Sinclair Broadcast Group began 2018 hoping to finalize a massive deal that would cement its place as the country’s largest owner and operator of local TV stations, after having more or less weathered a few bad news cycles about its obvious conservative bent. But the local TV news giant is ending the year with arguably higher negative name recognition than ever before and with its proposed acquisition of 42 more stations rejected. In fact, one of its most formidable competitors is now aiming to knock Sinclair out of that top spot. And Sinclair has only itself to blame.
Sinclair saw a huge spike in public criticism following the launch of a controversial anchor-read, Trumpian “must-run.”
In March, Sinclair news stations across the country began airing “must-run” promotional segments in which local anchors read from a script that seemed to mirror President Donald Trump’s rhetoric by criticizing other media outlets for so-called bias.
Some Sinclair employees were so unnerved by the script that they anonymously leaked it to CNN’s Brian Stelter weeks before the segments ran. Timothy Burke, then a video editor at Deadspin, quickly compiled clips of reporters at various stations reading from the shared script, and the resulting video supercut went viral.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) March 31, 2018
As of publication, the Deadspin video has more than 9 million views. Media Matters additionally documented 66 Sinclair stations nationwide airing the scripted segments. Widespread media coverage of the segments culminated with Trump himself tweeting multiple times in Sinclair’s defense. Sinclair employees continued to speak out about the “must-run” promos, saying they felt their employer was using their local credibility to advance an agenda, and professional groups condemned Sinclair’s tactics. A few employees and stations even refused to participate in the promo campaign.
In an attempt at damage control, Sinclair executives emailed with reporters and circulated internal documents suggesting that coverage of the promotional segments was itself biased, attacking CNN specifically. The company also trotted out its chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide, to deflect criticism of the promos in an odd second “must-run” segment.
Sinclair’s chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn isn’t bringing in a loyal audience, but he has sparked several news cycles of outrage over his segments.
Epshteyn caused numerous problems for his employer this year, producing “must-run” commentary segments that ranged from lackluster to embarrassing to -- on several occasions -- deeply offensive. This year, he drew public ire for using his Sinclair platform to:
- defend Trump’s racist diatribe calling Haiti, El Salvador, and unspecified African nations “shithole countries”;
- attempt to minimize the cruelty of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family separation and child detention policies at the southern border;
- exploit the murder of a young woman in Iowa to attack immigrants;
- defend tear-gassing families seeking asylum; and
- back conspiracy theorist and anti-Muslim extremist Laura Loomer.
After the tear-gas defense in November, Sinclair had to issue multiple statements, at first distancing itself from Epshteyn’s views but then pivoting to saying that the segment had been “drastically and intentionally mischaracterized.” (It was not; Media Matters broke the story and included a full video and transcript.) A couple of media advocacy groups also expressed concern about the segment, with nonpartisan group Free Press even calling on Sinclair to fire Epshteyn.
When he wasn’t forcing his employer to do damage control over his anti-immigrant commentary, Epshteyn was continuing to cultivate an embarrassingly miniscule audience and land pointless interviews with Trump officials, including the president himself. To give an idea of just how doting these interviews were, I documented the totality of the questions or comments Epshteyn made over the course of six “must-run” segments featuring portions of an interview with Trump. About half were some version of “sure” or “right.”
This makes sense, of course, because another big problem for Sinclair this year was the news that Epshteyn may in fact be legally barred from criticizing the president. Epshteyn admitted in September that he had signed a nondisparagement agreement while working on the Trump campaign in 2016. As The Washington Post noted, “Epshteyn regularly discloses to viewers his former roles with Trump but hasn’t mentioned that he signed a nondisparagement agreement while he was with the campaign. Asked for comment, Epshteyn declined to address the issue directly.”
A Sinclair host in St. Louis resigned after aiming abusive language at a Parkland school shooting survivor.
While Sinclair regularly inserts its clearly conservative national commentary and reporting segments into local newscasts, the vast majority of employees at Sinclair-controlled stations are just legitimate journalists trying to do their jobs. At the Sinclair station in St. Louis, MO, however, that was not the case. The station, KDNL ABC 30, didn’t offer any typical local newscasts; instead, three times a day it aired a commentary program hosted by local conservative radio host Jamie Allman. At least, until April it did.
On March 26, Allman sent a threatening tweet about David Hogg, a teenage gun safety activist who survived the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. In the tweet, Allman wrote that he wanted to “ram a hot poker up David Hogg’s ass.” After the St. Louis alt-weekly the Riverfront Times reported on the Hogg tweet, some advertisers pulled their spots from his radio show and a state lawmaker called for a boycott. Within days, Allman had resigned and his KDNL show was cancelled.
This entire story was an unforced error on Sinclair’s part. It was not the first time Allman had tweeted abusive or unhinged things before or after he was hired to host the Sinclair show -- including a string of abusive tweets he sent to me after Media Matters published a report about him last year. More than eight months later, KDNL still does not appear to air any daily local news programming.
