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  • What you need to know about EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler and the media

    Wheeler mimics Scott Pruitt's press strategy ahead of his Senate confirmation hearings

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Andrew Wheeler, President Donald Trump's soon-to-be nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is more like his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, than most people realize -- particularly when it comes to his interactions with the media.

    It's well-known that Wheeler, who took over as acting administrator of the EPA after Pruitt resigned in July, has continued Pruitt's work of rolling back major environmental regulations. That was no surprise; Wheeler formerly worked as a lobbyist for coal, natural gas, chemical, and utility companies, and as an aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the Senate's most recalcitrant climate denier.

    Wheeler does, however, have a reputation as a more behind-the-scenes, businesslike administrator than the scandal-plagued Pruitt. New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman recently described the acting EPA chief as having a "low-key, under-the-radar style, even as he has worked diligently and methodically to advance Mr. Trump’s deregulatory agenda."

    But Wheeler is now following in Pruitt's footsteps in many of his dealings with journalists and the press.

    Wheeler's EPA press office attacks journalists and media outlets

    Pruitt had a remarkably contentious relationship with the media. His press office retaliated against specific reporters whose stories it didn't like and attacked them by name in press releases, among other aggressive moves.

    When Wheeler took over, many reporters noticed and welcomed a change in approach. E&E News published a story about the differences in July under the headline "'Night and day' as Wheeler opens doors to press."

    But in recent weeks, the EPA press office has returned to some of the same combative tactics employed during the Pruitt era. On October 30, it published a press release headlined "EPA Sets the Record Straight After Being Misrepresented in Press." Two days later, it got more aggressive with a press release titled "Fact Checking Seven Falsehoods in CNN’s Report."

    From an E&E News article published last week:

    The [EPA press shop's] combative approach calmed a bit when acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler took over for Scott Pruitt, who resigned over the summer, but now it appears to be intensifying again.

    ...

    The agency's actions have been scrutinized in the press in recent weeks, and the public affairs shop has been hitting back.

    ...

    Bobby Magill, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, said the agency seems to be returning to its war-room-style tactics under Pruitt.

    "It looks to me like they're sort of returning to form," Magill said. "This suggests that they are returning to their previous press strategy under Scott Pruitt."

    Wheeler favors right-wing media for his televised interviews

    Pruitt heavily favored Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, giving them far more interviews than mainstream news organizations.

    Wheeler exhibits similar preferences. All four of the TV interviews we've seen him give since becoming acting administrator at the EPA have been with right-wing outlets.

    The first went to the conservative Sinclair TV conglomerate. Boris Epshteyn, Sinclair's chief political analyst and a former Trump aide, asked no hard questions and gave Wheeler a platform to make specious claims about automobile fuel economy. Wheeler's second TV interview was with Fox News, the third was with the Fox Business Network, and the fourth went to a Sinclair national correspondent.

    Wheeler embraces right-wing outlets and bashes mainstream media via his Twitter account

    Like his predecessor, Wheeler has a fondness for right-wing media outlets and personalities, but he's exhibited that in a way that Pruitt never did -- via his personal Twitter account.

    The Daily Beast's Scott Bixby reported earlier this year on one noteworthy example:

    In August 2016, Wheeler publicly defended alt-right troll Milo Yiannopolous after the latter was banned from Twitter for encouraging users to harass actress Leslie Jones. In a now-deleted tweet, the lobbyist linked to a six-minute video, “The Truth About Milo,” produced by InfoWars editor-at-large and noted conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, in which Watson posited that conservatives might be “banned from using the internet altogether if they trigger your butthurt.”

    Wheeler recently retweeted Fox's Brit Hume when he criticized The New York Times and linked to an article in the conservative National Review. Wheeler has also liked a number of tweets from right-wing figures who criticized mainstream media outlets, including:

    • a Donald Trump Jr. tweet linking to The Daily Caller and mocking CNN
    • a tweet from frequent Fox guest and NRATV host Dan Bongino that slammed MSNBC
    • a tweet from libertarian talk show host Dave Rubin that bashed HuffPost

    Wheeler promotes climate denial and racist memes via his Twitter account

    Like Pruitt, Wheeler also casts doubt on well-established climate science -- another view he has expressed through his Twitter account.

    In a 2015 tweet, Wheeler praised a RealClearPolitics essay that argued, "There is no such thing as 'carbon pollution.'” The essay criticized mainstream media outlets and scientific journals that have reported on climate change:

    Of course, we don’t have good data or sound arguments for decarbonizing our energy supply. But it sounds like we do. If you read Scientific American, Science, Nature, National Geographic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any of thousands of newspapers and magazines, and you take them at face value, you would have to agree that there is a strong likelihood that serious climate change is real and that decarbonization or geo-engineering are our only hopes. ... These are the people promoting a myth that has become deeply ingrained in our society.

    In 2011, Wheeler tweeted a link to a post on the climate-denial blog JunkScience.com. The post, written by the site's founder and longtime climate denier Steve Milloy, argued that information from the American Lung Association should not be trusted because the organization "is bought-and-paid-for by the EPA." Wheeler also retweeted a Milloy tweet from 2015 that took a shot at HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington. And in 2009, Wheeler sent two tweets linking to climate-denying blog posts.

    As HuffPost's Alexander Kaufman reported last month, Wheeler has also used his social media accounts to endorse or promote other troubling views:

    Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, repeatedly engaged with inflammatory content on his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts over the past five years, including some in the past month.

    The previously-unreported interactions include liking a racist image of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on Facebook and retweeting an infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist.

    Wheeler now turns back to major mainstream newspapers as he faces confirmation fight

    Though Wheeler has shown a preference for right-wing media when he does TV interviews, he has given a number of interviews to mainstream newspapers and wire services. In July, after it was announced that he would serve as acting EPA administrator, Wheeler gave substantive interviews to The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, and The New York Times.

    The pace of his interviews with print outlets slowed down after his first month in office, but Wheeler now appears to be ramping it back up -- just as he's about to begin the process of trying to earn Senate confirmation.

    On November 16, hours before Trump announced that he would nominate Wheeler to officially fill the top EPA spot, Wheeler sat down for an interview with New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman. And Wheeler is scheduled to do a live-streamed interview with Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin on November 28.

    Wheeler may want to present himself as a mainstream moderate rather than a right-wing partisan as he tries to win over senators, and turning to major mainstream newspapers could be part of his strategy. But that would also present an opportunity for environmental journalists to ask tough questions and push him off his well-rehearsed talking points before confirmation hearings begin. We'll be looking to Eilperin to kick that process off next week.  

  • Sinclair stations are airing a dramatic special fearmongering about socialism, and it’s hosted by former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka 

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Local TV news stations controlled by the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group recently began airing a “special program” hosted by former Trump aide and current Fox News contributor Sebastian Gorka called Inside Socialism. In the 30-minute show -- which appears to be the first episode in a multipart series -- Gorka tells the audience he will “take an in-depth look at the appeal of a system that promises equality to all and what happens when the initial enthusiasm gives way to a sobering reality.”

