Sinclair Broadcast Group‘s secretive campaign to transform local news stations into Trump propaganda machines is becoming all the more difficult to ignore -- both behind the scenes and on air.
On February 1, TV news trade outlet FTVLive first reported that Sinclair’s political action committee (PAC) had sent a letter to executive-level employees (including many station news directors) encouraging them to donate to the PAC. The letter, which FTVLive published in full, says the PAC “supports candidates for Congress who can influence the future of broadcasting.” It also praises Trump-appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) head Ajit Pai, and worries that Congress may attempt to derail Pai’s pro-Sinclair agenda. The letter says, “Since the change in administration last year, we now have an FCC Chairman who appreciates the important role of local broadcasting enough to launch a number of politically unpopular deregulatory initiatives necessary to ensure the future of our industry.”
What that vague sentence actually means is: Pai has spearheaded several FCC actions that all seem, incidentally, to benefit Sinclair more than anyone else. The rapid deregulation of the local broadcast industry under Pai’s leadership essentially permits Sinclair to have news control in an unprecedented number of local media markets across the country, in major cities and battleground states. It does nothing short of pave the way for Trump’s reelection.
And if any lawmakers dare to challenge the FCC in its blatant regulatory overhaul, Sinclair PAC aims to be ready for an election fight -- ethics be damned.
The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi spoke to experts about the PAC solicitation, and they seemed pretty shocked by the overt partisanship of making such a request of news directors:
Major TV news outlets such as ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC say they prohibit their journalists from contributing to political parties, candidates or causes, and don’t ask them to chip in to the company’s PAC. The prohibition is aimed at eliminating the perception of partisanship by journalists.
Given that tradition, Sinclair’s policy “violates every standard of conduct that has existed in newsrooms for the past 40 or 50 years,” said Lewis Friedland, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin and a former TV news producer. “I’ve never seen anything like this. They certainly have the right to do it, but it’s blatantly unethical.”
By contributing money to Sinclair’s lobbying efforts, he said, news directors would be tacitly supporting the company’s agenda, potentially raising doubts about impartiality and independence when reporting on issues such as city or state legislative debates about deregulation. “It would cause people to ask whether they’re being fair and balanced in their coverage,” he said.
In addition to breaking with journalistic tradition, the company’s request could put its news directors in an untenable position, said Mark Feldstein, a professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. Despite Sinclair’s official reassurances, said Feldstein, a former local and network TV reporter, some news directors might feel that opting out would be perceived by their superiors as an act of disloyalty.
Days after reports revealed this “blatantly unethical” behind-the-scenes strategy at Sinclair, its chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn produced yet another “must-run” segment that can only be described as propaganda.
The “must-run” practice is itself questionable: Sinclair has been requiring all its local news stations to air Epshteyn’s “commentary” segments, essentially feeding audiences thinly veiled pro-Trump missives mixed in with local news stories, weather, and sports.
In a Bottom Line with Boris segment posted on February 12, Epshteyn argues that the dictator-style “military parade” floated by Trump last week could be a needed “morale boost" and “well worth” its estimated $21 million price tag to “promote national unity and strength.”
Epshteyn -- a former Trump aide -- has starred in segments veering dangerously close to state media before; he routinely defends pretty much every action Trump takes and has relished the opportunity to attack media or individuals he views as too critical of the president. Thirsting for a Trumpian “military parade” is, in some ways, the next logical step.