“The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.”
“More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories without checking facts first.”
“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda.”
This fake-news promo script was recently read on-air by dozens of local television newscast teams working for stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group — a phenomenon Deadspin stitched into a video that this weekend went viral.
Critics panned the message as “pro-government propaganda” read by journalists who sound like “members of a brainwashed cult.” President Donald Trump, tweeting Monday, doesn’t see any inappropriate slant: “So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased. Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
While not a household name, Sinclair controls almost 200 television stations, reaches an estimated 38 percent of Americans’ homes — and wants more. When it comes to political money, Sinclair-related contributions have generally skewed Republican for more than two decades — with some notable exceptions, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance data from the Federal Election Commission and nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
During 2017 and 2018, the broadcast giant’s political action committee has so far doled out almost $30,000 to federal political candidates, with 80 percent of this money going to Republicans, such as $4,000 to Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon and $4,500 to Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. Among Democrats, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida got $2,500 and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana received $1,500.
During the 2015-2016 election cycle, two-thirds of Sinclair PAC’s donations to candidates, or $54,000, went to Republicans: Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri received the biggest checks — $5,000 each. Democratic recipients included Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Dick Durbin of Illinois — $2,500 each.
Top Sinclair officials have also helped fuel both Republican and Democratic campaigns, of late. David D. Smith, Sinclair executive chairman and son of Sinclair’s founder, Julian Sinclair Smith, has given $30,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $20,700 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2017, federal records show.
Company vice presidents J. Duncan Smith and Frederick G. Smith favor Republicans, donating more than $12,000 to Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.; $10,000 to Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; and more than $7,000 to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., in 2017.
Trump’s presidential campaign received $1,000 from Bill Butler, Sinclair’s vice president of programming, in 2016
Sinclair’s interest in funding political campaigns extended to soliciting PAC money in January from its news directors, the Washington Post reported in February. It’s a request that put employees in charge of editorial decisions in a compromising position, ethics experts say. Reporters and anchors employed by Sinclair did not receive this same request for funds.
While it’s not uncommon for media executives to donate to political candidates and committees, it’s often taboo — if not against company rules altogether — for working journalists to make political contributions. Still, some do.
“While many parent corporations that own television networks, cable news or local stations do make political contributions through their PACs, it's a practice that I find troubling since the reputation of a news organization depends in part in its ability to say that it is approaching stories from an impartial vantage point, without partisan bias,” said Indira Lakshmanan, the ethics chair at the Poynter Institute.
Sinclair Broadcast Group officials did not return multiple requests for comment. Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s vice president for news, last year told the New York Times that Sinclair works “very hard to be objective and fair and be in the middle … maybe some other news organizations may be to the left of center, and we work very hard to be in the center.”
So how does Sinclair’s political giving compare to that of CNN and NBC — television news outlets Trump routinely reviles?
Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, switches from donating to one side or the other: its PAC gave more money to federal-level Democrats during six out of past 10 election cycles.
During the 2015-16 cycle, Democrats among the likes of Rep. Xavier Becerra of California ($5,000), Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York ($6,000) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland ($7,000) earned 52 percent of the PAC’s checks to candidates, or $203,000.
That trend continued into the 2017-2018 cycle, where Democrats are pulling in 53 percent of Time Warner’s PAC money to candidates, or almost $64,000. If you factor in employee donations, it’s a different story: Time Warner workers — primarily executives — overwhelmingly prefer to support Democrats.
Comcast, which owns NBC and MSNBC, donated more to federal-level Republican causes during the past four election cycles, largely favoring the right during the 2015-2016 election cycle. Republicans received 64 percent of Comcast PAC’s contributions to candidates, or about $1.4 million. Democrats received $800,000. So far in 2017 and 2018, Republicans received 60 percent of Comcast’s federal-level PAC contributions to candidates, or $715,000.
While Fox News’ broadcasts lean conservative, the PAC of its holding company, 21st Century Fox, donates liberally to Democrats.
During 2017 and 2018, more than half of Fox PAC’s contributions to candidates went to Democrats, such as $9,000 to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; $5,750 to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. and $5,000 to Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn.
Fox PAC also gave $30,000 each to party committees aiming to elect Democrats and Republicans to each chamber: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, federal records indicate.
During 2015 and 2016, 45 percent of Fox PAC’s donations to candidates went to Democrats, according to Center for Responsive Politics data. Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Brian Schatz of Hawaii pocketed $10,000, the most the PAC could legally give.
Already a broadcasting behemoth, Sinclair is looking to expand: 72 percent of American households would be covered by a Sinclair station if Sinclair acquires Tribune Media — a deal the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission are reviewing. The New York Times reported that Sinclair is trying to pull strings within the Trump administration for a favorable outcome.
“President Trump’s tweet dismissing opposition to Sinclair’s destruction of local news shows how big media uses its money and power to influence our elected officials,” said former FCC commissioner and Common Cause adviser, Michael Copps, in a statement. “The FCC must block this merger [with Tribune Media.]”
Criticism of Sinclair stations’ coverage of Trump has been escalating for months.
CNN in March reported that some anchors and news staffers felt uncomfortable with Sinclair’s “fake news” campaign, which seemed to parrot the frequent “fake news” rants of Trump. Comedian John Oliver aired a segment last year critical of what he considers the company’s right-wing bent, such as cutting local news segments to instead run commentary from Sinclair’s chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide. And Politico reported White House aide and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, bragged about making a deal with Sinclair: better media coverage for more access to Trump.