A Cancer on the Local News: The Insidious Nature of the Sinclair Broadcast Group

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You may have noticed how some of my blog posts on the media usually consist of me attacking conservative media outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, and Info Wars. However, understand that I didn’t attack these outlets solely for spouting conservative views alone. Rather, I’ve attacked them due to their stunning lack of journalistic ethics, propensity to spread misinformation, derogatory stereotypes, peddling conspiracy theories, and blatant disregard for the truth when it suits them. Not to mention, the fact these outlets have been so prolific and influential in the media landscape. However, I have to concede that these three media outlets have audiences who know what they’re getting.

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This is a map from the New York Times depicting Sinclair’s reach. The green dots represent the markets where the company has a station. The orange ones represent where Tribune owns one. If Sinclair gets its way, 233 local stations can be under its wing.

This isn’t the case with audience who watch the local news on a station owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Called “the most dangerous company most Americans haven’t heard of,” Sinclair is possibly the largest TV station operator in the United States. Owning and/or operating a total of 173 stations across the country covering over 100 markets, this conglomerate reaches 40% of all American households, many of which are located in the South and Midwest along with small and medium sized cities. Thus, it had already hit the 39% cap imposed by the Federal Communications Commission which should’ve effectively barred the company from further acquisitions. But today, the Sinclair Broadcast Group is set to buy Tribune Media for $3.9 billion. The deal is expected to receive FCC approval sometime soon. If Sinclair gets its way, its media empire could cover nearly 72% of the US and an average viewership of 2.2 million households. Some of these Tribune stations are already in markets where a Sinclair one exists. At any rate, it could result in Sinclair creating a media oligarchy in the broadcast television industry with 233 stations under its wing. After all, Sinclair has expanded drastically over the last 2½ decades since it went from owning 3 stations in the early 1990s to 59 in less than a decade. By 2014, its local station ownership had tripled to 162. Still, it’s widely expected that Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune Media will be approved thanks to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reinstating the archaic “UHF discount” which allows broadcasters to understate their overall reach. In the meantime, the company has faced criticism over circumventing concentration in media ownership rules, particularly in using local marketing agreements and similar arrangements to take over stations on behalf of preferred third parties. It’s no surprise that so many progressive groups have expressed opposition to the sale. But so have conservative media outlets like Newsmax, The Blaze, and One America News Network perhaps fearing the competition. Though their motives may not be pure, they have a point when they speak about diversity and independence. After all, a larger Sinclair operation would chip into the market for right wing news as well as further diminish media access already dominated by a handful of players thanks to years of media consolidation.

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Sinclair is notorious for trying to inject right wing propaganda into their local news broadcasts. One must-run segment is “Terror Alert Desk” which is mostly devoted to demonizing Muslims than discussing terrorism. Don’t expect any commentary on Charlottesville or white supremacist violence on this segment any time soon.

The Sinclair Broadcast Group has also faced significant scrutiny over promoting its conservative agenda within a news format that’s supposed to be apolitical: local news programming. The company’s stations have been known for featuring news content and programming that promote conservative political positions and have been involved in various controversies surrounding politically motivated programming decisions. From the early 2000s, Sinclair has infected local news coverage with politically-charged programming and turning local news stations into partisan outlets. The company is also known for pushing heavy partisan commentary in the lead-up to elections, often favoring Republican candidates. And it has received plenty of criticism for critical content of Democratic candidates during each presidential election since 2004. Most recently, Sinclair made headlines for striking a deal with Jared Kushner to give positive press to the Trump campaign while heavily criticizing Hillary Clinton. Now promoting their political agenda wouldn’t be much of a problem if Sinclair confined their bias on DC-produced segments, commentary shows, or attack ads. However, what Sinclair does on local news is far more insidious. And since more Americans place high value on their local news, it has become a perfect tool for the company to inject their right-wing propaganda.

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Sinclair regularly produces conservative propaganda pieces before distributing them to their stations like this Mark Hyman’s “Behind the Headlines” commentary bit. Called “must-runs,” local stations are required to air them in their broadcasts. While they may not always feature commentary, they’re nevertheless inflammatory, misleading, and certainly inappropriate for a local newscast.

