A short history of the right-wing politics of Sinclair Broadcasting

A short history of the right-wing politics of Sinclair Broadcasting

››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

Sinclair Broadcast Group, the country's largest operator of local television stations, is in the process of buying Tribune Media. Sinclair and its affiliates have a history of airing conservative-leaning reporting and commentary, and its executives have donated to Republicans and Republican causes. The company also has ties to President Donald Trump and his administration, covered him very favorably during his presidential campaign, and hired one of his former aides as an analyst.

Sinclair To Buy Tribune Media And Has Faced Criticism For Its Conservative Agenda

Sinclair Broadcast Group Intends To Buy Tribune Media For Nearly $4 Billion. On May 8, CNN reported that Sinclair Broadcast Group, “America’s biggest owner of local TV stations,” has “agreed to buy Tribune Media for $43.50 per share, valuing the deal at $3.9 billion.” CNN also noted that Tribune “operates dozens of TV stations across the country,” and has “a cable channel, WGN America; a 32% stake in the CareerBuilder web site; and a 31% stake in the Food Network.” [CNN.com, 5/8/17]

Sinclair Executive Lashed Out At Criticism Of His Company’s Conservative Bias. A Sinclair executive lashed out at criticism of Sinclair in an internal memo, according to Politico. As reported by Politico, the memo claims the criticism came from “‘biased’ news organizations that have ‘an agenda to destroy our reputation.’” From the July 18 article:

An executive at local broadcast TV giant Sinclair defended the company and lashed out against what he called "biased" news organizations that have "an agenda to destroy our reputation" in an internal memo obtained by POLITICO.

The memo, written by Sinclair's Vice President of News Scott Livingston and sent to Sinclair station news directors, said he wants to “dispel some of the myths” being reported about the organization.

In the memo, Livingston lists several storylines that have emerged around the Maryland-based television company and provides what he said are facts proving them false. They range from reports about its “must run” segments to morale at its Washington station WJLA.

[...]

“[M]uch of the reporting about Sinclair in recent months has been irresponsible and much of it is just plain false,” Livingston wrote in the memo. News directors were asked to discuss the issues outlined in the memo with staffers.

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In the closing paragraphs, Livingston alleges that reporters from major media outlets are biased, and calls on them to “openly disclose their political tendencies,” adding that doing so would help consumers "understand the agenda of the reporters and editors providing the content."

"What we find most troubling in the reporting about our company, by major media outlets (like the New York Times and Washington Post), is the omission of key facts in their stories,” Livingston wrote. "Such omissions suggest the existence of either journalistic incompetency or editorial bias. We do not believe these journalists are incompetent, so we are left to conclude that they are biased. [Politico, 7/18/17]

Sinclair Has Aired Conservative-Slanted Reporting And Commentary

Wash. Post: Sinclair’s Stations Have Been “Used To Attack Democrats Or To Boost Republicans.” The Washington Post reported in 2014 that after Sinclair purchased Washington’s ABC affiliate WJLA-TV, the channel took “a subtle but noticeable turn to the right.” The Post added that Sinclair’s stations have been “used to attack Democratic candidates or to boost Republicans,” and on the eve of 2012 presidential elections, “Sinclair stations in several battlegrounds states aired a ­corporate-produced half-hour news ‘special’ that criticized” then-President Barack Obama and his policies. Previously, in 2007, nine Sinclair stations aired public affairs shows without disclosing that “host Armstrong Williams had been paid by an affiliate of the Education Department to make favorable comments about the Bush administration’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy.” As a result, the Federal Communications Commission “fined Sinclair $36,000” for violating “rules against ‘payola punditry.’” From the September 16, 2014, article:

There’s a new owner and a new approach to the news at WJLA-TV, Washington’s ABC affiliate. Under the direction of its ambitious corporate parent, the station’s news operations have taken a subtle but noticeable turn to the right.

[...]

The station has also begun to carry pieces produced by Sinclair’s Washington bureau about national issues and federal programs. These stories have generally been critical of the Obama administration and tend to offer perspectives primarily from conservative think tanks.

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In the past, Sinclair hasn’t shied from using its TV stations to deliver clear political messages. This has most clearly come in election seasons, with stations being used to attack Democratic candidates or to boost Republicans:

●On the eve of the 2012 election between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, for example, Sinclair stations in several battlegrounds states aired a ­corporate-produced half-hour news “special” that criticized Obama’s handling of the economy, his signature health-care law and the administration’s management of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Romney’s record received less scrutiny.