    The program kicks off with stylized footage of a hammer and sickle being forged in flames and then clips of speeches by Democratic socialists Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Virginia state Del. Lee Carter, and New York Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, much of it set to ominous music.

    It is not understated.

    Gorka spends the majority of rest of the program discussing the history of various regimes across the globe, framed to show what happens when socialism goes wrong. The final block of the program features a package on Brazil’s political future from Sinclair reporter Jonathan Elias. A version of that package ran earlier in November as part of conspiracy theorist Sharyl Attkisson’s weekly Sinclair program Full Measure.

    Gorka signs off by saying he will “continue to follow the developments on this important issue” and telling viewers to “join us next time for another edition of Inside Socialism.”

    According to the iQ media database, the program aired on at least 18 Sinclair-owned or -operated local news stations between November 10 and November 13. Some clips featured in Inside Socialism -- none with Gorka -- have also been repackaged and posted on various Sinclair station websites under Elias' byline. 

    The special was produced by a company called Cisneros Media, which has helped create similar special programming for Sinclair in the past. A press release from a similar project from 2016 suggests Sinclair provided input on the programming’s content and that the program may air on more than 100 Sinclair stations nationwide.

    A separate special hosted by Gorka, called The Rise of Terrorism: A Clash of Cultures, aired on numerous Sinclair stations in March. In that program, footage labeled as "ISIS propaganda" and shots of terror attacks are followed by Gorka asking viewers, "Can the the teachings of Islam and western values ever be reconciled? Is it possible for the waves of refugees arriving in the west to assimilate and coexist peacefully?" At one point, b-roll footage is shown of a protest sign that says "Rapefugees." 

    A Sinclair-contracted spokesperson did not respond to a question about whether Gorka is an employee, though he has appeared in the company’s programming in the past. Last year, Gorka participated in a gun violence town hall for Sinclair’s Washington, D.C., station, WJLA, and made headlines for saying he believed “Black Africans” were killing each other “by the bushel.” In March, he appeared in a nationally aired news segment produced by Sinclair reporter Kristine Frazao about the so-called “deep state.”

    Gorka is best known for having parlayed his brief tenure in President Donald Trump’s administration into a right-wing pundit career despite his lack of expertise or qualifications -- and for his connections to the Hungarian Nazi-linked group Vitezi Rend. Last January, Gorka wore a Vitezi Rend medal to the Trump inaugural ball; by November, he had become a "national security strategist" for Fox News.

    And Gorka is not the only former Trump aide who can broadcast commentary on local news stations across the country thanks to Sinclair, either. In 2017, the media giant hired former Trump campaign and White House staffer Boris Epshteyn to serve as its chief political analyst. Epshteyn, who may be legally barred from criticizing the president, produces near-daily “must-run” segments for Sinclair stations that often defend Trump’s actions, mimic the president’s lines of attack on members of the press, or provide administration and Republican Party officials with platforms to push their messages.

    Update (11/19/18): Since publication, the special has aired on at least 23 more Sinclair-controlled local news stations, bringing the total to at least 41 stations in 27 states.

  • Sinclair is already gearing up for Trump 2020 

    New “must-run” segment airing a week after midterms boosts Trump and dismisses Democratic chances in 2020

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Less than one week after the 2018 midterm elections, Sinclair Broadcast Group is already pushing “must-run” segments minimizing Democratic chances in 2020 and boosting President Donald Trump’s re-election bid.

    A new “must-run” commentary segment about the 2020 elections began airing on Sinclair’s local stations on November 12. It’s part of Sinclair’s ongoing series called “Bottom Line with Boris,” which features chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn. Epshteyn worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and may have signed a nondisparagement agreement during that time that would prevent him from criticizing the president.

    In the segment, Epshteyn tells viewers that the Democratic Party has “too many competing messages and varying factions” that will prevent “a clear path to victory in their primaries." He cited eight potential 2020 contenders for the Democratic nomination, ranging from party members like Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who supposedly wants to take the party in "a radical direction of open borders and single-payer health care," to "centrist, pro-business old guard" like former Vice President Joe Biden. Epshteyn said that the Republican Party is very united behind Trump, whom he called a “very formidable candidate” and an “active and strong campaigner.”

    With the 2018 midterms behind us, the country now turns toward the 2020 election cycle, including what is sure to be a hotly contested re-election race for President Trump.

    President Trump will continue to be an active and strong campaigner. Potential Democrat candidates, like Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, want to take their party in a radical direction of open borders and single-payer health care.

    Other rumored candidates, such as former Vice President Joe Biden and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, represent the centrist, pro-business old guard of the Democrat Party. There’s also a chance that Democrats go local and nominate a former young mayor in either Mitch Landrieu from New Orleans or Eric Garcetti from Los Angeles.

    Headed into 2020 you'll hear a lot about how the GOP is equally as divided as Democrats. Ignore that. The president’s approval rating is at about 90 percent among Republicans. The “Never Trump” movement is now largely a figment of imagination perpetuated by the flood of former Republican operatives who are paid to make frequent appearances on the networks so they can bash the president and the Republican Party.

    Here's the bottom line: Right now, there are too many competing messages and varying factions vying for the Democratic nomination for there to be a clear path to victory in their primaries. Democrat candidates will have to declare their intentions very soon. It will be interesting to see which direction their party chooses to take in trying to defeat a very formidable candidate, and unquestionably the leader of the Republican Party, in President Trump.

    Epshteyn also teased in his morning newsletter another “must-run” to be released later today, which will focus on “a potential 2020 presidential run for Hillary Clinton.” Both of these segments will air on an estimated 100 local TV stations nationwide, including in major battleground states.

    Epshteyn’s -- and his employer’s -- early shift to 2020 makes perfect sense, since he spent the year leading up to the 2018 elections using his platform to essentially campaign for Republicans. In his “Bottom Line With Boris” segments, he focused specifically on the midterms at least 13 times this year and more broadly made the case for Republican policies countless others. Some segments skipped the usual commentary altogether, instead featuring excerpts from softball interviews he conducted with Trump and five Republican politicians on ballots last week, including Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis and newly re-elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

    Taking into account Sinclair’s yearlong effort to put its thumb on the scales in 2018 along with its longer history of political meddling during election seasons, local news viewers should unfortunately expect more Trump 2020 messaging on Sinclair stations for the next two years.

  • Sinclair's recent must-runs were a series of Trump interview excerpts about how great his administration is doing and how unfairly he’s treated

    Trump in must-run: “I am treated less fairly than anybody who's probably ever lived"

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    In perhaps the most egregious example yet of the pro-Trump alternate reality Sinclair Broadcast Group presents to its viewers, six “must-run” commentary segments the media company has created since September 21 have all been excerpts of a softball interview of President Donald Trump conducted by a former Trump aide.

    Amid last week’s overwhelming news, including Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s powerful testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s blatantly false testimony the same day), Sinclair subjected its local news viewers to a total of six separate “must-run” segments consisting of excerpts from a Trump interview.

