How Right-Wing Sinclair Plans to Take Over Local TV
If Sinclair’s purchase of Tribune Media’s 42 TV stations goes through, they’ll be able to insidiously insert conservative commentary and right-wing messaging into 72% of U.S. homes
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This week, the billionaire Koch brothers were part of a deal that saw Meredith Corp. purchase the media giant Time. The Kochs are known for using their industrial wealth to fund right-wing groups and political campaigns, but this is the first time they’ve put some of their vast fortune towards control of a major media company.
This comes as another right-wing family is close to expanding its already sprawling media empire. The Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group is seeking federal approval to purchase Tribune Media’s 42 TV stations. Sinclair already owns more TV stations than any other US company, reaching two out of five homes. If the deal goes through, Sinclair will reach 72% of all households and that will give them even more of a platform to broadcast the right wing agenda they’ve been injecting into local news broadcasts across the country.
MARK HYMAN: We’re threatened by a nasty cancer epidemic. It’s a danger to our nation. It is political correctness and multiculturalism. Words that were once acceptable in polite conversation are no longer. “Handicapped” and “retarded” are now off limits. There is one step that’s proven to dramatically reduce domestic violence — marriage.
I am now a proud Washington Redskins fan. And the opinion that only black people can legitimately have an afro, someone should tell that to American folk singer Art Garfunkel.
AARON MATÉ: That was a montage of some of the right-wing content that Sinclair has pushed into its local media broadcast, and the crowd noise you heard was from the John Oliver show, Last Week Tonight on HBO, where that aired.
Now, Sinclair’s purchase of Tribune is pending approval from the FCC but under Trump, the FCC has already paved the way for it to happen. Just this month, the Republican-controlled body voted to loosen restrictions that limit ownership of multiple outlets in the same market. It was the latest in a series of FCC moves to benefit Sinclair.
I’m joined now by someone who’s been covering this closely. Andy Kroll is a senior reporter for Mother Jones who has been all over the Sinclair story. He has a major piece in this month’s issue of Mother Jones. It’s called Ready for Trump TV? Inside Sinclair Broadcasting’s Plot to Take Over Your Local News. Andy, hello.
ANDY KROLL: Good to be here.
AARON MATÉ: Thanks for coming in. Tell us about Sinclair Broadcasting.
ANDY KROLL: The tagline that I like to use for Sinclair is that it’s the most important media company that you probably haven’t heard of. As you said, it’s based here in the Baltimore area. It is not a big, fancy, corporate-seeming media company that you’d find in New York or Los Angeles. And unlike, say, Fox News, which is a channel on your cable box, on the guide that you pull up there, you tune to it, you know what you’re getting 24 hours a day on Fox, Sinclair is a whole different creature.
It is a company that owns television stations. It owns almost 200 of them around the country, more than any other company in the broadcast business. What you see when you turn on a Sinclair channel is not “Sinclair Broadcast Group.” You see the four letters of your local television station. However, Sinclair uses that trust in your local TV anchor, the meteorologist, the guy who does high school sports to then insert conservative commentary and frankly, pro-Trump messaging into the local news between the traffic and the weather, between the local crime and the high school sports to try to push that message on you in a way that I think is much more subtle, you would call it even insidious, than 24 hours a day of Fox News where you know exactly what you’re getting.
AARON MATÉ: Right. We heard one example of that, that montage in the intro, but let’s go to more. This is more of that content that Sinclair audiences across the country are forced to watch.
SPEAKER: Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russia investigation of President Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn?
SPEAKER: Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russia investigation of President Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn?
SPEAKER: Did the FBI have a-
SPEAKER: Personal vendetta-
SPEAKER: In pursuing the Russia investigation of-
SPEAKER: President Trump’s former national security advisor-
SPEAKER: Michael Flynn?
SPEAKER: Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the investigation?
SPEAKER: It could very well be true.
AARON MATÉ: That’s a sample of how Sinclair-owned outlets across the country have covered the Michael Flynn angle of the Russia investigation. Andy, obviously, they’re reflecting a bias there very much slanted towards the Trump point of view. How does this happen? How has the company managed to force stations in a way that most other companies don’t, if any companies do, force stations to air ideological views?
ANDY KROLL: There’s a type of programming in the broadcast business called “must-runs,” and that is a 90-minute commentary or a two-minute monologue, if you will, from a corporate headquarters that’s passed down to all the stations around the country. Really, this is a practice that Sinclair alone does, at least when it comes to “must-run” segments that have these overtly political overtones. So earlier, we heard Mark Hyman talking about snowflakes and afros and all kinds of other, frankly, nonsense and he’s been doing that for years.