●In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission fined Sinclair $36,000 for broadcasting two public-affairs shows, “America’s Black Forum” and “Election Countdown” in 2004 on nine of its stations without disclosing that host Armstrong Williams had been paid by an affiliate of the Education Department to make favorable comments about the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” policy. Sinclair said it had no knowledge of the arrangement, but the FCC said the programs violated rules against “payola punditry.” [The Washington Post, 9/16/14]

NY Times: Sinclair Has Advanced “A Mostly Right-Leaning Agenda” Since George W. Bush’s Presidency. Sinclair has “used its 173 television stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda since the presidency of George W. Bush,” according to The New York Times. That has included “its refusal to broadcast an episode of ‘Nightline’ devoted to reciting the names of every member of the military killed in action in Iraq” in 2004, and “air[ing] parts of a documentary critical of the anti-Vietnam War activities” of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry. From the May 3 article:

Sinclair, which has little name recognition but beams local television stations into a quarter of American homes, covers plenty of standard local news, including fires, shootings and traffic. But it has also used its 173 television stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda since the presidency of George W. Bush.

[...]

Before the 2004 presidential election, Sinclair drew sharp criticism, including from Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, for its refusal to broadcast an episode of “Nightline” devoted to reciting the names of every member of the military killed in action in Iraq. The company, which sent Mr. Hyman and one of its reporters to Iraq earlier in the year to find positive stories that were not being told, said the broadcast amounted to an antiwar statement, The New York Times reported.

Then, just days before the election, Sinclair aired parts of a documentary critical of the anti-Vietnam War activities of John Kerry, the Democratic nominee. The company had originally planned to air the documentary in full, The Times reported, but pressure from advertisers and shareholders led it to run only excerpts during a program on the election. [The New York Times, 5/3/17]

Sinclair Aired An Ad In 2008 That Linked Obama To Weather Underground Founder Bill Ayers. In 2008, Sinclair aired an ad from a conservative group smearing then-Sen. Obama by linking him to the founder of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers, according to The New York Times. The Times noted that “Fox News Channel and CNN declined to run the spot amid legal questions.” From the August 27, 2008, article:

As Senator Obama’s campaign makes its argument for his candidacy before a national audience here this week, it is waging a separate, forceful campaign against a new conservative group running millions of dollars of ads linking him to the 1960s radical William Ayers Jr.

Lawyers for the campaign have asked the Justice Department to investigate the group — which is operating under rules governing non-profit corporations — calling on television stations to cease airing the spot, and, campaign officials said, planning to pressure advertisers on stations that refuse to do so. The ad is running in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

[...]

Mr. Obama has called Mr. Ayers “’somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old.”

Fox News Channel and CNN declined to run the spot amid legal questions. But the commercial, a minute long, has run at least 100 times since Saturday, heavily in East Lansing and Pittsburgh.

Saying that Mr. Obama’s supporters had sent 93,000 e-mails to the Sinclair broadcasting company for carrying the advertisement, Tommy, a campaign spokesman, said, “Other stations that follow Sinclair’s lead should expect a similar response from people who don’t want the political discourse cheapened with these false, negative attacks.” [The New York Times, 8/27/08]

Sinclair Gave Conservative Conspiracy Theorist Sharyl Attkisson Her Own Show. In 2015, Sinclair gave discredited former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson her own show to air on Sinclair’s stations. According to Politico, while Attkisson was at CBS, network executives saw her “wading dangerously close to advocacy” against the Obama administration regarding the 2012 Benghazi attacks. She also pushed false reports about supposed government waste during the Obama administration and made inaccurate claims about the federal health care website based on “partial” information likely given to her by Republicans. After resigning from CBS, Attkisson published a book full of conservative myths that additionally claimed her work was stymied by the Obama administration and her CBS bosses and that the Obama administration hacked her electronics. [Media Matters, 10/2/15]

Sinclair Executives Have Donated To Republicans And Republican Causes

Wash. Post: Sinclair And Its Executives “Have Been Consistent Financial Contributors To Republican Candidates." The Washington Post reported in 2014 that Sinclair “and its executives have been consistent financial contributors to Republican candidates.” [The Washington Post, 9/16/14]

NY Times: “Vast Majority” Of Political Donations By Sinclair Chairman And His Brothers Have Been For “Republican Causes.” The New York Times reported that Sinclair’s chairman “and his brothers have become active in politics,” with the “vast majority of their money” being “funneled to Republican causes.” From the May 3 article:

Along the way, [Sinclair Chairman David] Smith and his brothers have become active in politics. Some of their giving has been to Democrats, mostly for state and local races in Maryland. But a vast majority of their money has been funneled to Republican causes, including the Republican National Committee and a Mitt Romney fund-raising committee in 2012, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures.

