There is no audience for Boris Epshteyn's pro-Trump propaganda, so Sinclair forces it on people

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

For nearly a year now, Sinclair Broadcast Group has been mandating that its local news stations air commentary segments from former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn. It’s essentially force-feeding local audiences Trump propaganda between community news and weather -- and the numbers show no one would watch it otherwise.

Sinclair is a corporate giant that owns or operates around 190 local TV news stations across the country, and it’s been quietly forcing its stations to air nationally produced right-wing spin for years. But when it hired Epshteyn, fresh from a stint in the Trump administration, to serve as its “chief political analyst,” it was only a matter of time before everyone was paying attention. Numerous media and business reporters highlighted Sinclair’s twofold plan for growing local right-wing news: using the company’s still-pending acquisition of Tribune Media stations to further expand its reach across the country (with its potentially unethical relationship with the Trump administration and its appointees paving the way), and hiring Epshteyn as a new, Trump-aligned star for “must-run” national segments.

After I spent the last 11 months in the Sinclair rabbit hole with these reporters, one thing has become awkwardly, painfully obvious to me: Sinclair is forcing its stations to run Epshteyn’s segments because no one cares otherwise. There is no organic audience actively seeking out his pro-Trump commentary.

At the time it hired Epshteyn, Sinclair touted its new analyst as providing “unique perspective to the political conversation” that would “better inform and empower our viewers.” It also made the decision months later to up his airtime, though the company declined to say why.

I watch each new “Bottom Line with Boris” must-run segment on his YouTube channel, usually shortly after it’s posted. On YouTube, I alone account for a not-insignificant portion of his total viewership, which is usually less than 50.

YouTube screenshot

On occasion, one of his segments makes the jump into thousands of views; those are usually the ones I or another media researcher or reporter decided to write about.

Things are not going much better for Epshteyn on Facebook. He has hosted a handful of Facebook Live sessions, and on more than one occasion, for a moment or two, I’ve been the only person joining him for the ride. I’ve spent collective minutes intently watching, all by myself or with a handful of other random people, as Epshteyn explains his latest video or tries to end the video before someone off camera tells him to keep going.

Facebook screenshot

His typical Facebook posts aren’t getting much engagement either. While the videos of his segments sometimes garner a few thousand views each on Facebook, that number is likely higher than the YouTube view counts because of algorithm and platform differences like Facebook’s use of video auto-play in newsfeeds. The videos typically don’t receive high engagement beyond views (i.e., “likes” or comments) and his non-video posts often show similar minimal engagement. And often the comments his posts do manage to garner are from users explaining why they disagree with him -- or more crudely explaining exactly how they feel about Epshteyn or Sinclair.

Facebook screenshot
Facebook screenshot

He doesn’t have fans engaging with him on other social media either. The official Bottom Line with Boris Instagram account has 91 followers as of this publication. He has about 30,000 Twitter followers, but most of his tweets seem to get extremely low engagement for a verified user with his own almost-daily news platform. He also sends out a morning email newsletter every day. I read it; I’m not convinced anyone else does.

There are a couple theories about why Epshteyn’s political commentary just isn’t landing, and in reality it’s probably some combination of both: His delivery is monotonous and pretty uninspiring, and his opinions are predictable and add nothing original to public conversation.

Epshteyn’s demeanor as he delivers his commentary to viewers was perhaps best described by HBO's John Oliver last July, when he described Epshteyn as “a rejected extra from The Sopranos in a J.C. Penney's tie whose voice sounds like Sylvester Stallone with a mouthful of bees.” Epshteyn somehow manages to be incredibly boring on screen even though behind the scenes he reportedly terrorized green rooms during his time as a Trump spokesperson.

Beyond the question of charisma, Epshteyn doesn’t really make any compelling or interesting points. For a chief political analyst, his takes 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 absurd, racist things Trump does. These are not exactly principled positions.

But the worst part about Epshteyn’s almost-daily segments isn’t his lack of charm or compelling analysis, or their propagandistic nature -- it’s that Sinclair viewers are subjected to his commentary regardless.

Sinclair is forcibly creating an audience where none exists by requiring its news stations to air Epshteyn’s segments. Even though only about 25 to 50 people seem to care about his commentary enough to seek it out on YouTube, it’s still reaching about 39 percent of U.S. TV households -- and could soon reach an unprecedented 72 percent.

Propaganda doesn’t work because people genuinely love reading or watching it -- it works when it’s repeated enough to just become an acceptable part of everyday life. Like, for example, when an awkward stranger shouts at you after the local weather every night about what a great job his former boss, the president, is doing.