What you’ve also seen at Sinclair is earlier this year, the company hired as it’s chief political commentator Boris Epshteyn. Boris Epshteyn is a former Trump, got to know the Trumps through Eric Trump, who he met in college. Works on the Trump campaign as an advisor of sorts, was in the Trump White House briefly, and then his landing pad when he left the White House was Sinclair Broadcast Group.
He has this segment “Bottom Line with Boris” where he will each day spend 90 seconds talking about some issue ostensibly in the news. It could be North Korea, it could be Jim Comey when he was still the FBI director, it could be a whole range of things. But what you get really is just pure Trump White House talking points. Nothing else. There’s no diversity of viewpoint. There’s no attempt whatsoever at even honest analysis because it’s not reporting, it’s opinion. But this is basically White House content that has a Sinclair name on it.
Sinclair tells its stations, “You are in our company. You have to find time, several points throughout every day to run this segment. We’re telling you from corporate, and you have to run it, and there is no question.” And if stations resist or they put up a fight of some kind, they can be audited and Sinclair will say, “Show us that you ran these segments.”
AARON MATÉ: Let’s watch what that looks like with Boris Epshteyn, former Trump advisor and here he is talking about a topic that’s very much both relevant to this discussion and also in the news right now, net neutrality.
BORIS EPSHTEYN: The administration states that competition will cause for internet speeds to get faster, jobs to be created and internet privacy to become stronger. We are a capitalist country. The issue at hand is not whether internet companies are going to be prevent you from looking at your family photos or watching those hilarious cat videos. If that happened, we would all switch internet providers as fast as possible. Competition and innovation are a good thing. The marketplace has been key in allowing for businesses to flourish and good-paying jobs to be created.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Boris Epshteyn, former Trump advisor, now speaking to Sinclair viewers as a pundit for that broadcast giant. Andy, let’s take this to the current news, which is that Trump’s FCC is trying to undo net neutrality, the principle of a free and open internet, trying to relax the rules so that essentially we can have a two-tiered system where companies pay for faster content and punishing those who can’t afford to make those payments.
The FCC under Trump has been making moves, as I mentioned earlier, that make it easier for Sinclair to consolidate control of local TV markets. Can you talk about what it’s been up to and, overall, Sinclair’s relationship to Washington?
ANDY KROLL: Yeah. What you see out of the FCC this year starting with that is a systematic campaign to strip away regulation of all sorts of media, whether it’s over the air broadcast media or whether it’s the internet that we rely on that is, as one person I was listening to today put it, the nervous system of the 21st century. So, you see knocking down regulations of media ownership, several instances of that this year that have really paved the way for this $4 billion merger between Sinclair and Tribune Media, which would create this mega broadcast company.
And then you have net neutrality, which the chairman at the FCC, Ajit Pai, named the chairman by Trump, has said this is important, net neutrality, getting rid of the Title II regulations and allowing the possibility of these fast lanes and slow lanes prioritizing some content over others. You see a continuation of this campaign, and you also see an administration that just believes that no regulation of media at all is the way forward.
Frankly, if you look at the arguments again against net neutrality, that’s troubling in a lot of ways for the reasons you just pointed out. Having to pay internet providers to get your content seen. We’re seeing media right now, a media landscape in which the internet companies and the media companies are merging, so you’re going to have different packages potentially in the future of internet access that favors some content and not others. So, it’s really an incredible campaign of just knocking down all the laws and rules on the books and letting the Verizons and the AT&Ts and all of these major companies kind of have their way with the internet.
AARON MATÉ: Sinclair has been playing this game for a long time making ties to Washington with campaign contributions, which you talk about in your piece. Can you tell us how Sinclair has been able to gain more and more control over media markets by making donations to DC?
ANDY KROLL: Yeah, no, I mean, they have played the political game in the last, I would say, 15 years or so in quite a savvy way. They have supported Republican causes to a large degree to the tunes of millions of dollars knowing the Republicans will be the ones who will favor deregulation, who will support a much more hands off FCC than, for instance, the FCC we saw under President Obama that did institute those Title II net neutrality regulations.
And you’ve also seen Sinclair go out of its way to cultivate a relationship with its lawmakers here in Maryland. Bob Ehrlich, a former congressman and then governor, was a recipient of Sinclair money. He, in turn, dogged the FCC, excuse me, to act on requests by Sinclair to try to speed up transactions that Sinclair had before the federal government.
