Sinclair Broadcast Group: The Greatest Threat To Our Democracy Since Fox News

A conservative-based media company is putting political propaganda in your living room without you even knowing it
Donald Trump waves as he leaves a campaign rally, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, in Altoona, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump waves as he leaves a campaign rally, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, in Altoona, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Updated on April 14, 2018

Fox News. The network has spent years pushing lies, fear-mongering, and successfully gaslighting their audience into believing their hyper-partisan version of reality. Since Trump has come into office, they act as a propaganda arm for his administration. White House aides have even described Fox News as being the President’s primary source of information. With the exclusion of anchors like Shepard Smith, the entire network appears to be dedicated to defending and trial ballooning messaging for this administration.

As of July 2017, Fox News continued its streak as the most watched basic cable network. They’ve beat rivals like CNN and MSNBC in total primetime viewers for 187 straight months. Fox and Friends, which Donald Trump watches religiously, is slated to have it’s “highest-rated year in network history.”

The network’s effect on our democracy is clear. A study in the American Economic Review found that removing Fox News from cable television would have decreased the overall Republican Presidential vote share by 6.34 percentage points in 2008. They have led with stories that deny climate change, promoted the false Seth Rich conspiracy, equated Black Lives Matter activists with white supremacists, and to this day remains concerned with the contents of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Fox News broadcast August 30, 2017

Fox News broadcast August 30, 2017

With a combined total audience of over 2.1 million prime time viewers, Fox News has had an incredible impact on the country’s political discourse. They’ve presented misinformation and glorified propaganda to households across the country, which in turn has affected how people behave when they vote. Fox News has gaslit the American people for over two decades, with disastrous results.

And now they have some competition.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, founded in 1971 by Julian Sinclair Smith, is the largest owner of television stations in the entire country. The Maryland-based media company controls 173 local stations in nearly 80 markets, which means it reaches just under 40 percent of the population — and is continuing to increase its range. In September, they closed on an acquisition of Bonten Media Group, adding fourteen more stations in eight markets.

This number has the possibility to grow to approximately 72% in the near future, as the group has proposed plans to acquire Tribune Media. It’s a move that could alter the landscape of television news in an unprecedented fashion, creating a monopoly the likes of which the industry hasn’t previously seen.

Sinclair may not have the same name brand clout as Fox News, but they end up in far more living rooms and have somehow managed to find space to the right of Fox’s political leanings.

Because Sinclair Broadcast Group owns local television stations, they are responsible for what said stations air. More importantly, they’re in charge of what goes on the local news. While cable networks have seen a spike in viewership over the past year or so, local stations are still where a large amount of the population prefers to receive their news. In fact, a 2016 Pew Research Center study found that more people trust local news than national organizations.

Many rely on their local news for perceived unbiased information. They’ve probably watched the same anchors for years. I grew up watching KTLA 5’s morning news. Who would bother to fact check the news they’ve known and trusted for decades?

If the FCC decides to approve Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune Media — turning the company into the monopoly it has always strived to be — we all might need to start rethinking how much credence we give to our favorite local stations. The conservative bias of Sinclair’s broadcasting is far worse than Fox News. Like a virus, it infiltrates our homes and spreads dangerous propaganda — and we might not even know it.

A History Of Right Wing Bias

Sinclair Broadcast Group has a long history of being in bed with conservative interests. Back in 2004, they spent a great deal of airtime both promoting the policies of George W. Bush and campaigning against his then-rival, John Kerry.

John Leiberman, who had once been Sinclair’s Washington bureau chief told the Baltimore Sun that the other executives had been intent on airing “biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway [the 2004] election.”

This “propaganda” included sending a team of journalists to Iraq with the order to report good news — and good news only. No mentions of death tolls, no discussion about the cost to American taxpayers — nothing negative at all. The 62 stations they owned at the time were all required to have on-air personalities pledge support for George W. Bush and the War on Terror. A Fox affiliate station in Madison, Wisconsin was banned from airing ads produced by the DNC during the summer of 2004.

Sinclair went so far as to refuse to air a Nightline special report that listed all the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq. Instead, just days before the election they chose to present excerpts of a documentary called “Stolen Honor.” The film was intensely anti-John Kerry and featured interviews with American veterans who claimed they suffered horrors as prisoners of war in Vietnam as a direct result of Kerry’s Fulbright Hearing testimony in April 1971.

In 2008, they continued their push to advance their own political agenda by striking out against then-Senator Barack Obama. Sinclair’s stations aired an attack ad from a conservative group that linked him to the founder of the Weather Underground Organization, Bill Ayers. Weather Underground was a militant activist group that had been responsible for bombing government buildings in the 1970s. Fox News had previously refused to run the ad, as they were concerned about its legal standing.

The ad ran in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — pretty important states if the last election taught us anything.

On the eve of the 2012 election, Sinclair stations aired a corporate produced special report in multiple battleground states that consisted entirely of criticism of Barack Obama’s policies. It paid special attention to his administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

During the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump’s campaign made a deal with Sinclair to secure more positive and “straighter” coverage, according to Trump’s Senior Advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Sinclair was offered extended access to the campaign, in exchange for broadcasting Trump interviews without commentary.

Sinclair has a clear and detailed history of advocating a political agenda through their news stories. They don’t attempt to remain unbiased in the slightest. In fact, they outwardly promote politicians that espouse their views, rather than providing their audience with the information they need in the voting booth. The agenda Sinclair stations present makes Fox News’ old motto “Fair and Balanced” seem almost accurate.