In the last election cycle, the brothers donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republican causes, including at least $6,000 from Frederick Smith to a “super PAC” supporting Mr. Trump and $20,000 from David Smith to the National Republican Congressional Committee. [The New York Times, 5/3/17]

A Sinclair Affiliate Used A Photo Of Black Lives Matter Activist DeRay McKesson In Relation To Stories He Had Nothing To Do With. Sinclair affiliate KBOI used photos of Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson in relation to stories unrelated to him, according to Heavy. The station later “issued an apology on their Twitter account.” From the July 14 article:

Twitter was set ablaze on Friday night when news station KBOI 2 News posted a story about an attempted robbery in Idaho. The story claims that two alleged robbers arrived to find the doors of the bank locked. And while most users found no faults with the story, they did notice that the accompanying photo– that of civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson— was not at all an accurate representation of the facts.

Mckesson noticed this and retweeted a link to the story with the caption: “I haven’t been anywhere near a bank robbery. FYI.” Within minutes, users angrily left comments on KBOI’s Twitter page and that of McKesson. “Screenshot this, because you have a defamation lawsuit on your hands” advised one user, while countless others did just that and snapped screenshots of the misleading photo.

[...]

Even after the initial tweet was taken down, however, users began to come across other unrelated KBOI stories that shared this photo of McKesson at a protest rally. “Officer wounded in deadly ambush sues Black Lives Matter” reads the headline, which again promotes McKesson as someone who is seemingly complicit in the crime being described.

[...]

KBOI has issued an apology on their Twitter account, reading: “We messed up. We mistakenly tweeted a photo of @deray with an unrelated story link about a bank robbery. We at KBOI are very sorry.” [Heavy, 7/14/17]

A Montana Sinclair Affiliate Did Not Air The Recording Of The Gianforte Assault, And A Sinclair VP Donated To Him. A local Montana station bought by Sinclair in May refused to air audio of then-Republican Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, with its news director saying, “The person that tweeted [Jacobs] and was allegedly body slammed is a reporter for a politically biased publication,” according to New York magazine. Politico later reported that Sinclair’s vice president and director had donated to Gianforte the day after he was charged with assault. From the May 25 New York magazine article:

Last night, Montana residents who tuned into their NBC affiliate, KECI, would not have heard the now infamous audio of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs being roughed up by GOP congressional candidate Greg Gianforte. The anchor of the evening newscast, Laurel Staples, read a statement that said, in part, “NBC Montana takes pride in reporting only verifiable facts from an independent, reliable sources.”

New York has learned that KECI news director Julie Weindel was called by NBC News to see if KECI would cover the story or had any footage of the Gianforte incident that NBC News and its affiliates could use. A well-placed source familiar with communications between KECI news director Julie Weindel and NBC News says that she was unyielding in her refusal to share any footage she may have had access to, or run a report on the incident. According to the source, Weindel said that they weren’t covering the story, though it was featured in outlets across the country at the time, explaining, “The person that tweeted [Jacobs] and was allegedly body slammed is a reporter for a politically biased publication.” Weindel then added, “You are on your own for this.”

[...]

A report in HuffPost reveals that the station was acquired, last month, by the conservative media conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting. The KECI station manager told HuffPost that the station “did not have specific instructions or any instruction from Sinclair” regarding the Gianforte story. But specific instruction isn’t needed. A story earlier this month in the New York Times said that Sinclair requires its stations to run stories that lean right. And last year Politico reported that the Trump campaign struck an exclusive deal with Sinclair to broadcast interviews with Trump across all of its networks, an unprecedented arrangement. [New York magazine, 5/25/17; Politico, 6/27/17]

HBO’s John Oliver Highlighted The Conservative Agenda Sinclair Pushes On Its Affiliates. HBO host John Oliver noted that Sinclair commentator Mark Hyman in “must-run” segments has pushed conservative commentary such as railing against “snowflakes” and claiming marriage solves domestic violence. Oliver also noted that Epshteyn attacked CNN for its coverage of Trump and that Sinclair affiliates aired a 25-minute attack on Obama in 2010. He also said Sinclair stations all over the country reported that the FBI may have had a “personal vendetta” against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, aired anti-Clinton segments before the 2016 election, framed “questions of the day” for viewers in a pro-Trump fashion, and suggested issues regarding Islam somehow relate to terrorism.