One practice that stands for are Sinclair’s infamous “must-run” segments. These segments are short pieces of political commentary Sinclair produces at their national headquarters that affiliates are required to air. Every day, Sinclair mandates its stations to air specific reports, segments, and editorials referred to as “must runs.” Sinclair produces these at its Washington DC headquarters and directs its station managers to work them into the broadcast over a period of 24 to 48 hours. And they mainly consist of conservative propaganda presented as news content. In July 2017, the HBO show Last Week Tonight had John Oliver present clips of various anchors using the exact same script describing the FBI as having a “personal vendetta” against Michael Flynn, clips of Mark Hyman editorials in which he compared multiculturalism and political correctness to a cancer epidemic and stated that marriage was a solution to domestic abuse, and joked that the “Terrorism Alert Desk” segments defined terrorism as “anything a Muslim does.” The show also aired content by former Trump adviser Boris Epstheyn alleging Obama won North Carolina due to voter fraud and a clip blaming the Democratic Party for slavery, Jim Crow, and the Klu Klux Klan. Back in the Bush administration, Sinclair required all its stations to air an editorial segment called “The Point,” which Hyman railed against the “angry left,” and “clueless academia,” dismissed peace activists as “whack jobs,” called the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” and supported a host of right wing initiatives from a national sales tax to Medicare privatization. You might expect such commentary from Breitbart or Fox News that are often inflammatory and misrepresent the facts, not your local station. But this is exactly the kind of content Sinclair tells its stations to run on their local newscasts to promote its right-wing agenda. TV journalists have complained about being forced to run these overly partisan segments because as Oliver noted, “with Sinclair they’re injecting Fox-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors, the two people who you know, and who you trust, and whose on-screen chemistry can usually best be described as two people.” In one notable incident following the 9/11 attacks, Sinclair ordered its stations to read editorials praising President George W. Bush’s response. The WBFF staff objected, claiming the endorsement would “undermine public faith in their political objectivity.” It’s very clear Sinclair’s must run segments are a concerted effort to turn your local 6 o’clock broadcast into a little Fox News clone without disclosing it to the public. But when they put these segments into local newscasts, they degrade journalistic standards, abuse viewers’ trust, and blur the lines between news and propaganda. Furthermore, they compromise America’s right to be informed on the matters affecting their lives. Of course, Sinclair executives defend their practices citing how the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal and that their pieces provide a counterweight but that’s based on an intellectually dishonest interpretation of what journalism is.

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Remember when Montana GOP congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs? Well, Montana’s NBC affiliate KECI refused to air the audio recording on account that there wasn’t enough facts on the incident. Despite that the audio clearly shows Gianforte started and that 3 local Fox News reporters watched it. It was later found Sinclair had just bought the station and that its vice president and director had donated to Gianforte’s campaign. So figure it out.

Sinclair also dictates how news stations can present some of the local news and programming is presented aside from the “must run” segments and scripts. Even before the Trump administration, Sinclair had a nasty habit of skewing news stories to fit with their conservative vision, censor content, and promote disparaging and very misleading information on Democratic candidates. In 2004, the company ordered its ABC affiliates to not air an episode of Nightline where Ted Koppel listed the names of soldiers killed in the Iraq War. They argued that the broadcast, “[appeared] to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq” and undermined a then-ongoing effort by its Washington bureau to report on positive “untold” stories from Iraq under occupation mainstream media outlets ignored. ABC responded stating that Koppel’s reading was meant to be “an expression of respect which seeks to honor those who have laid down their lives for this country.” And it was a gesture Arizona US Senator John McCain found “deeply offensive.” That same year, tried to air an anti-John Kerry documentary called, “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” alleging “that North Vietnamese captors used Kerry’s statements about atrocities committed by American troops during the conflict as an excuse to torture U.S. prisoners of war.” But the Democratic National Committee filed a legal motion with the Federal Election Commission stating it was inappropriate for a media organization to air “partisan propaganda” in the last 10 days of an election campaign. Then-Vice President of Corporate Relations Mark Hyman stated that any network refusing to air the anti-Kerry documentary were “acting like Holocaust deniers.” And when Sinclair’s Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman called the documentary, “biased political propaganda,” he was promptly fired. As for President Barack Obama, well, Sinclair has linked him to Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers, alleged he raised campaign funds from Hamas and labeled him as a socialist extremist. In 2014, its Baltimore Fox affiliate WBFF according to The Baltimore Sun, “misleadingly edited and aired video of a protest march to make it seem as if protesters were chanting ‘kill a cop.’” In reality, the marchers actually chanted to the lead of Tawanda Jones, “We can’t stop ‘til killer cops are in cell blocks” in a non-violent protest against police brutality. Jones would eventually sue WBFF and Sinclair for defamation the next year. Because after that segment aired, she received death threats, lost community support for her protests, and had been reduced to reclusive behavior. In 2017, Montana’s NBC affiliate KECI refused to air an audio recording of GOP congressional candidate Greg Gianforte attacking Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. The station denied Sinclair instructing them on handling the Gianforte incident and essentially framed it as an “he said/she said” situation. This despite that the audio recording covers it, Jacobs ended up in the hospital, and 3 Fox News reporters witnessed it. That and Politico later reported that Sinclair’s vice president and director had donated to Gianforte the day after he was charged with the assault. This July, Sinclair affiliate KBOI used a photo of Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKeeson in several stories he had nothing to do with including an attempted robbery in Idaho.