    The overwhelming themes of the segments boiled down to: The Trump administration is doing great things, and the left and the liberal media aren’t being fair to Trump. The interviewer, Boris Epshteyn -- a former Trump aide, apparent personal friend of Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., and Sinclair’s chief political analyst -- mostly nodded along or added details in an attempt to back up Trump’s bonkers statements.

    Segment 1: Trump touts Kavanaugh’s “unblemished record” while Epshteyn nods

    The series of six consecutive “must-run” segments -- each of which has now aired on an estimated 100 local news stations across the country -- kicked off on September 21 with a segment focused on what Trump called Kavanaugh’s “unblemished record.” The interview was conducted that day, five days after Ford first shared the details of her account publicly in The Washington Post. In the interview, Trump briefly repeated vague White House talking points about making sure Ford is heard, before saying he believed Kavanaugh would ultimately be confirmed.

    Segment 2: Trump rambles about how everyone says there was “no collusion,” and Epshteyn again just sort of nods

    In the second interview segment, posted on September 24, Epshteyn asked one of just a handful of actual interview questions about Trump’s walk-back on declassifying documents related to the ongoing investigation into Russian collusion during the 2016 presidential election. Trump fumbled through his response, answering mostly by citing different Republican lawmakers who say there was “no collusion.” Epshteyn concluded that Trump is committed to transparency.

    Segment 3: Trump says the current economy could be “the greatest we’ve ever had” and Epshteyn passively nods

    The third segment, from September 25, began with Trump declaring that the current economy “could be the greatest we’ve ever had.” Epshteyn then asked him about renegotiating the NAFTA trade deal in the following extremely unbiased way (emphasis added):

    EPSHTEYN: You mentioned NAFTA. Mexico has already agreed to renegotiate a deal -- something that most people said you couldn't get done. You got that done. Now it's up to Canada. Do you think that Canada, with Justin Trudeau as their leader, will capitulate and join the new deal?
     

    Segment 4: Trump uses the Sinclair platform to tell viewers to vote for Republicans in the midterms

    Epshteyn kicked off the fourth interview segment -- also focused on the economy -- with another very normal and not biased question for his former employer:

    EPSHTEYN: Sir, it’s almost been two years. The economy is roaring. The stock market is way up. Unemployment, way down. GDP growth -- it's much better than anybody expected. What do you think can be done to make sure it's long-term sustainable economic growth?

    The two men then continued to agree with each other about how great the economy is, before Trump told viewers that they ought to vote for Republicans in the midterm elections (emphasis added):

    TRUMP: We have a great economy. This is possibly the greatest economy our country's ever had. That's why, when it comes to the midterms, I hope people are going to remember us because we need Republicans. And I'm not running, but I am in a way running because, you know, friends of mine and people that have our values and our thoughts, they're running. So, we need a lot of help for the midterms and I think we're going to do well, you know, based on the economy and based on the success.
     

    Segment 5: Trump unintelligibly rants about his relationships with North Korea and Iran, while Epshteyn nods along

    In the fifth segment, released on September 27, Trump incoherently discussed relations with North Korea, frequently interrupted by Epshteyn signaling his agreement with everything the president says even though it makes no sense. The one substantive thing Epshteyn said in the entire excerpt was to offer an additional point that backs up Trump’s claim that, with North Korea, “We’re doing a lot of speed. So it’s really coming along well.”

    Segment 6: Trump says he is “treated less fairly than anybody who's probably ever lived” by the media, Epshteyn agrees

    Epshteyn finished off the series of interview must-runs on September 28 with an excerpt that sounded like it was ripped straight from a Trump rally: an almost entirely uninterrupted rant from Trump about how he is “treated less fairly than anybody who’s probably ever lived” by the overwhelming “fake news media.”

    Just watch this, then imagine flipping channels as you make dinner and landing on your local news and this is what’s playing. 

    EPSHTEYN: President Trump feels that he is not treated fairly by most of the media. He spoke about that extensively during our exclusive one-on-one interview.

    [BEGIN INTERVIEW CLIP]

    TRUMP: I am treated less fairly than anybody who's probably ever lived. I almost ask why, you know, what’s the point. We have the best economy we’ve ever had. So many things are going well. You know, the media is really dishonest and reports came out -- even when I do really good stuff, they make it look as bad as possible. And when I do stuff that’s OK, it’s like a disaster.

    EPSHTEYN: Right.

    TRUMP: OK? But when I do things that are really phenomenal, like, as an example, North Korea. We’re doing a phenomenal job in North Korea. We were going to go to war. Before I got in, we would have had a war. We didn’t give anything. We got our hostages back. We got so many different things.

    EPSHTEYN: The remains.

    TRUMP: We got the remains. No more missile testing. No more rocket testing. No more nuclear testing. And I met. And they said, “He met, he met. Therefore he lost.” Because I met. In other words, they couldn’t get anything substantive so they said, “Ah, the fact that” -- now I will say, when it was announced that I was going to meet, until they got their, you know, little dialogue straightened out, they thought it was incredible. But you know, about, within 24 hours --  

    EPSHTEYN. Sure.

    TRUMP: they said we -- you know, the media’s unbelievably dishonest. And I actually say that the fake news media is truly an enemy of the people. It hurts our country tremendously.

    EPSHTEYN: But the people see through it. Don’t you think?

    TRUMP: And I had a rally last night here where they had thousands and thousands of people. They sent away thousands of people. They couldn’t get into the convention center. And it was really incredible. So I guess the bottom line is they must.

    [END INTERVIEW CLIP]

    EPSHTEYN: Here’s the bottom line: Let’s hope that the press can start concentrating on facts and issues that matter to the American people, and not gossip and innuendo.  
     

    So to recap, Epshteyn secured an interview with a leader of the free world, with excerpts airing on local news stations all over the country. With this opportunity, here is a list of every question or statement Epshteyn uttered throughout the six interview excerpts. They are presented in chronological order:

    • Right.
    • Do you think he will get confirmed in the end?
    • A couple issues on the home front. Let's talk about the declassification of documents. Earlier this week you said you were going to declassify. Now you're saying that you want the inspector general of the Department of Justice to review the documents first. What happened? What's the motivation?
    • Don’t declassify?
    • It’s true.
    • OK. Do you think that in the end the American people should have an eye, have a view into these documents?
    • You mentioned NAFTA. Mexico has already agreed to renegotiate a deal -- something that most people said you couldn't get done. You got that done. Now it's up to Canada. Do you think that Canada, with Justin Trudeau as their leader, will capitulate and join the new deal?
    • Right.
    • Sure.
    • Right.
    • Horrible.
    • Right.
    • Mm-hm.
    • Right.
    • Right.
    • Sir, it’s almost been two years. The economy is roaring. The stock market is way up. Unemployment, way down. GDP growth -- it's much better than anybody expected. What do you think can be done to make sure it's long-term sustainable economic growth?
    • Right.
    • The new normal, right?
    • Mm-hm.
    • Highest wage growth since the start of the recession, in fact.
    • No doubt.
    • Right.
    • Kim Jong Un just actually said to Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, that he's very thankful for the summit and thinks it's the relationship has stabilized in the Korean Peninsula because of your efforts.
    • Mm-hm.
    • Right.
    • Right.
    • The remains.
    • Right.
    • Sure.
    • But the people see through it. Don’t you think?