[HBO, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 7/2/17]

Sinclair Has Ties To Trump And His Administration

Wash. Post: Sinclair’s “Reporting And Internal Documents” During The Campaign Showed “A Strong Tilt Toward Trump.” The Washington Post’s review of “Sinclair’s reporting and internal documents” showed “a strong tilt toward” then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. The Post noted that “Sinclair-owned stations and its Washington bureau scored 15 ‘exclusive’ interviews with Trump” in a one year period, that they would positively frame questions for Trump surrogates, that a “Sinclair executive and conservative commentator who appears on Sinclair stations” “regularly criticized Clinton or highlighted positions favorable to Trump in his on-air commentaries,” and that “news stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton were distributed to Sinclair stations on a ‘must-run’ basis.” From the December 22 article:

A review of Sinclair’s reporting and internal documents shows a strong tilt toward Trump. Sinclair gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign while often casting Clinton in an unfavorable light. For example:

● Sinclair-owned stations and its Washington bureau scored 15 “exclusive” interviews with Trump over the past year, including 11 during the final three months of the campaign in critical states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. They did 10 more with Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, from August through October, as well as 10 with Trump surrogates, primarily Ben Carson. Sinclair stations aired five such interviews with Clinton running mate Tim Kaine and two with Chelsea Clinton but none with Clinton or another top surrogate.

● During one of the Carson interviews, Sinclair managers provided questions for local- ­station reporters to ask, such as “Dr. Carson, you toured Detroit, your home town, with Donald Trump Saturday. What will Donald Trump offer the African American community better than Hillary Clinton can?” And: “He has talked a lot about job creation. What will he do specifically to help employment among African Americans?”

[...]

● Mark Hyman — a Sinclair executive and conservative commentator who appears on Sinclair stations — regularly criticized Clinton or highlighted positions favorable to Trump in his on-air commentaries. “Most Americans know very little about the leaked Clinton emails,” he said in one, which aired on Oct. 27. “Major news organizations buried the most damaging. So we’re sharing some with you.”

[...]

●News stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton were distributed to Sinclair stations on a “must-run” basis — that is, the stations were required by managers in Washington to make room in their evening newscasts or morning programs for them.

[...]

There were no equivalent “must-run” stories examining Trump’s refusal to release his medical or tax records or about questions surrounding his charitable foundation. In addition, Sinclair offered no stories about Clinton’s views about 9/11, about what role Chelsea Clinton might play in her mother’s administration or about Bill Clinton’s campaign role. [The Washington Post, 12/22/16]

Sinclair Made Deal With Trump Campaign For “Straighter Coverage.” In December, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner said that the Trump campaign “struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage,” according to Politico. Kushner said that as part of the deal, “Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary.” From the December 16 article:

Donald Trump's campaign struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage, his son-in-law Jared Kushner told business executives Friday in Manhattan.

Kushner said the agreement with Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country in many swing states and often packages news for their affiliates to run, gave them more access to Trump and the campaign, according to six people who heard his remarks.

In exchange, Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary, Kushner said. Kushner highlighted that Sinclair, in states like Ohio, reaches a much wider audience — around 250,000 listeners — than networks like CNN, which reach somewhere around 30,000.

[...]

“Our promise was to give all candidates an opportunity to voice their position share their position with our viewers. Certainly we presented an opportunity so that Mr. Trump could clearly state his position on the key issues,” Livingston said. “Our commitment to our viewers is to go beyond podium, beyond the rhetoric. We’re all about tracking the truth and telling the truth and that’s typically missing in most political coverage.”

A Trump spokesman said the deal included the interviews running across every affiliate but that no money was exchanged between the network and the campaign. The spokesman said the campaign also worked with other media outlets that had affiliates, like Hearst, to try and spread their message.

[...]

“It was a standard package, but an extended package, extended story where you’d hear more directly from candidate on the issue instead of hearing all the spin and all the rhetoric,” Livingston said. [Politico, 12/16/16]

Sinclair Hired Former Trump Aide As Political Analyst. Sinclair announced in April that it hired Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump official, as its “chief political analyst.” From the April 17 press release:

Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc. (Nasdaq: SBGI) is pleased to announce that Boris Epshteyn, an accomplished commentator and strategist, has joined the company as chief political analyst and will provide analysis and insight on major political stories.

