by Chuck Tryon
July 12, 2021
frank | Can you describe Sinclair to us?
Chuck | I became interested in Sinclair during the Iraq war, in part because of a conflict involving ABC's Nightline. A few months into the war, Ted Koppel, who hosted Nightline, had planned to read the names of the US soldiers who had died in the Iraq War. I think it was meant to be semi-political, but not partisan; it was basically an acknowledgment of the cost of war.
Sinclair, however, interpreted this as a partisan, anti-Bush political statement. Sinclair ordered their affiliates throughout the US to not broadcast Nightline and show something else instead.
So about fifteen years ago, I began to think even then about the power of this affiliate ownership group in shaping how local communities access the news. As Sinclair grew into a behemoth of a company, owning well over a hundred broadcast affiliates, their power became a bit more explicit to me. My decision to write about Sinclair was eventually precipitated by a notorious video, edited by Timothy Burke, that shows a statement being read by over a hundred Sinclair news anchors.
They claim to be speaking about their role in presenting news in an unbiased objective way, but the language they use was very Trumpian and it was very clearly indicative of what their political alignments were.
It's a very odd thing to watch. Who is Sinclair?
The Smith family launched Sinclair. They started out as a single station in Baltimore, in the late 1960s and launched their second station Pittsburgh in 1978. And from there, they began to accumulate more stations. One of the strategies they used to expand was nominally selling stations, sometimes to executives within the company, sometimes to family members who weren't officially listed as owners, so they could bypass FCC rules against owning two or more stations in the same market. They would then operate those stations that they had nominally sold to these other individuals.
They have grown gradually for many years. In 2012, they were about the ninth largest broadcasting group in the U.S. Now they are the second largest, behind NexStar. Recently, they have also entered into owning cable stations. They own the Tennis Channel, they own a ton of regional sports networks. At this point, they own 193 stations in over a hundred markets that cover approximately 40% of the country. The scholar Jennifer Holt refers to companies like Sinclair and Nextstar as mini-networks because these companies do have a significant amount of control over local content. I like the term shadow network better, because a lot of people aren't really aware of who Sinclair is or what they are doing. People may not realize that their local news is being shaped by this conglomerate that is based in a whole other part of the country.
They are obviously infusing very specific ideology or political points of view into the work – but to what end?
One answer to that question is there is certainly a widely established marketplace for conservative news media. Fox News has proven that for over 20 years now. And conservative talk radio has been attracting mass audiences for decades. We have also seen the rise of things like Newsmax and OAN. They are finding a niche that attracts significant numbers. I think there's also simply an attempt to impact policy. One of their anchors, for example, secretly took money from Bush’s Department of Education to praise No Child Left Behind.
And a key impact they have is that by centralizing the news, they undermine local coverage.
There is another study that found that Sinclair’s stations had approximately 10% less local news coverage, often at the expense of national stories that Sinclair required their affiliates to run. To some extent, national reporting is a cost-saving measure because it requires fewer reporters. But local reporting is absolutely essential, and Sinclair is accelerating the process by which newsrooms are losing support.
Recently, at a Sinclair affiliate in Buffalo, it was announced that the primary local anchor won't even be living in Buffalo, he's going to be living in Syracuse. At least two other people on the primary news team are going to be based either in Syracuse or Rochester. They are not even in the local community; I think it matters a great deal to be on the ground and to actually have face-to-face conversations with the people who are being affected by local policy.
Would you talk about what you call, “disinfomercials”?
I define “disinfomercials” as specially produced documentaries that Sinclair requires, or in some cases, attempts to require, its local affiliates to run. One thing that tends to be a common refrain is that many use a “lone Wolf narrative technique.” This means that an individual journalist claims to be shunned by the dominant news media because of some apparent access to some hidden truth that the "mainstream media'' is covering up. They speak to what Michael Higgins has referred to as mediated populism — the idea that elite institutions are covering up some real truth about the economy, government, education, or other institutions. We are seeing versions of media populism all the time. We see it with the attacks on teaching Black history, through the coded attacks on critical race theory. The attacks on vaccination and on pandemic measures are feeding the desire for mediated populism. And Sinclair has been participating in this for quite a while. One of the most notorious examples was an infomercial that sought to discredit John Kerry’s military service. They wanted their affiliates to broadcast this a few weeks before the 2004 election. You may recall that John Kerry ran in part as a military hero, but because of his eventual anti-Vietnam activism, there was an attempt to discredit him.
Sinclair eventually faced enough political pressure that they didn't broadcast the full documentary but instead showed a short feature about it. That was still enough, I think, to help feed the beast on that and to create doubts about his service. I think that really shaped perceptions of Kerry in a way that potentially affected his ability to win that race.
And basically in every election, they will produce one of these documentaries. There was an infomercial called “Breaking Point” that pushed Obama's relationship with William Ayres to the forefront of the conversation. In 2012, they ran a pseudo-documentary that attacked Obama's role in passing the Affordable Care Act. They pushed attacks on Hillary Clinton implying that she was in poor health and they pushed the Benghazi lies.
They have run these more or less every election and have tried to push narratives that would invariably harm the reputations of Democratic candidates. Even if a small number of people see these, I think the discussion and the coverage of them amplify the content and help reinforce some of those narratives in a way that is incredibly problematic.
It also functions to erode trust in other news outlets by reinforcing the perception that they are not covering these stories.
When their preferred candidates are successful – is there a clear relationship between Sinclair and current, working politicians?
I never was able to find anything specific between Bush and Sinclair. I do know that immediately after 9/11 Sinclair had a must-run segment where they required their anchors to read a script, pledging support for the president in the war on terror, really reinforcing the idea that we needed to trust Bush after the attacks of 9/11, which of course proved to be incredibly catastrophic. But, you know, I never heard Bush say anything specific about Sinclair. And they did, as I mentioned earlier, pay one Sinclair anchor to support No Child Left Behind without disclosing that he was being paid to do so.
Trump very publicly advocated for them and even would pit different conservative media against each other. He would often use the potential power of Sinclair to try to get Fox News to get them better coverage. I think Trump's use of Sinclair was probably more cynical than anything else, but it was certainly there. He did express disappointment when the FCC declined to allow Sinclair to purchase the Tribune. So he kind of got into those battles as well.
Have they managed to make their outlets financially successful or are they struggling as other local news outlets are struggling? Is it a profit-driven endeavor or is it about politics and power?
They are very much in it to make money. They are definitely looking at new delivery formats. They are pushing streaming really hard. They have an app that launched a few months ago which is an advertising-supported video-on-demand app where you can access any of their local affiliates and watch local news and other assorted programming. Until the last couple of quarters, they have had fairly significant profits, and their investment in regional sports networks will likely serve as a significant revenue stream. They've just become listed as a Fortune 500 company, so they are certainly making a lot of money.
They were able to expand because of eased regulations during the Trump administration. Do you feel like there's a legislative effort that could make a difference to their power?
I think the progressive members of the FCC board have definitely recognized the problems of media conglomeration. The Trump-appointed FCC chair, Ajit Pai, established what was called the UHF discount. This is an archaic rule that dates back to when people would get television through antennas on top of their house. This discount allows them to count stations that broadcast over UHF to count as less than a full station, which then allows them to own more stations.
At a minimum, I think they are going to keep the number of stations that can be owned by a single company more or less where it is. I don’t think they are going to allow these conglomerates to expand beyond a certain size.
I just want to emphasize the importance and the value of having local news and in having people invested in telling local stories. I mean, the PEW research center has found that people tend to trust their local news source more than any other source. Even in a streaming era, people go back to their local resources. Local news has an enormous influence on public conversations. I see Sinclair and concentrated media ownership, in general, as a threat to that.
We need to have these conversations and make sure people are aware of who controls their local affiliates.