    The good news: Virtually no one seems to be seeking out these segments on purpose. By all accounts, a new one-on-one interview with direct, potentially newsworthy quotes from the president of the United States is a huge get. And yet, as of publication, each of these interview segments has been watched less than 200 times on Ephsteyn's YouTube channel. Five of the six segments -- all but the segment that Media Matters already wrote about -- have gleaned less than 50 views. (This is embarrassingly typical of Epshteyn’s audience numbers.)

    The bad news: Epshteyn’s lack of an eager audience hasn’t stopped numerous other conservative leaders from giving him “interviews” to exploit his platform, thus beaming their messages to millions of unwitting local news viewers just in time for the midterm elections.

    This year, Epshteyn has aired interviews with seven other members of the Trump administration, eight Republican congressmen, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The appearances include: then-Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Vice President Mike Pence, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Council of Economic Advisers Chair Kevin Hassett, and Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI). DeSantis, McCarthy, Rooney, and Duffy are all on ballots this year.

  • In an interview with Sinclair, Trump touts Kavanaugh’s “unblemished record” and says he thinks he will be confirmed

    Trump sat down for an interview with Sinclair’s chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, who has never disagreed with the president in his commentary  

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner and operator of local TV stations in the country, regularly broadcasts pro-Trump propaganda segments created by an ex-Trump staffer into the homes of millions of Americans. And now those segments include an interview with President Donald Trump himself, in which he was given a friendly platform to discuss his continued support of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh despite a report that he committed sexual assault.

    The media company’s chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, has been producing regular commentary segments, called “Bottom Line With Boris,” for Sinclair for more than a year. Epshteyn had previously worked in the Trump White House on the communications team, after doing stints on the Trump inaugural committee and on the Trump campaign. Epshteyn also served as a Trump media surrogate throughout the campaign and first days of the Trump presidency. Epshteyn is personal friends with the president’s sons Eric and Donald Jr., and he has been spotted at Trump International Hotel multiple times, including with Don Jr. in June. He also may or may not have signed a nondisparagement agreement while he was working on the campaign, which could legally prevent him from criticizing Trump.

    For a chief political analyst, Epshteyn offers takes that are notably unoriginal. At best, he regurgitates Trump talking points or touts some vague, imaginary bipartisan ideals that involve being nicer to Trump. At worst, he defends the most upsetting, racist things Trump does. In fact, in a recent interview on a National Review podcast, Epshteyn could not think of a single issue about which he had disagreed with the Trump administration in any of his commentary segments. What’s more: These segments ultimately air on an estimated 100 TV news stations under Sinclair’s control, exploiting the trust people have in their local news.

    Given the president’s penchant for granting interviews to sycophants, it was only a matter of time before Trump himself made an appearance on "Bottom Line with Boris."

    On September 21, Epshteyn shared the first of what will likely be several must-run segments featuring excerpts from his sit-down with the president. This one is focused on Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and professor Christine Blasey Ford’s account of sexual assault by Kavanaugh when they were both in high school. In the segment, Trump largely repeats broad White House talking points about making sure Ford is heard, and then pivots to touting Kavanaugh’s “unblemished record.” Trump also says he believes Kavanaugh will ultimately still be confirmed.  

    BORIS EPSHTEYN: The nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is facing last-minute turmoil over allegations that he committed sexual assault decades ago. I spoke with President Trump about this in a one-on-one, exclusive interview. Here’s what he shared.  

    [INTERVIEW CLIP BEGINS]

    PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think they’ve been very respectful of Dr. Ford, extremely respectful. I think they’re doing the right thing. They want to give her a voice, if she wants to take it. They’re talking now about timing. It’s already been delayed a week. That’s a long time. This is the U.S. Senate we’re talking about.

    EPSHTEYN: Right.

    TRUMP: I can only say this: Let her speak. But Brett Kavanaugh is one of the finest people you’ll ever meet. I think it’s been extremely hard on him and his family. When I look at what’s happening -- here’s a man with an unblemished record, and to be going through this all of a sudden. So I won’t say anything now. All I’m saying is that -- let it play out. Let her have open voice. And let’s see what happens.

    EPSHTEYN: Do you think he will get confirmed in the end?

    TRUMP: I do. I do. One of the finest judges we have, one of the greatest intellects we have. Top of the line in every way. This is a shame. This is actually a shame.

    [END OF INTERVIEW CLIP]

    EPSHTEYN: Here’s the bottom line: President Trump continues to support Judge Kavanaugh and is confident that he will be confirmed.

    This year, Epshteyn has aired interviews with seven other members of the Trump administration, eight Republican congressmen, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The appearances include: then-Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Vice President Mike Pence, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Council of Economic Advisers Chair Kevin Hassett, and Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI). DeSantis, McCarthy, Rooney, and Duffy are all on ballots this year.

  • Sinclair’s shameful legacy now includes exploiting a woman’s murder to attack immigrants

    Chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn: “Americans such as Mollie Tibbetts … dying at the hands of illegal immigrants is a very real threat”

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    You’d think Sinclair Broadcast Group would lay low for a while and reassess its options after an extremely damaging month. Instead, the conservative media giant will force news stations across the country to air a 90-second segment exploiting the murder of Iowa woman Mollie Tibbetts to echo President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants.

    Tibbetts was reported missing last month after she went out for a jog on a country road in Brooklyn, IA. Last week, local law enforcement found Tibbetts’ body and charged Mexican national Cristhian Bahena Rivera, an undocumented immigrant, for her murder.   

    Mollie Tibbetts would have returned to the University of Iowa last week. At a campus vigil, her older brother Jake encouraged everyone in attendance to “make a new friend” in honor of his “goofy” and passionate sister. Tibbetts’ friends have shared memories of the psychology student smiling as she walked through campus. “She was an advocate for mental health and genuinely cared about how people thought,” one friend told the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

    That’s not what the Sinclair segment is about, though.

    The segment, which will now air on an estimated 100 or more local news stations nationwide, ignores Tibbetts’ family members’ specific wishes for people to not weaponize Mollie's death for anti-immigrant ends. Instead, the Sinclair clip leans on the common racist trope of white women’s sanctity as it adds another disgusting entry to the right-wing media canon of unabashed xenophobic exploitation.

    In the clip, chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn mirrors Trump's rhetoric by referencing “families who have been permanently separated from their children,” a grotesque talking point drawing a comparison to the administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. Epshteyn also references the deaths of Kate Steinle and Drew Rosenberg, which right-wing media have exploited to smear immigrants.

    BORIS EPSHTEYN (HOST): Last week, our country collectively mourned the loss of 20-year-old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. According to investigators, Tibbetts was followed and murdered by an illegal immigrant while on a run near her Brooklyn, IA, home. Her killer illegally entered our country. He then worked at an Iowa farm for several years after giving them fake identification and breaking through the very system in place to prevent these tragedies from occurring.