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Here’s a “must run” segment of “Bottom Line with Boris.” A former investment banker who was born in Soviet Russia, Boris Ephsteyn was a Trump crony during the 2016 campaign and in the White House. On his Sinclair segment, he normally parrots Trump White House commentary which stations are required to air 9 times a week.

But Sinclair’s connection with Republican politicians and operatives doesn’t just extend to media coverage. A 2004 study found that 95% of the company’s political contributions went to Republican candidates. The Center of Public Integrity showed concern on Mark Hyman’s history of government lobbying (such as for the FCC to loosen rules regarding media ownership concentration), along with making its stations provide “anything but fair and balanced news programming.” In 2002, the company gave lots of perks like using its luxury helicopter to former congressman Bob Ehrlich during his run for governor of Maryland. Mostly because Ehrlich pressed the FCC to fast-track its request to acquire more stations. In 2007, 9 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.” The FCC issued the company a $36,000 fine for violating “rules against ‘payola punditry.’” In December 2016, Jared Kushner said that the Trump campaign, “struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage” particularly in swing states. As part of that deal, “Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary.” The Washington Post noted that the company scored 15 exclusive interviews with Donald Trump in a year while “news stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton were distributed to Sinclair stations on a ‘must-run’ basis.” Of course, Trump would appoint Pai to head the FCC Ajit Pai pushed through a measure that would allow the Sinclair-Tribune merger to go forward. Recently, Pai has further proposed eliminating a rule requiring each TV station to have a main studio in or near the community it serves, arguing that modern technology allows community interaction without one. But critics charge the action as another handout for Sinclair as former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler argues, “will have an open field to replace local voices with national control.” In April 2017, Sinclair hired former Trump official Boris Epshteyn as its “chief policy analyst” whose must run “Bottom Line with Boris” segments air on its local news affiliates 9 times a week. Yet, Epshteyn is a shady character. He’s pleaded guilty to assault in 2014. The House Intelligence Committee has questioned his ties to the Kremlin. In the 2016 campaign season, he dismissed Gold Star father Khizir Khan as a Democratic prop. And during his time in the Trump administration, he crafted the notorious Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that omitting any mention of Judaism. He left the White House that March amid reports that every cable news network hated him.

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The Sinclair Broadcast Group’s rapid expansion and promotion of conservative politics highlights serious consequences of media consolidation. And as John Oliver noted, “Should this Tribune acquisition go through, there are going to be even more good journalists having to see their hard work placed alongside terror desk nonsense, just as there’ll be even more unsuspecting audience members who will be getting a heaping dose of Sinclair’s content, possibly without realizing it.” Perhaps it’s best you google your local stations and find out who owns it. If your local market has a Sinclair station, then expect that station to carry a lot of right wing bullshit. If it’s a Tribune, then pray to God that the acquisition doesn’t go through. For the Sinclair-Tribune merger is a very bad deal for America.

It’s one thing for a news station like Fox News to deliberately mislead the public to advance its own political agenda. But it’s very disturbing for a company like Sinclair to injecting intentionally misleading political diatribes where it has no place. It’s even worse that Sinclair forces news local stations run such content they know is bullshit and undermine viewers’ trust in them. If not, then perhaps warp their minds into accepting right wing talking points as undisputable fact as Sinclair would intend. For as John Oliver said, “The problem is, there is real power in hearing your trusted local newscasters using FBI and personal vendetta in a sentence.” Because after all, most people don’t really know who really owns their local station since they’re often branded with the national network that broadcasts on them, not the real owners. Nor do they seem to critically think about these stories aired on their local station. Scaremongering and propaganda have no place in local news since it’s corrosive to our democratic process. Sinclair’s “must-run” segments and other policies rob viewers of hearing local and opposing viewpoints. Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune would lead to less competition, threaten media localism, and harm information diversity. Thus, it would best for the country if the Sinclair and Tribune merger doesn’t go through. Sinclair is a cancer on the local news and our democracy as well as should be stopped from buying more stations. No major media company should have that much power, especially if they’re abusing the trust between the public and their local news stations in order to advance their political agenda. But it also means that we must be more careful of what we hear on the news and know who owns them.

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It’s widely said that Americans trust their local TV news broadcasts than any other source. For years, Sinclair has often abused that trust and eroded journalistic standards with their conservative propaganda. Advancing a political agenda has no place in a local newsroom meant to cover actual news stories, sports, traffic, and weather.

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