[...]

Mr. Epshteyn most recently served as Special Assistant to The President and Assistant Communications Director for Surrogate Operations for the Executive Office of President Trump. Mr. Epshteyn managed the surrogate operation of the White House and Administration as well as appeared as an on-air spokesman for the Administration. Prior to joining The White House, Mr. Epshteyn served as Communications Director for the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Mr. Epshteyn was a surrogate and Senior Advisor to the Trump Campaign, where he managed messaging. [PR Newswire, 4/17/17]

Sinclair Tripled Its Number Of Epshteyn Segments. In July, Sinclair announced it was “increasing the ‘must-run’ segments across its affiliates featuring former Trump White House official Boris Epshteyn to nine times a week,” according to Politico. The outlet also noted that Epshteyn “reliably parrots the White House's point of view on most issues” in his segments, such as claiming “former FBI Director James Comey's testimony on Capitol Hill was more damaging to Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch than to the president.” From the July 10 article:

Even while under fire for requiring its outlets to run conservative content, Sinclair Broadcast Group is increasing the "must-run" segments across its affiliates featuring former Trump White House official Boris Epshteyn to nine times a week, the company confirmed on Monday.

[...]

His "Bottom Line with Boris" segments already air three times a week, but will now triple in frequency, featuring a mix of his political commentary as well as "talk backs" with local stations and interviews with members of Congress. The segments will have a “billboard,” meaning they’re sponsored, but will not be sponsored content, a Sinclair spokesperson said.

Epshteyn’s segments are “must runs,” so all the Sinclair stations across the country will air them along with their other “must-run” segments including conservative commentary from Mark Hyman and the Terrorism Alert Desk segments. Epshteyn reliably parrots the White House's point of view on most issues. For example, he claimed last month that former FBI Director James Comey's testimony on Capitol Hill was more damaging to Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch than to the president. [Politico, 7/10/17]

Sinclair Correspondent Was One Of Only Two Reporters Called On By Trump At February Press Conference. A reporter from a Sinclair affiliate was one of two people called on by Trump during his February 13 press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The reporter, who is also a correspondent for Attkisson’s show, asked a softball question about how Trump’s philosophical differences with Trudeau would affect cooperation on trade and terrorism, instead of asking him about reports spreading at the time that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn may have violated federal law. The Sinclair reporter, along with the other conservative reporter Trump called on, were criticized by fellow journalists for not asking about Flynn. [Media Matters, 2/13/17]

Sinclair Outlet Circa News Regularly Pushes Pro-Trump Stories. Circa News, an online outlet bought by Sinclair in 2015, “has become a favorite of Sean Hannity among other Fox News personalities,” along with far-right troll Mike Cernovich and Donald Trump Jr., “with what critics claim is a stealthy emphasis on right-leaning, Trump-friendly content,” according to The Daily Beast. The outlet also noted that one of Circa’s reporters “is a frequent guest on Hannity to discuss her ‘blockbuster’ stories alleging various improprieties by former President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice and fired FBI director James Comey, and casting doubt on rival media reports of possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia.” From the July 12 article:

In late 2015—less than a year after that Wired [profile]—Circa was purchased for an estimated $800,000 by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s biggest owner of local television stations.

[...]

Discarding the original vision and replacing it with what critics claim is a stealthy emphasis on right-leaning, Trump-friendly content, Sinclair launched Circa News last July and, in recent months, has become a favorite of Sean Hannity among other Fox News personalities, along with embattled presidential son Donald Trump Jr. (a serial retweeter of Circa News stories), tendentious White House talking head Sebastian Gorka, and alt-right populist Trumpkin Mike Cernovich.

“I’m a fan. They are doing great work,” Cernovich told The Daily Beast. “I think it’s a cool trend that you have news sites with names like Axios and Circa that almost sound like think tanks. It’s giving a fresh coat of paint to the media… I think Circa’s working the other side of the street [from the mainstream media]. There are two sides to every story, and Circa is telling the other side of the story.”

As for Circa News’ national security reporter, Sara Carter, Cernovich said: “She’s become a real player, that’s for sure.”

Carter is a frequent guest on Hannity to discuss her “blockbuster” stories alleging various improprieties by former President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice and fired FBI director James Comey, and casting doubt on rival media reports of possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia (often alongside pugnacious Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, with whom Carter is said to be close). [The Daily Beast, 7/12/17]

This item was originally published on May 8 but has been updated with new developments and reports.

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