    Tibbetts’ murder has brought the debate over immigration reform to the forefront of the American consciousness once again. Republicans like Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley are advocating for stronger immigration laws. Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have focused mostly on scoring political points against our president. In a CNN interview last week, Warren pivoted from sharing her condolences to the Tibbetts family to attacking the administration’s zero-tolerance policy of border enforcement. According to Warren, we should be focusing on the people who, quote, “pose a real threat.”

    Sen. Warren, Americans such as Mollie Tibbetts, Kate Steinle, and Drew Rosenberg dying at the hands of illegal immigrants is a very real threat. Here’s the bottom line: Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Mollie Tibbetts and to all of the families who have been permanently separated from their children due to horrific tragedy such as this. Abolishing ICE and opening our borders are unacceptable solutions to our flawed immigration system.

    Among other offenses, Epshteyn left out a few crucial pieces of context here. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than their peers born in the U.S. And as writer Jessica Valenti pointed out, “The deadliest demographic for American women isn't immigrants - it's husbands & boyfriends. But the truth about who kills women in this country isn't politically useful.” Women are harassed, abused, and killed every day, simply for daring to exist.

    I have watched every one of the 287 “Bottom Line With Boris” clips available online. He displays untold levels of ignorance and political obtuseness, along with a lack of charisma I cannot accurately convey with words. He has defended Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric about literal murderous Nazis. He has minimized the Trump administration’s abhorrent family separation policy, suggesting media had overblown the issue. He has fearmongered about “chain migration” and devoted multiple segments to attacking protesting NFL players. He has attacked Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) repeatedly, in segments about topics that barely relate to her, for unexplained reasons.

    Now there’s this.

    The fact that this segment will air in homes across the country, unchallenged, decontextualized -- over dinner or breakfast, between the traffic and weather -- is Sinclair’s horrific legacy.

  • Fox News gives soft treatment to EPA chief Andrew Wheeler as he defends admin's new coal-friendly plan

    Fox's Dana Perino invites Wheeler to "reassure [the layperson] that this isn't about giving polluters a pass"

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), made his first appearance on Fox News on Tuesday in an interview with host Dana Perino. Wheeler got soft treatment during the interview, just as his disgraced predecessor Scott Pruitt did during most of the numerous interviews he gave to Fox News.

    Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, came on to discuss the Trump administration's proposal to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and move the nation toward cleaner sources of power. The EPA's proposed replacement plan would drastically reduce emissions standards for coal plants and allow more air pollution, which even the agency expects would lead to 470 to 1,400 premature deaths each year by 2030, as The New York Times reported.

    Perino started the interview by inviting Wheeler to "reassure [the layperson] that this isn't about giving polluters a pass." Later in the interview, she asked Wheeler about the Times article and the estimates of premature deaths, but he dodged the question, and she didn't follow up and press him for an answer.

    The interview with Fox appears to have been Wheeler's second TV interview since taking the helm at EPA on July 9. Wheeler did an interview last week with the TV conglomerate Sinclair, another Trump-friendly, right-wing outlet. The Sinclair interviewer, Boris Epshteyn, asked no hard questions either. After Wheeler's Fox appearance on August 21, he gave what appears to have been his third TV interview -- this time to Fox Business, yet another Trump-friendly network.

    From the August 21 edition of Fox News' The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino:

    DANA PERINO (HOST): Joining me now is acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. It’s good to have you on the program. Tell me how you would explain to the layperson -- I know that this stuff can get very technical -- what you are trying to do and how you would reassure them that this isn't about giving polluters a pass.

    ANDREW WHEELER (ACTING EPA ADMINISTRATOR): Sure. First of all, Dana, thank you for having me on the show today. This is a big day, the unveiling of our Affordable Clean Energy rule. What this rule will do will set guidelines for the states to then work with utilities around the country to make sure that every utility makes reductions on their CO2 emissions going forward. It’s very different from the Obama approach, which was very much a command-and-control approach where they dictated to all the states what they had to do. We’ll actually be working cooperatively with the states on this.

    PERINO: So, the clean air rules over time have been, the states work together and it's all integrated. But for people who say “but air pollution knows no state boundaries,” so doesn't the EPA need to oversee what the states are doing in order to protect people?

    WHEELER: Yes, and we will be. What we’re doing is setting the guidelines, and then the states will then report back to the agency as to how they’re going to implement this and we will then be able to approve their plan. And if we don’t believe that they’ve gone far enough, we can always step in as a backstop to make sure that they are making the reductions that are necessary going forward.

    PERINO: Critics of this move will say that this is a rollback of President Obama's very stringent regulations, but as I recall, Obama’s rule actually never went into place. There was a major lawsuit by 29 states that went to the Supreme Court and it's been stayed. So, what are you actually replacing?

    WHEELER: Exactly. It's not a rollback, it's an overhaul, because the Obama regulations, as you said, never took effect because the Supreme Court did take the unprecedented action of issuing the stay. So what we're doing is we took a close look at the Clean Air Act to make sure that we are within the four corners of the act, that we’re using the laws that Congress gave us, and we’ve moved forward with this new approach, which we believe is legally sound and can be implemented across the country and it will provide protections for all Americans, as well as lower electricity rates. And this is exactly what President Trump asked us to do last year.

    PERINO: Sorry, so if I can get in here -- two of the other pieces of criticism: One, the New York Times article today was about the increase in possible premature deaths due to this new policy, saying that the plan would see between 470 and 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 because of increased rates of microscopic airborne particulates. The Obama administration would say that obviously its plan was much better than that. I wanted to also ask you about climate change and the administration's position on it, human-caused or not, because one of the criticisms is that in the report that you’ve put forward for this new proposal, climate change doesn’t even come up until page 300. Was that on purpose?

    WHEELER: Well, I do believe that climate change is real and that man does have an impact on climate change. We talk about this in terms of energy efficiency, and energy efficiency you release less CO2, and that’s what we’re providing with this regulation. As far as the New York Times report, this regulation and the Obama approach were both about CO2 reductions. We address particulate matter and the other pollutants under other regulations and those regulations are still in effect. In fact, we just released a report two or three weeks ago showing that our air quality is 73 percent cleaner today than it was in the 1970s, and all of those regulations, the guides to that 73 percent cleaner, are still in effect and will still be working into the future.

    PERINO: One last question for you, we’ll make it a quick one: The lawsuits that are currently underway from the Justice Department against big energy companies that are underway, I think it’s DTE in Michigan -- will those continue to be prosecuted under this new rule?

    WHEELER: Well, there was no prosecution under the previous rule, so those prosecutions were under other regulations.

    PERINO: OK.

    WHEELER: And yes, we will continue to enforce the regulations that are on the books. Absolutely.

    PERINO: All right. Andrew Wheeler, for your first national interview, thank you so much for being here. We appreciate it.

    WHEELER: Thank you, Dana.

  • EPA chief Andrew Wheeler gives his first TV interview to right-wing conglomerate Sinclair

    Wheeler and Sinclair's Boris Epshteyn push debunked claims about auto efficiency and safety

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    This post was updated on 8/16/18.

    Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, gave an exclusive interview to Sinclair Broadcast Group chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn -- and used the opportunity to push deceptive talking points about auto-efficiency rules. The interview was released in three parts, each of which is a "must-run" segment for more than 100 local TV news stations that Sinclair owns and operates around the U.S. Sinclair has a strong right-wing bent, and Epshteyn, a former Trump aide, is a consistent apologist for the president and his administration.

    This appears to be the first TV interview Wheeler has granted since assuming the top spot at EPA on July 9. Wheeler has given a number of interviews to newspapers and wire services in the last six weeks, mostly to mainstream outlets, including The Washington Post, USA Today, and Bloomberg. But with this interview, Wheeler is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, who frequently turned to right-wing media to push Trump administration talking points. Pruitt gave an interview to Sinclair's Epshteyn in May, at a time when Pruitt was dogged by scandals and therefore avoiding mainstream media outlets.

    Media Matters has chronicled Sinclair’s aggressive approach to promoting its conservative agenda, which includes forcing local stations to air “must-runsegments. Like other conservative media outlets, Sinclair has given cover to Trump and provided his allies and administration officials with a platform to spread White House propaganda. Trump, in turn, has defended Sinclair. The president recently bashed the Federal Communications Commission for slowing Sinclair's now-scuttled acquisition of Tribune Media Company, tweeting that a merger "would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People."

    As usual, Epshteyn asked no tough questions in his interview with Wheeler. Instead, in the first part of the interview, he allowed the EPA chief to push the debunked notion that more fuel-efficient cars are dangerous. Wheeler claimed that the Trump administration's proposal to weaken auto fuel-efficiency standards would "save over a thousand lives a year." In fact, recent research has found that strengthening auto standards can actually improve road safety and save lives. 

    In the second part of the interview, Wheeler described his background and talked up the EPA's work with states. In the third part, Wheeler argued in vague terms that there's a need to revisit some decades-old regulations, and Epshteyn praised the agency's efforts to "get rid of the unnecessary, stifling regulations." In neither the second nor third parts did Wheeler or Epshteyn mention any of the controversial issues now facing the agency.

    From Sinclair's “Bottom Line with Boris,” here is part one of the interview, released on August 13:

    BORIS EPSHTEYN (HOST): The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that they're proposing freezing certain emissions standards at 2020 levels until 2026. I spoke to the acting administrator of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, about the rationale behind that proposal. Here's what he told me.

    (BEGIN INTERVIEW)

    ANDREW WHEELER (ACTING EPA ADMINISTRATOR): Well, we looked at a lot of data when we worked with our partners over at Department of Transportation, and we believe by freezing those for five years we'll save over a thousand lives a year and save the American consumer $500 billion over the course of the regulation. So this is really an important regulation, important standard, for the American consumer, and we really anticipate more new cars will be sold because the prices will be slightly lower, and when new cars are sold they're safer and they're cleaner for the environment.

    EPSHTEYN: And there's now a comment period in place. What is the process for actually freezing the standards?

    WHEELER: Well, you're right, we are taking comments, we're taking comments from our proposal which is freezing the standard for five years. It’s also important to remember that the standards will continue to get tighter between now and 2021, and then they'll freeze. We're taking comments on that all the way up to the Obama proposal, and seven or eight steps in between. So we want the American public to comment on this. We want to hear from industry, the states, the environmental organizations. We want to make sure that the rule that we go final with at the end of the process is the best rule for all Americans.

    (END INTERVIEW)

    EPSHTEYN: Here's the bottom line: The EPA's proposed freeze on emissions standards is a common-sense solution to a complex problem. It will both save billions of dollars, and more importantly, save lives.

    Here is part two of the interview, released on August 14:

    EPSHTEYN: Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler has taken the reins at the EPA. He is also a top contender to become the permanent administrator. I spoke to him about his qualifications and experience. Here's what he said.

    (BEGIN INTERVIEW)

    WHEELER: I started my career here at the EPA as a career employee, and so I worked with -- a lot of the employees that I worked with, they're still here, and that has really helped me because I understand the mission of the agency. I understand what we're trying to do here, and I think the experience that I had working on Capitol Hill and at the United States Senate, as well in private practice, has really given me a very well-rounded background to help me as the acting administrator.

    EPSHTEYN: You began your career at the EPA. You're now leading the agency over 20 years later. How has the agency changed in that time?

    WHEELER: Well, probably the biggest change is that we're working more with the states and local governments. In the last 25-plus years, we've gone from operating the entire permit program for all the water and air permits, to delegating most of those to the states. Right now, 96 percent of our water permits are done by the states. So we're working more collaboratively and cooperatively with our state partners, and those are the people on the ground that are, you know, they live among the areas where they're issuing the permits. I think that's really a good thing for the environment and for the country.

    (END INTERVIEW)

    EPSHTEYN: Here's the bottom line: The EPA is in good hands with Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler at the helm. He is going to do all he can to continue achieving the administration's goals.

    Here is part three of the interview, released on August 16:

    EPSHTEYN: In the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has two missions. One, to get rid of unnecessary regulations; two, to make sure that our environment is clean and safe. I spoke to acting administrator of the EPA Andrew Wheeler about how they balance those two priorities. Here’s what he told me:

    (BEGIN INTERVIEW)

    WHEELER: Some of our regulations have been on the books 30, 40-plus years. And what we need to make sure is that some of those regulations aren’t actually causing a negative impact on the environment because some of them, sometimes, inhibits people from installing cleaner technologies. So what we want to do is make sure we have a common-sense approach to make sure the people can install the cleanest technologies possible. To make sure that the air and the water continue to get better. It’s -- I would say it's more, making sure that we’re doing the right thing and the smart thing. When we look at a standard, when we look at cleaning up a Superfund site for example, we’re trying to get rid of the attorneys that have been slowing down the process and getting the sites cleaned up faster, so we can get sites more productive use for the American public.

    (END INTERVIEW)

    EPSHTEYN: Here's the bottom line: The Trump administration and the EPA specifically are working hard to thread the needle, and make sure that they get rid of the unnecessary, stifling regulations while also ensuring that we live in a safe and clean environment.

  • Sinclair’s plan to buy Tribune Media stations is officially dead, but this pro-Trump TV giant isn’t going anywhere 

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    After several weeks of uncertainty, Tribune Media has officially pulled the plug on its planned acquisition by conservative local TV broadcasting behemoth Sinclair Broadcast Group. Though Sinclair’s massive expansion plan is foiled, the company remains the largest owner and operator of local TV stations in the country and an increasingly popular friendly media platform for conservatives. And there are other local media battles on the horizon.

    On August 9, Tribune Media announced it has pulled out of the embattled Sinclair-Tribune acquisition proposal and has filed a lawsuit against Sinclair for “breach of contract,” citing the company’s questionable conduct that led to the deal’s slow-tracking. The announcement comes several weeks after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated the proposed acquisition for further legal scrutiny, citing possible “misrepresentation or lack of candor” by Sinclair. In the time since, Sinclair’s extensive record of shady business tactics has returned to the spotlight. And as of late July, both Sinclair and Tribune, along with several other major broadcasters, are being investigated by the Department of Justice for possible advertisement price fixing.

