The Growth of Sinclair’s Conservative Media Empire | The New Yorker
Sinclair is the largest owner of television stations in the United States, with a hundred and ninety-two stations in eighty-nine markets. It reaches thirty-nine per cent of American viewers. The company’s executive chairman, David D. Smith, is a conservative whose views combine a suspicion of government, an aversion to political correctness, and strong libertarian leanings. Smith, who is sixty-eight, has a thick neck, deep under-eye bags, and a head of silvery hair. He is an enthusiast of fine food and has owned farm-to-table restaurants in Harbor East, an upscale neighborhood in Baltimore. An ardent supporter of Donald Trump, he has not been shy about using his stations to advance his political ideology. Sinclair employees say that the company orders them to air biased political segments produced by the corporate news division, including editorials by the conservative commentator Mark Hyman, and that it feeds interviewers questions intended to favor Republicans.
In some cases, anchors have been compelled to read from scripts prepared by Sinclair. In April, 2018, dozens of newscasters across the country parroted Trump’s invectives about “fake news,” saying, “Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” In response, Dan Rather, the former anchor of “CBS Evening News,” wrote, on Twitter, “News anchors looking into camera and reading a script handed down by a corporate overlord, words meant to obscure the truth not elucidate it, isn’t journalism. It’s propaganda. It’s Orwellian. A slippery slope to how despots wrest power, silence dissent, and oppress the masses.”
It’s unclear whether Sinclair is attempting to influence the politics of its viewers or simply appealing to positions that viewers may already have—or both. Andrew Schwartzman, a telecommunications lecturer at Georgetown Law School, told me, “I don’t know where their personal philosophy ends and their business goals begin. They’re not the Koch brothers, but they reflect a deep-seated conservatism and generations of libertarian philosophy that also happen to help their business.”
Sinclair has even greater ambitions for expansion. In May, 2017, the company announced a proposed $3.9-billion merger between Sinclair and Tribune Media Company, which owns forty-two television stations. The merger would make Sinclair far larger than any other broadcaster in the country, with stations beaming into seventy per cent of American households. The proposal alarmed regulatory and free-speech experts. Michael Copps, a former official at the Federal Communications Commission, told me, “One of the goals of the First Amendment is to make sure the American people have the news and information they need to make intelligent decisions about our democracy, and I think we’re pretty close to a situation where the population lacks the ability to do that. That’s the whole premise of self-government.” He went on, “There are a lot of problems facing our country, but I don’t know one as important as this. When you start dismantling our news-and-information infrastructure, that’s poison to self-government and poison to democracy.”
In subsequent years, Smith took measures to deepen Sinclair’s influence among policymakers, apparently recognizing that the company’s profits were dependent upon regulatory decisions made in Washington. One of Smith’s first notable forays into politics was his support for Robert Ehrlich, Jr., a Republican congressman who represented Maryland from 1995 until 2003. Sinclair became a top donor to Ehrlich and, in 2001, Ehrlich sent the first of several letters on Sinclair’s behalf to Michael Powell, who had recently become the chair of the F.C.C. The commission was investigating a request from Sinclair to buy a new group of stations, and Ehrlich protested the “unnecessary delays on pending applications.” The F.C.C.’s assistant general counsel responded that Ehrlich’s communication had violated procedural rules. Ehrlich sent another message, alleging that the delays were politically motivated and threatening to “call for a congressional investigation into this matter.” He added, “Knowing that you have served as Chairman for a few short months, we would prefer to give you an opportunity to address these concerns.” The proposed acquisitions were approved.
A former general-assignment reporter at the station, Jonathan Beaton, told me, “Almost immediately, I could tell it was a very corrupt culture, where you knew from top down there were certain stories you weren’t going to cover. They wanted you to keep your head down and not upset the fruit basket. I’m a Republican, and I was still appalled by what I saw at Sinclair.” Beaton characterized the man-on-the-street segments as “Don’t forget to grab some random poor soul on the street and shove a microphone in their face and talk about what the Democrats have done wrong.” He said that reporters generally complied because of an atmosphere of “intimidation and fear.”
After Trump’s victory, it looked as though Sinclair’s investment in the candidate would pay off. In January, 2017, Trump appointed Ajit Pai, a vocal proponent of media deregulation, to be the chair of the F.C.C. Pai, formerly an associate general counsel at Verizon and an aide to Senators Jeff Sessions and Sam Brownback, was exactly the sort of commission head that Sinclair had been hoping for. He believed that competition from technology companies such as Google had made many government restrictions on traditional media irrelevant—an argument that echoed Smith’s views on ownership caps and other regulations. Sinclair executives quickly tried to cultivate a relationship with Pai; shortly after the election, he addressed a gathering of Sinclair managers at the Four Seasons in Baltimore. He also met with David Smith and Sinclair’s C.E.O., Christopher Ripley, the day before Trump’s Inauguration.
It’s not unusual for business executives to meet with the chair of the F.C.C., but Pai soon announced a series of policy changes that seemed designed to help Sinclair. The first was the reinstatement of the ultrahigh-frequency discount, an arcane rule that digital technology had rendered obsolete. The move served no practical purpose, but it freed Sinclair to acquire many more stations without bumping up against the national cap.
The F.C.C. soon made other regulatory modifications that were helpful to Sinclair. It eliminated a rule requiring television stations to maintain at least one local studio in licensed markets, essentially legitimatizing Sinclair’s centralized news model. Perhaps most perniciously, Pai took steps toward approving a new broadcast-transmission standard called Next Gen TV, which would require all consumers in the U.S. to purchase new televisions or converter devices. A subsidiary of Sinclair owns six patents necessary for the new standard, which could mean billions of dollars in earnings for the company. Jessica Rosenworcel, the sole Democratic commissioner at the F.C.C., told me, “It’s striking that all of our media policy decisions seem almost custom-built for this one company. Something is wrong.” Rosenworcel acknowledged that many F.C.C. policies need to be modernized, but, she said, “broadcasting is unique. It uses the public airwaves, it’s a public trust.” She added, “I don’t think those ideas are retrograde. They are values we should sustain.”
The F.C.C. and the D.O.J. both warned Sinclair about the dummy divestitures, insisting that the company find independent owners in ten problematic markets. According to a lawsuit later filed by Tribune, instead of taking steps to appease regulators, Sinclair executives “antagonized DOJ and FCC staff” by acting “confrontational” and “belittling.” The company offered to make sales in only four of the markets, and told the Justice Department that it would have to litigate for any further concessions. One Sinclair lawyer told government representatives, “Sue me.” There was no tactical reason for Sinclair to take such a combative and self-sabotaging stance. Instead, the episode seemed to reflect how Trump’s own corruption and conflicts of interest have filtered into the business community. One industry expert who followed the proceedings closely told me that the company clearly “felt that, with the President behind them, why would the commission deny them anything?
Then, in April, the Web site Deadspin edited the broadcasts of Sinclair anchors reciting the script about fake news into one terrifying montage, with a tapestry of anchors in different cities speaking in unison. The video ignited public outrage, and Trump tweeted a defense of Sinclair, calling it “far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.” (In a statement, a spokesperson for Sinclair said, “This message was not presented as news and was not intended to be political—there was no mention of President Trump, political parties, policy issues, etc. It was a business objective centered on attracting more viewers.”)
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