Sinclair attempted to put a thumb on the scales for midterms, but it didn’t really pay off.
Though Sinclair has quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) engaged in openly partisan activities in the past, the company’s conservative point of view was on particular display during this year’s midterm elections. Early on in the year, Sinclair began soliciting contributions from upper-level employees for its political action committee (PAC). In keeping with its past efforts, the PAC donated overwhelmingly to Republicans. Sinclair executives personally gave to candidates including racist ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio and Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), who is known primarily for body-slamming a reporter. And Epshteyn helped New York Republican congressional candidate Naomi Levin raise money over the summer, promoting her campaign donation link on Twitter.
Epshteyn’s segments increasingly forewent commentary altogether in the lead-up to the elections, instead excerpting softball interviews that essentially served as infomercials for White House and Republican Party officials and their policies. Over the course of the year, Epshteyn segments included excerpts of interviews with at least five Republicans on November’s ballots, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In many cases, the interviews ran in the states and cities these lawmakers were hoping to represent after November or worked to lay the groundwork for Trump in communities that could be pivotal in the 2020 presidential election.
While many of the Republican candidates specifically supported by Sinclair on or off air coasted to victories in safely red areas, others saw surprisingly stiff competition and extremely close races. And as the true extent of the November “blue wave” was revealed, it seems the company’s larger strategy of promoting conservative views in swing districts didn’t quite pay off.
Sinclair mishandled its proposal to acquire 42 new stations, and the FCC slow-tracked the potential deal until Tribune pulled out.
Sinclair headed into 2018 expecting to close on its proposed deal to acquire Tribune Media’s 42 local news stations. That plan required approval from the Trump Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but the agency had already made several regulatory moves to help the broadcasting company. The acquisition would have cemented Sinclair as the nation’s largest owner and operator of local TV stations and allowed the company to effectively control large portions of some local media markets, enter into the country’s largest markets for the first time, and reach more than 70 percent of U.S. television households.
Instead, in July, the FCC surprised experts by deciding to slow-track the deal, citing a handful of potential station divestments about which commissioners believed Sinclair has purposely misled them. Instead of approving the acquisition outright, the commission elected to send the proposal to an administrative judge, which has been a death blow to similar deals in the past. More details emerged when the hearing designation order was made public, including allegations that Sinclair had shown a “lack of candor” in its communications about the deal with the FCC. A few weeks later, on August 9, Tribune called off the merger.
The trouble for Sinclair didn’t end there, either. Tribune also filed a lawsuit against Sinclair for “breach of contract,” arguing that company representatives had recklessly endangered the deal by intentionally misrepresenting some of the proposed station divestments. The order also alleged further specifics about Sinclair’s “belligerent” conduct throughout the federal approval process for the deal, saying Sinclair “fought, threatened, insulted, and misled regulators” at the Department of Justice.
What’s next for Sinclair?
For one: Many of Sinclair’s regulatory issues stemming from the shuttered Tribune deal have yet to be resolved and will follow the broadcasting company into the new year. Since the FCC singled out the deal proposal for review due to potential “misrepresentation or lack of candor” by Sinclair, the unresolved allegation of misbehavior has been a dark cloud over the company. It’s something regulators at the FCC will have to consider as they contemplate renewing Sinclair’s public broadcasting licenses for its large number of stations -- and that could be happening sooner than expected. Last month, the American Cable Association filed a petition asking the FCC to conduct an early license renewal process for four of Sinclair’s stations so it can “resolve the serious charges it leveled against Sinclair.”
Even with this potential hurdle looming, Sinclair doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. It still controls about 190 local news stations, and the company is reportedly already pursuing other ways to expand. Earlier this month, Fox Business reported that Sinclair is planning to make a bid for Fox’s regional sports networks. The company could also take advantage of any good graces it still has with the FCC to advocate for further industry deregulation during the commission’s periodic review of its broadcast ownership rules next year.
After a high-profile year, Sinclair seems likely to really embrace its public image as an openly conservative media company. It’s already taking steps in that direction by continuing to offer Trump administration and Republican officials an easy interview platform, hosting a town hall with right-wing darlings Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens, and enlisting former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka to host a special program decrying socialism. It’s also been courting former Fox News figures -- including BlazeTV personality Eric Bolling, who left Fox News last year after colleagues reported that he sent them sexually graphic pictures and who now appears to be partnering with Sinclair in some capacity. It’s unclear what projects Sinclair may have in the works for these former Fox personalities, but they could make appearances on a rival network (though that’s not as likely without the Tribune assets) or on Sinclair’s new streaming app, STIRR, which is set to launch in the new year and could compete with Fox’s new Fox Nation platform.
One thing about Sinclair’s immediate future seems particularly certain, though: It’s going to keep up its harmful tactics. There will be more offensive “must-run” segments, and probably more brain-washy promotions in the spring, and definitely more blatant agenda-pushing with the Trump administration. The company has shown little desire to change behavior or admit when it’s done something morally objectionable so far. Why would it start now?