    The end of this proposed expansion is a huge victory for those who want local news to stay truly local, and especially those communities who were set to see Sinclair take over their airwaves. But Sinclair is still a major threat to the future of local news.

    Sinclair is already a huge conservative force in local media

    Sinclair currently owns or operates 192 TV stations in 89 different local media markets across the country. Even without the new stations it would have acquired through the Tribune purchase, Sinclair is still the largest owner and operator of local TV stations in the country. It’s already actively inflicting plenty of damage to local communities using two tactics: consolidation and content.

    Sinclair’s M.O. for years has been to infiltrate media markets and consolidate news resources, making local news measurably less local and more conservative. The company currently dominates numerous specific local media markets across the nation, using several types of legal maneuvers to own, operate, or otherwise control multiple top broadcast stations in a given place. There are at least 48 stations in 23 states that aren’t owned by Sinclair but are operated by the company in some capacity.

    Through outright ownership and roundabout legal agreements, Sinclair manages to currently broadcast “must-run” segments on around 100 local news stations nationwide. These stations are forced to air, often during morning or nightly newscasts, pro-Trump commentary segments hosted by former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn and regular “Terrorism Alert Desk” segments seemingly designed to spur anti-Muslim xenophobia.

    Sinclair has direct connections to the Trump inner circle

    Sinclair’s most well-known connection to the Trump administration is its “Bottom Line With Boris” series, particularly segments in which Epshteyn does friendly interviews with members of the Trump administration. At least seven administration officials -- and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani -- have used Sinclair as a friendly media platform. In the last few weeks, Sinclair has mandated that its news stations air four different excerpts from Epshteyn’s recent interview with Vice President Mike Pence.

    Epshteyn’s blatant Trump propaganda is only a small piece of the much larger web of connections between Sinclair and elected officials and members of the Trump camp. Trump has given exclusive interviews to Sinclair reporters at least 16 times, and Trump and others in his orbit have promoted Sinclair and its content.

    And though the Sinclair-Tribune deal has been shuttered, an internal investigation into Trump-appointed FCC chair Ajit Pai’s relationship with Sinclair may still be ongoing. In February, The New York Times reported that the FCC inspector general has opened an internal investigation into potential improper conduct by Pai and his aides in pushing deregulatory measures that have specifically benefited Sinclair. The investigation began after lawmakers called on the inspector general to investigate a “disturbing pattern of a three way quid-pro-quo” that could include a laundry list of activities, beginning shortly after Sinclair’s top executive told then-candidate Trump the outlet was there to “deliver [his] message” to America before the 2016 election.

    Sinclair is gearing up for other ways to expand its presence in the conservative news game

    Sinclair began meeting with current and former Fox News personalities while waiting for the Tribune deal to be approved, reportedly planning to develop a direct cable news competitor for Fox. It was developing ideas for a “three-hour block of news-opinion programming” that could air on a cable network Sinclair already owns or another it would have acquired in the Tribune deal.

    Even without the deal, Sinclair still has options for pursuing its cable news idea. In July, Buzzfeed News reported that Sinclair was developing a free streaming app called STIRR that it could use to launch its Fox News competitor. And Sinclair bought Circa, an online news company, in 2015. Sinclair stations already typically link to Circa on their websites and sometimes run packaged segments from Circa on their local newscasts. And after a 2017 stint as the prime resource for stoking Fox host Sean Hannity’s pro-Trump conspiracy theories, the outlet is now focused on bringing Sinclair’s nationally produced news segments to a wider audience.

    The Trump FCC could be making things even easier for Sinclair in the future

    Though it did sideline the Sinclair-Tribune deal, the Trump FCC is still very much in favor of media deregulation, and it’s poised to consider another move that could help Sinclair and other large broadcasters homogenize local news. In conversations with Media Matters, representatives from media and consumer advocacy groups said a possible FCC reconsideration of what’s known as the national ownership cap, or national television audience reach cap, could be the next big local media fight on the horizon.

    Currently, the law specifies that no broadcaster could own local stations reaching more than a collective 39 percent of U.S. television households. Changing this rule would give major companies like Sinclair the freedom to pursue other mergers and acquisitions currently restricted by the cap -- and it’s only a matter of time before the FCC makes a move.

    The commission gave public notice back in December that it plans to reconsider the cap, and a long list of broadcasters has already signaled public support for raising the limit. Sinclair, for its part, urged the FCC to eliminate the cap altogether.

  • This potential FCC rule change could be disastrous for local media diversity 

    Free Press policy analyst Dana Floberg: “If the FCC loosens the national ownership cap, it'll be even easier for Sinclair and other big broadcasters to merge their way to national broadcasting monopolies” 

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    With conservative local TV behemoth Sinclair Broadcast Group’s unprecedented expansion plan now in sudden peril, advocates are warning that the fight for local news is far from over. The Trump Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is still very much in favor of media deregulation, and it’s poised to consider another move that could homogenize your local news.

    July brought a bombshell announcement from the FCC: Sinclair’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media, which would give the local TV giant unprecedented control over local stations across the country, was designated for greater legal scrutiny. The decision was shocking to opponents of the deal, who had fought back as the FCC spent the last year bestowing upon Sinclair a series of regulatory giveaways that made the proposed deal possible in the first place.

    In announcing the need for additional consideration -- a move that has doomed similar large transactions in the past -- the FCC cited several specific divestitures proposed as part of the deal, which would have involved Sinclair’s signature use of legal loopholes to skirt ownership caps. It even asserted that Sinclair may have misrepresented its intentions in these cases. As of publication, however, neither Sinclair nor Tribune has indicated it will pull back from the deal rather than follow through with a hearing.

    In the weeks since the announcement, consumer and media advocates who had previously faced a sharp uphill battle in challenging the merger are now discussing other imminent threats to ensuring a diversity of voices in local media, including Sinclair’s larger repertoire of sketchy business practices and other consolidation efforts on the horizon.

    In conversations with Media Matters, representatives from media and consumer advocacy groups said a possible FCC reconsideration of what’s known as the national ownership cap, or national television audience reach cap, could be the next big local media fight on the horizon.

    As Francella Ochillo, the director of government and legal affairs at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, explained to Media Matters, loosening ownership limits “would pave the way for additional media consolidation and cross-ownership, allowing one entity to own more stations in already concentrated markets. That will also have a direct impact on the diversity of voices in those communities.”

    In 2004, Congress created a statute stating that no broadcaster could own local stations reaching more than a collective 39 percent of U.S. television households. The new cap was part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004, which also specified that only Congress -- and not the FCC -- could change that 39 percent figure moving forward.

    Though it does not have the power to change the cap unilaterally, the FCC, in the years since, has made changes to how that ownership reach is calculated. Most notably, the commission has waffled back and forth in recent years about using a now-outdated rule known as the UHF discount, which allows station owners to calculate their ownership reach in a misleading way that effectively skirts the 39 percent cap. The FCC’s bizarre move to reinstate the UHF discount in 2017 is what allowed Sinclair to pursue such a huge acquisition to begin with.

