Sinclair is the largest broadcast company in America. But its partisan politics and connections to the White House are raising concerns
Most Americans don’t know it exists. Primetime US news refers to it as an “under-the-radar company”. Unlike Fox News and Rupert Murdoch, virtually no one outside of business circles could name its CEO. And yet, Sinclair Media Group is the owner of the largest number of TV stations in America.
“Sinclair’s probably the most dangerous company most people have never heard of,” said Michael Copps, the George W Bush-appointed former chairman of Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the top US broadcast regulator.
John Oliver – host of HBO’s weekly satirical show Last Week Tonight – used a similar line when he introduced an 18-minute segment on Sinclair last month by referring to it as “maybe the most influential media company you never heard of”.
But that is beginning to change. Sinclair’s size, rightwing politics and close connections to Donald Trump’s White House are starting to attract attention. Democrats are wading in to the fray and demanding answers over Sinclair’s close ties to the Trump administration, which, they say, could mean the group is getting preferential treatment.
The New York Times refers to the group as a “conservative giant” that, since the Bush presidency, has used its 173 television stations “to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda”. The Washington Post describes it as a “company with a long history of favoring conservative causes and candidates on its stations’ newscasts”.
More recently, Sinclair has added a website, Circa, to its portfolio. But not any old website. Circa has been described as “the new Breitbart” and a favorite among White House aides who wish to platform news to a friendly source (a process otherwise known as “leaking”). As the US news site the Root put it: “What if Breitbart and Fox News had a couple of babies? What if they grew up to be a cool, slicker version of their parents and started becoming more powerful? Meet Sinclair and Circa –Donald Trump’s new besties.”
The growing anxiety in America over the rise of Sinclair stems from the belief the company’s close connections to Trump have allowed it to skirt market regulations. Already the biggest broadcaster in the country, Sinclair is poised to make its biggest move yet. If the FCC approves Sinclair’s $3.9bn purchase of an additional 42 stations, it would reach into the homes of almost three-quarters of Americans.
Another cause for concern, and increased scrutiny, is what’s seen as the company’s pronounced political agenda. Sinclair forces its local stations to run pro-Trump “news” segments. In April, they hired Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign spokesman and member of the White House press office, as its chief political analyst. His “must-run” 10-minute political commentary segments unsurprisingly hewed closely to the Trump administration’s message. The news and analysis website Slate, referring to Epshteyn’s contributions, said: “As far as propaganda goes, this is pure, industrial-strength stuff.”
Some local stations have reportedly chafed at the idea of pro-Trump “must run” packages. Sinclair’s management says the packages are necessary to provide viewers with diverse viewpoints as a counterweight to progressive leanings they’re convinced are held by the media, including the staff of their own local stations. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the media is left of center,” David Smith, then Sinclair’s CEO, told Rolling Stone in 2005.
But Sinclair’s politics isn’t restricted to Epshteyn’s contributions. It has a long history of airing material which has often been controversial, and for which it has been sanctioned in the past – all the while purporting to simply report the “news”.
While it doesn’t have the cultural cachet of major conservative networks like Fox News, Sinclair’s influence is more subtle. Unlike Fox News, which brands itself clearly and proudly, most viewers of Sinclair’s local stations have no idea who owns them since they are not branded as part of the Sinclair network.
But it is their intended purchase of a collection of new stations owned by Tribune Media – the former owners of the illustrious Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times – that has thrust them into the national spotlight unlike ever before.
“It used to be a few years ago there were some mergers that were unthinkable,” Copps, now with the DC-based watchdog group Common Cause, told the Guardian. “We’re in a period now when everything’s so wild that nothing is unthinkable.”
For the Trump administration, Sinclair has obvious appeal
The figure that looms large behind Sinclair is David Smith, whose father founded the company in the Nixon era. Smith recently ended his 28-year reign as CEO, and along with his brothers maintains what an industry publication called “iron-clad control” of the billion-dollar media empire as well as the company’s majority financial interest.
The Smith family, based in and around Baltimore, likes to keep a low profile – they give few interviews and David Smith has no Wikipedia page. “We would tend to maintain as much anonymity as we can,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 1995, one of the rare times he’s spoken to the press.
Their political agenda is somewhat less mysterious. Campaign finance records show the Smith brothers have historically donated overwhelmingly to Republicans. And a Washington Post analysis of the company’s 2016 presidential election coverage found Sinclair stations were unusually favorable towards Trump and negative towards Hillary Clinton.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Sinclair conducted zero interviews with Clinton. But it touted 15 “exclusive” ones with Trump, which aired mostly in critical swing states in the final months of the election and without any commentary, despite the copious fact-checking Trump interviews tend to require. Sinclair has insisted it had no special arrangement with the Trump campaign and that Clinton simply did not make herself available to them. Clinton campaign officials say they spurned Sinclair for a reason, though her vice-presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, gave a handful interviews to Sinclair stations.
According to Politico, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner told a room full of Manhattan business executives that the campaign had struck a deal with Sinclair to secure better coverage in the states where they needed spots most.
Read more: www.theguardian.com