Senate has put to them. Until we find out who was funding the dossier, until we find out who brought Natalia into the country, until we learn those sort of questions, we're not going to know the full picture, and I think it's too soon to make any assumptions. [Fox News, Hannity, 7/10/17]

    The Trump team narrative, with the help of Hannity and Circa, was quickly picked up and spread throughout right-wing media and fake news purveyors.

    Circa is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is known for its conservative bias and connections to Trump associates. During the 2016 campaign, Sinclair made a deal with Trump’s team to push stories favorable to the future president. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Carter and Solomon have used Hannity’s platform to do just that.

  • Sinclair’s Boris Epshteyn celebrates Anthony Scaramucci’s “new approach” and “fresh perspective” for Trump’s White House

    Scaramucci, one day earlier: “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock”

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Update: Just days after Sinclair Broadcast Group's chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn released a commentary segment lauding Anthony Scaramucci's new approach as White House communications director, The New York Times reported that President Donald Trump had removed Scaramucci from the role. 

    Former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn’s latest “must-run” commentary segment for Sinclair Broadcast Group proves that President Donald Trump’s clumsy damage control will be televised on local TV news stations nationwide -- whether viewers like it or not.

    On July 27, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza published a profanity-laced, on-the-record interview with Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, in which the latter savaged his new White House colleagues. The following day, without mentioning the firestorm Scaramucci’s viral interview had caused, Epshteyn posted a new video commentary celebrating Scaramucci’s “fresh perspective” and pushing generic propagandistic talking points about the predicted success of the new White House communications strategy.

    Here is the entire transcript of the 86-second clip, via Sinclair-owned Washington, D.C. station WJLA:

    Changes are afoot in the White House communications department.

    It may be hard to keep track of who’s in, who’s out – and more importantly, what this means for the American people.

    Let’s break it down.

    The president wanted to bring in a fresh perspective to help manage and communicate the White House's message.

    The reins over communications are now totally in the hands of Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director. He is going to report directly to the president. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been promoted to press secretary after having been the principal deputy.

    I know Anthony personally; he is a good friend. He is unquestionably passionate and direct -- that’s been pretty obvious. He also has a high level of respect for media, having been a part of it himself.

    The reason his appointment matters is that there is going to be a new approach to dealing with the media from the White House.

    Anthony has already made two key promises:

    First, cameras are on for the daily press briefing. Get ready to see more of those pointed exchanges between the White House and the press.

    Second, the White House comms shop will enable the president to speak directly to you, through all mediums, even more than in the past. This will allow for the president’s words to cut through any spin or interpretation and go right to the people.

    The bottom line is this: There is not always agreement between the White House and those covering them; that is impossible. What these changes do signal, however, is there will now be a better working relationship between the White House and the press. This will hopefully result in us getting more thorough, and real, information on the issues that actually matter to our daily lives – such as jobs, health care and taxes.

    If you can’t choose just one sentence from this blatant pro-Trump propaganda to label as the worst, don’t worry -- the actual worst part about any of Epshteyn’s videos is what’s happening off-camera.

    Sinclair’s openly pro-Trump corporate offices mandate that every “Bottom Line with Boris” segment run on all of its 173 television news stations in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Anchors at individual local news stations owned by Sinclair are seemingly not required to introduce the segments in any particular way before running them -- employees at at least one station have said they try to run the segments along with commercials “so they blend in with paid spots.” This means that, unlike the online transcript at WJLA’s website, the segments themselves have no built-in disclosure that Epshteyn was until recently employed by the same White House he now regularly lavishes with on-air praise.

    Epshteyn has been producing 60- to 90-second commentary segments several times a week since he joined Sinclair as its chief political analyst in April. Earlier in July, Sinclair announced it would be upping Epshteyn’s segments from airing three times per week to nine times per week.