    Some advocacy groups challenged the UHF discount reinstatement in court, but the case was recently dismissed for lack of standing, with no ruling on the merits of the case. (Earlier questioning from the panel of judges suggested skepticism of the FCC’s reasoning for reinstating the outdated rule, though. One judge said the commission seemed to be keeping the discount “on life support.”)

    Now it appears that the FCC will reconsider both the UHF discount and the entire national ownership cap, though. It’s only a matter of when and how drastically things could change.

    For his part, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai remains heavily in favor of media deregulation and consolidation, often under the guise of innovation; he expressed a desire to raise the national ownership cap as far back as 2013.

    The commission in December gave public notice of its intent to review the current limit, introducing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and mentioning the possibility that the cap could be eliminated altogether.

    Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a dissenting statement at the time that by pursuing new rulemaking on the national cap, “we are destroying our most basic values and tearing apart the rules that have helped keep our media markets local, diverse, and competitive.” Then-Commissioner Mignon Clyburn lamented, “The current Administration, in its quest to green light even greater media consolidation, has found a way to rewrite history” by initiating a reconsideration of the cap without the authority to do so.

    A long list of major broadcasting companies stated their support for raising the cap to 50 percent after the rulemaking announcement. And Sinclair urged the FCC in an April filing to eliminate the cap altogether.

    The FCC has not acted further on the reconsideration yet, though there were rumors it would to do so in July. But when it does, a change could boost not just Sinclair (which would be free to pursue other deals currently restricted by the cap) but also the many other major broadcast owners that are looking to further expand but currently cannot.

    Dana Floberg, a policy analyst at consumer advocacy group Free Press, explained to Media Matters, “If the FCC loosens the national ownership cap, it'll be even easier for Sinclair and other big broadcasters to merge their way to national broadcasting monopolies.”

    What’s more: Loosening or eliminating the cap would leave local media consumers -- especially some communities of color that rely more heavily on local broadcast news -- with fewer options.

    Ochillo described this significant potential impact of a corporate-friendly change to the cap. “As media consolidation increases, the number of voices controlling the local media broadcasts will decrease. That means that media ownership could become even more homogenous than it is today. The FCC must honor its commitment to promote diversity in media ownership.”

  • Sinclair stations have now aired six “must-run” segments pushing for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation

    Chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn: “Let’s hope he is confirmed without delay”

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    This piece was updated on August 27 to include two more "must-run" segments.

    Conservative TV giant Sinclair Broadcast Group is requiring its local news stations across the country to air multiple “must-run” segments praising “perfectly qualified” Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh and encouraging a quick confirmation.

    As of August 27, Sinclair has produced at least six “must-run” commentary segments about the open Supreme Court seat, including three that feature excerpts from interviews with Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). The segments either laud Kavanaugh’s qualifications, dismiss real concerns about what’s at stake if he is confirmed, or push for a quick confirmation process. Some do all three.

    Sinclair designates that certain news and commentary segments, produced in its national studios, must air on its local news stations across the country -- including all four of the Kavanaugh-related segments. According to a Media Matters search of the iQ media database, one or more of these segments have aired in at least 22 states, including those with potentially key senators in a confirmation vote like Alabama, Maine, Nevada, and West Virginia.

    The first “must-run” aired on June 28 and 29, shortly after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. In his recurring “Bottom Line With Boris” commentary segment, Sinclair chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn argued that the Senate ought to confirm whomever President Donald Trump would nominate to replace Kennedy before the midterm elections in November. Epshteyn ended the segment, “Nominating and confirming a second conservative justice to the Supreme Court will be a huge achievement for the president and Senate Republicans. It will further cement their reputation as defenders of the rule of law and our Constitution.”

    Here is the full segment, as aired on WPFO (Fox 23) in Portland, Maine:

    A second “must-run” segment aired on July 10 and July 11, right after Trump announced his nomination of Kavanaugh. Again, Epshteyn argued that Kavanaugh ought to be confirmed quickly and listed off reasons why the judge was “immensely qualified” for the role. Epshteyn also argues that the far-right wing of the GOP should support the nomination and that Kavanaugh is “the least controversial” and “easily the most confirmable” candidate. He also mentioned by name three Democratic senators who are up for re-election: Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, and Sen. Joe Donnelly in Indiana. Epshteyn predicted “most” would vote to confirm Kavanaugh “so as to keep their chances to be re-elected alive.”

    Here is the full segment, as aired on WVAH (Fox 11) in Charleston, West Virginia:

    The “must-run” featuring Rep. Lamar Smith aired on July 17 and July 18. In the clip, Smith attempted to dismiss concerns that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would threaten abortion access, saying, “Clearly, he is a judge who has made comments about Roe v. Wade but he’s also written a book on the importance of precedent. I think a lot of legal scholars don't expect him to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, although I think a lot of the Democratic senators are using that as a scare tactic. I think it’s probably unlikely it would be completely overturned.”

    Epshteyn offered no additional context on the matter, then concluded, “There’s no question that Judge Brett Kavanaugh is perfectly qualified to be the next Supreme Court Justice. Let’s hope he is confirmed without delay.” Here is the full segment, as aired on WBMA (ABC 33/40) in Birmingham, Alabama:

    The fourth “must-run” segment, featuring Pence, aired on July 25 and July 26. In it, Pence again made the case for Kavanaugh, telling Epshteyn that Kavanaugh is “a man of integrity, with a lifetime of calling to public service as a family man, a man of faith,” and “the most qualified person in America to fill that seat on the Supreme Court.” Epshteyn nodded in agreement and then ended the segment by asserting, “Judge Brett Kavanaugh is fully qualified to be on the Supreme Court. Democrats in the Senate should not let partisanship cloud their judgement, and they should give Judge Brett Kavanaugh fair consideration.”

    Here is the full segment, as aired on KRNV (NBC 4) in Reno, Nevada:

    The fifth “must-run” segment, featuring Hatch, aired on August 7 and August 8. The segment included an interview excerpt in which Hatch praises Kavanaugh extensively, saying, “I'm very high on him. He's a very fine man. He's lived a very good, exemplary life. His whole life has been devoted to the law. He's straightforward. He's honest.” Epshteyn ended the segment by saying, “Let’s hope that Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed as quickly as possible” in spite of “senseless obstruction from many Democrats.”

    Here is the full segment, as aired on WEAR (ABC 3) in Pensacola, Florida: 

    The sixth and most recent “must-run” segment aired from August 24 through August 27. In the clip, Epshteyn responded to calls from Senate Democrats to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing after the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen plead guilty to several crimes, including campaign finance violations that implicate the president. He argued that “Democrats have no tangible reason to oppose this highly qualified pick” and joked, “What’s next? Senate Democrats will try to block the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh because they don’t like the weather?” Epshteyn also absurdly lamented that Kavanaugh’s confirmation process was “the equivalent of being invited to interview for a job that you are highly qualified for but you’re being kept waiting in the lobby of the office building until some of the board members finish shouting about how much they wished that their cousin was up for the job instead.”

    Here is the full segment, as aired on WHP (CBS 21) in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: