Sinclair insiders speak out about its plans to transform local news

The FCC is now pushing back on Sinclair’s efforts to expand via the Tribune acquisition

Published September 23, 2017 9:59AM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)
(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

Conservative local news giant Sinclair Broadcast Group is deepening its right-wing bias and looking to expand its reach into larger U.S. cities — but Sinclair employees and media experts are fighting back.

After years of quietly pushing a right-wing perspective on unsuspecting local news audiences across the country, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s recent expansion efforts have thrown it into the media spotlight. The media company currently owns or operates 173 local TV stations in 33 states and the District of Columbia — making it the largest local news provider in the country — and is hoping to complete an acquisition of Tribune Media that would soon bring the Sinclair spin to critical swing districts and major cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Sinclair employs an unusual tactic of designating certain conservative commentary segments it produces in its national studios as “must-runs,” meaning that every Sinclair-owned local television news station, from Portland, ME, to Salt Lake City, UT, is required to air them. Among the must-run segments are daily “Terrorism Alert Desk” updates that HBO’s John Oliver has described as “beneath the journalistic standards of Breitbart” and twice-weekly “Behind the Headlines” pieces — culture war-heavy, far-right commentary from former Sinclair executive Mark Hyman. For months now, these must-runs have also included 90-second pro-Trump commentary segments (only briefly labeled as such) by its chief political analyst, former Trump administration official Boris Epshteyn. These mandated “Bottom Line with Boris” segments are basically Trump TV — and Sinclair has only increased the number aired, even as viewer demand lags.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is now pushing back on Sinclair’s efforts to expand via the Tribune acquisition, asking Sinclair for more evidence to back up its claims that it would fully comply with national and local news ownership caps and that the acquisition would actually lead to improvements for local newscasts.

In the meantime, current and former Sinclair employees, union representatives, and media experts have been speaking out in investigative reports about the damage Sinclair is doing to the public’s trust in local news, from Baltimore, MD, to Seattle, WA, and most recently in Providence, RI.

Former and current Sinclair employees are speaking out against the company’s editorial influence and resource management

Union representative for Sinclair employees in Providence, RI, spoke out in The Providence Journal. A representative of the union representing employees at Sinclair-owned WJAR station in Providence, RI, recently told The Providence Journal that must-runs have “rattled viewers and WJAR’s own news reporters.” The September report also noted that WJAR appears to have made efforts to limit Sinclair’s editorial influence on its newscasts, airing a recent “Bottom Line with Boris” segment after anchors has signed off from the station’s 11 p.m. news broadcast. Media expert Paola Prado warned readers, though, that the length and placement of broadcasts matter far less than the content shown, directly challenging Sinclair’s frequent defense that its must-run segments account for a small fraction of total news time:

The political implications of this structure are still worrisome, said Paola Prado, an associate professor of communication at Roger Williams University.

The company’s focus on television news reveals their desire to influence people at the ballot box, said Prado, who has worked for CBS TeleNoticias and Reuters Television.

“Broadcast television is a very loud bullhorn in terms of reaching a mass audience with a mass message,” Prado said. “And it so happens that that is the audience that votes.”

Even minimal programming could have an impact, Prado said, adding: “We know that a 140-character tweet can move markets, so it’s not a matter of quantity. It’s a matter of substance and it’s a matter of relevance.” [The Providence Journal, 9/16/17]

Former Sinclair employee described “broader culture of office sexism,” CEO’s use of local broadcasts to fulfill court-ordered community service in The Guardian. In an August report from The Guardian’s Lucia Graves, former Sinclair employee LuAnne Canipe described an “improper work environment,” comprised of a “sexual atmosphere that trickled down to different levels in the company,” in her time there. The Guardian piece also reported on then-CEO David Smith’s 1996 arrest, which resulted in a deeply troubling and unethical move by Sinclair to fulfill the terms of Smith’s court-ordered community service using its broadcasts:

More disturbing to critics than the misdemeanor sex offense, though, was the unusual way he got out of doing the court-ordered community service that resulted from his plea bargain in the case: by having his broadcasting company do what amounted to publicity hits for local drug counseling programs, packaged as news.

LuAnne Canipe, a former reporter for Sinclair, said the incident was also indicative of a broader culture of office sexism. “Let’s just say the arrest of the CEO was part of a sexual atmosphere that trickled down to different levels in the company,” said Canipe, who left Sinclair in 1998. “There was an improper work environment. I think that because of what he did, there was a feeling that everything was fair game.” [The Guardian, 8/17/17]

Nineteen current and former Sinclair employees from Baltimore, MD, Seattle, WA, and Washington, D.C., recounted incidents of corporate meddling in Bloomberg Businessweek. A July profile of Sinclair in Bloomberg Businessweek featured accounts of corporate meddling from 19 current and former Sinclair employees at its flagship Baltimore station, WBFF, Seattle’s KOMO, and Washington, D.C.’s WJLA, as well as some corporate staff. One former WBFF employee recounted Sinclair’s protection of the station’s supply closet “in a manner reminiscent of nuclear launch protocols,” casting a stark contrast with Sinclair’s public argument that its acquisition of Tribune would lead to more capital investment and resources for local stations. KOMO employees detailed similar resource-cutting, as well as editorial and advertising meddling, from Sinclair’s corporate leaders when the station was acquired by the company in 2013:

Separately, reporters were issued sponsored jackets to wear on the air: blue windbreakers with the prominent logo of L.L. Bean, the Maine-based outfitter, whose family ownership group includes a significant Trump donor. Liberal Seattle viewers complained, and some reporters objected to the commercialization of their wardrobes; if they were going to sell out, they might as well have gone with more local outerwear from REI or Eddie Bauer. “It’s like going to Paris and ordering California wine,” says a jacket recipient who asked not to be named.