This wouldn’t be as terrible of a problem if their bias was confined to their commentary shows or their DC-produced segments. However, Sinclair doesn’t just allow attack ads to run on their air — they produce scripts for local news anchors to use, and categorize certain segments as “must-runs.”

These “must-run” segments are produced by Sinclair’s News Center and then sent to stations all across the country. The reports include editorials from highly conservative pundits, as well as news scripts that local anchors read directly from.

As a result, the local anchors that you trust so much might be forced to push the exact same kind of election-swaying propaganda that Sinclair has been broadcasting for years.

Conservative Bedfellows

Sinclair’s connection with Republican politicians and operatives doesn’t just extend to their media coverage. A study in 2004 found that 95% of Sinclair’s political contributions went to Republicans — a percentage that was not even remotely close to that of their colleagues.

Chart via. The Center for Public Integrity

Chart via. The Center for Public Integrity

David Smith, Julian Sinclair Smith’s son serves as the company’s current Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board. Although he got his start in media working at a film company that made bootleg copies of porn (which was allegedly shut down by the police for mob connections), his creative leadership allowed Sinclair to grow rapidly during the late 90s. A life-long conservative, he outwardly supported both George W. Bush and the Iraq War in the early 2000s. From 1997 to 2004, he gave Republicans over $33,000 in campaign donations.

In April, Sinclair took this connection one step further by hiring Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign associate, and previous member of the Trump administration. Sinclair faced great criticism for taking on Epshteyn, a man whose bombastic relations with television media during his time as a surrogate for the Trump campaign included telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that voter fraud in North Carolina swayed the election in Barack Obama’s favor.

Epshteyn hosts a must-run segment called “Bottom Line With Boris,” which plays 8 to 9 times a week on all of Sinclair’s stations. His previous connections to both the Trump campaign and the administration raise the obvious question of how neutral and independent his reporting and analysis could possibly be.

As special assistant to the President, he oversaw the officials that appeared on television to speak for the White House — to make sure that their talking points were on message and the President’s agenda was accurately presented. As chief political analyst for Sinclair his messaging now appears in local markets all across the country.

In May, it was reported that the House Intelligence Committee requested information and testimony from the Soviet-born Epshteyn in regards to the Congressional investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. It’s interesting to note that Epshteyn isn’t the only Sinclair employee with possible ties to Russian causes. Their Director of Engineering Paul Spinelli formerly worked for Russia Today, which Columbia Journalism Review called the “Kremlin’s propaganda outlet.”

The first few “Bottom Line with Boris” reports included intense bashing of the media, the perils of voter fraud, a statement of how much safer Americans feel with Trump in office, and more media bashing.

It’s worth remembering at this point that all these segments were must-runs. Every station that is owned by Sinclair had to run these reports. Epshteyn’s POTUS-friendly propaganda is able to overwhelm media consumption because of Sinclair’s powerhouse control of the market.

This is the very reason so many concerns have been brought up over Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune Media. In the past, the FCC has enforced congressionally imposed regulations that cap the size of any one media company’s audience at 39%. This spring, however, Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai brought back a decade’s old loophole that is barely relevant to today’s technological advances.

The loophole allows for Sinclair to exceed the audience cap by not fully counting the markets reached by stations that used to be considered “lesser quality.” Low budget stations in the ultra-high-frequency TV spectrum were previously of such poor quality that their reach was only counted at half of their actual market size. This quality difference doesn’t exist in the world of digital television, but the regulation still survives — and thanks to Pai has paved the way for Sinclair to overtake the television market.

Current Sinclair market and proposed new markets under the Tribune deal.

Current Sinclair market and proposed new markets under the Tribune deal.

The office of FCC inspector general is reportedly investigating Ajit Pai for approving rules that would benefit Sinclair’s efforts to push their $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media through — and whether or not it was done improperly.

Also, on April 12th, there was another development. The Hill reported:

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday rejected a request from a dozen senators to investigate Sinclair Broadcast Group for “distorting news” coverage.

The senators — 11 Democrats and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) — asked the FCC to review Sinclair’s broadcast license and pause its proposed merger after the company had anchors across the country read scripted promos warning of “fake news” and media bias.

State Run Television?

So why is this such a big deal? While there are plenty of right and left-leaning journalists and TV stations, none have the power and reach of Sinclair Broadcast Group. No other mainstream media group has the extreme conservative-leaning that Sinclair presents. You know there’s a problem when you’ve found room to the right of Fox News.

Sinclair is unprecedented in the world of American cable news. Never before has one company controlled so much of the airwaves — and been so manipulative about what they want people to think. They shape the narrative to fit their agenda and cherry-pick facts to match.

Our democracy thrives off of a society comprised of informed voters. The ability to receive unbiased information and consider it critically before walking into the voting booth is absolutely necessary to the continuation of our country.

When our news stations feed propaganda, designed to promote one school of thought and drown out all others, our freedom to be informed is compromised. Not only must we battle with our complex response to the trials of this American experiment but now we have to question the factuality of what we are told.

Elements of this dichotomy have always been present in our history. The difference is now they are in our living rooms, speaking through the voice of local news anchors we have known for years. If Sinclair acquires Tribune Media and reaches 72% of the market, it will become the closest thing America has ever had to state-run television.

And if you question the danger behind that — I implore you to take look at those countries already in this position.


Deconstructed // Donald Trump / FCC / Fox News / Journalism / Media / News / Propaganda