And even in another instance, Sinclair donated money to a Democrat, the former senator here in Maryland, Barbara Mikulski. In my reporting on Sinclair, I found that Mikulski in her own way had acted favorably for Sinclair. When the FCC was proposing some rules that would’ve tightened regulation of broadcasts, Mikulski, as my reporting found, was somebody who put up a stink about this with the FCC. And she’s a Democrat.
So really, you see Sinclair using its money to leverage contacts in Washington to help this agenda to grow as big as it possibly can and spread its message as far as it can.
AARON MATÉ: One thing I found really interesting about your piece is you mention Sinclair’s ties in some way to James O’Keefe, this right wing operative who just got busted trying to fool the Washington Post into running a story with someone posing to be an accuser of Roy Moore in an effort to discredit those who’ve been accusing Roy Moore of being a sexual predator. The Sinclair’s invested in a site called Circa, and you report that actually Circa has ties to the O’Keefes and has ties to previous attempts to sort of entrap liberals. Can you tell us that story?
ANDY KROLL: Sure. By way of a little bit of backstory, Sinclair decided that it needed an online presence, that it wanted a kind of a BuzzFeed, Vice-style company to fall under the Sinclair umbrella. It’s obviously, it has television stations in one medium, but it wanted this digital presence in another, so it acquired a former startup called Circa and made it its own. Circa was supposed to be, again, this sort of mashup of all these media properties that millennials, young people flock to.
What Circa became, it still throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s about a year and a half old or so, it ran kind of lifestyle stuff and cat photos and general human interest stories, if you will, that are clicky on the internet. But its political coverage began to sound a lot like the political coverage that you would see on Sinclair television stations.
If we think back on the clips you played of those Michael Flynn related TV anchors talking earlier, they had the same kind of Michael Flynn script. That was an introduction to a Circa story. Circa reports for the web, but it also has its stories get blasted out in some cases across Sinclair’s television stations. What you saw with Circa as well is it became increasingly anti-Clinton, anti-Democrat throughout the campaign to the degree that at one point they entered into a partnership of sorts with James O’Keefe.
James O’Keefe had this long-running supposed sting investigation underway about voter fraud and the Democratic Party, which it wasn’t really about that at all. For a while there, Circa was going to partner with him and get exclusive access to his undercover footage and then run it on their television stations and run it on their website.
Now, the subjects of those and Democratic consultants, the subjects of those O’Keefe videos raised a stink about it and brought lawyers in and Circa ultimately backed away from that, and O’Keefe ended up doing it on his own. But it was going on for a while and it was a sign of where Circa had gone as an organization that it was lining up this O’Keefe project and really touting it internally as a big scoop, a big exclusive right up until the point that the project got canned.
AARON MATÉ: Andy, finally, the FCC vote on the Sinclair acquisition of Tribune TV stations is early next year. That’s when it’s expected. And we’re speaking in a week where the Kochs helped fund this deal in which Meredith Corp purchased Time. I’m wondering, I missed all these developments and reporting so extensively as you do on the intersection between money and politics and also media, what’s your sense of how the media landscape is looking in this country?
ANDY KROLL: It’s a conflicted, in some ways scary time for media. I think on the one hand, you have independent outlets that are thriving because they’re doing accountability journalism and they’re finding an audience out there that wants that kind of reporting, that knows that this journalism isn’t being dictated by an agenda from a corporate owner or some other kind of political interest. You’re also seeing some incredible journalism by the much-derided mainstream media about this presidential administration that we have. Everyone is pitching in because these are incredible, unprecedented times in a lot of ways.
That all being said, you have economics that are imploding and you have self-interested, politically-motivated, wealthy individuals who are snapping up these companies or they have companies and they’re growing them and using this administration and this environment of deregulation to expand them. So you’re seeing Sinclair grow, you’re seeing the Kochs get involved, and the Time Inc., Meredith deal.
And it’s the best of times, the worst of times in a lot of ways. For your viewers, I would only say you’ve got to be an educated consumer of news. You want to know where your information is coming from. You want to read up about where your information is coming from because nowadays you have people who have their own agendas, whether they’re personal, whether they’re business-related, are getting into media,and it’s going to play out in some potentially interesting and problematic ways going forward.
AARON MATÉ: That’s a great segue to remind our viewers that we’re in the midst of our year-end fundraising drive. So, again, urge you to donate if you can at our website, therealnews.com. And all donations are matched.
We’ll leave it there. Andy Kroll, senior reporter for Mother Jones who’s been covering the Sinclair story. His new piece on Sinclair is in the latest issue of Mother Jones. Andy, thank you.
ANDY KROLL: Great to be here. Thanks.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.