More significantly, KOMO’s journalists were frustrated by Sinclair’s politically conservative must-runs, as well as its meddling in news coverage. One early flashpoint concerned Hempfest, an annual gathering of pot legalization supporters. According to one person privy to editorial discussions, Sinclair’s corporate news team heard that the Seattle police were handing out bags of Doritos with notes explaining local marijuana laws and ordered up a story excoriating the department for wasting taxpayer money. What made the task a misuse of time and resources, says this person, is that there was no authentic local indignation in granola-eating Seattle. [Bloomberg Businessweek, 7/20/17]

WJLA employees offered similar accounts of the station’s takeover by Sinclair in 2014:

After completing the deal, [then-Sinclair CEO David] Smith met with WJLA and NewsChannel 8 employees at their offices in Rosslyn, Va. At one point, according to two people who were at the meeting, he gave the assembled staff a blunt message: “Resistance is futile.”

The station soon got the usual Sinclair makeover, from standardized on-air graphics to a no-frills employee benefits package. But as the transition progressed, the grand plans for a national news network seemed to take a back seat to more pressing ideas about how to squeeze profit out of local news. The Washington Post soon reported that WJLA’s morning news show had begun running segments highlighting the splendor of Myrtle Beach, S.C., as part of a broader tourism promotion deal airing across Sinclair stations. [Bloomberg Businessweek, 7/20/17]

Experts and union representatives at Tribune stations expressed deep concern about the Sinclair acquisition. In May, representatives from the union that represents Tribune station employees in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cleveland, as well as employees at some current Sinclair stations, told Media Matters of employees’ concerns and nervousness about the pending acquisition. They highlighted Sinclair’s well-known conservative bent, reputation for consolidating resources and firing staff when they enter a new market, and editorial oversight as sources of “supreme frustration” and concern. [Media Matters, 5/22/17]

Seattle Sinclair employees at KOMO are performing “small acts of rebellion” to de-emphasize must-runs. In May, eight current and former employees of the Sinclair-owned station KOMO spoke anonymously to The New York Times’ Sydney Ember about Sinclair’s must-run policies and the “small acts of rebellion” employees take to de-emphasize the segments, such as airing them so they blend in with paid advertising spots or “at times of low viewership.” The current and former employees, who spoke out anonymously “citing fear of reprisal from the company,” described other instances in which Sinclair’s corporate leadership appeared to dictate editorial decisions at KOMO, compromising the station’s integrity:

In late 2013, for instance, after The Seattle Times wrote an editorial criticizing Sinclair’s purchase of KOMO, Sinclair ordered KOMO to do a story critical of the newspaper industry, and of The Seattle Times in particular, according to two of the people interviewed.

KOMO journalists were surprised in January when, at a morning planning meeting, they received what they considered an unusual request. The station’s news director, who normally avoided overtly political stories, instructed his staff to look into an online ad that seemed to be recruiting paid protesters for President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Right-leaning media organizations had seized on the ad, which was later revealed as a hoax, as proof of coordinated efforts by the left to subvert Trump.

Only after reporters had left the room did they learn the origin of the assignment, two of them said: The order had come down from Sinclair.

[. . .]

The staff members thought [a March must-run segment from a Sinclair executive on “fake news”] reinforced their frustration with Sinclair, saying it undercut their professionalism. They also suggested that the company did not understand KOMO’s progressive market. [The New York Times, 5/13/17]

Sinclair is also garnering critical local press coverage in anxious media markets in Ohio, Maine, and Illinois

Local reporting is highlighting editorial concerns for current Sinclair stations and Tribune stations readying for a shift to Sinclair. In addition to the reports that have featured stories from former or current Sinclair employees, local reporting in Cleveland, OH; Portland, ME; and Chicago, IL, have also highlighted Sinclair’s history of right-wing bias and its control (or soon-to-be control) over local TV news stations. These reports often featured commentary from concerned media experts alongside vague statements or dodges from Sinclair executives. The Boston Globe’s editorial board, eyeing Sinclair stations in Rhode Island and Maine and Tribune stations in Connecticut, has even called for the FCC to reject the deal. The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik, working in Sinclair’s backyard, continues to cover the ins and outs of Sinclair’s “propaganda machine,” as well. [, 7/30/17; Portland Press Herald, 7/30/17; Chicago Tribune, 8/10/17; The Boston Globe, 9/3/17; The Baltimore Sun, 8/11/17]

By Pam Vogel