How Sinclair is taking over local news and pushing the country to the right

Sinclair is positioning themselves to have massive influence in politics — and the left is letting them do it

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published April 14, 2018 10:00AM (EDT)

The headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group,  in Hunt Valley, Maryland. (Getty Images)
The headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, in Hunt Valley, Maryland. (Getty Images)

On March 31, Deadspin posted a video that showed a series of local TV news anchors working in stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group reading identical scripts bashing national news and freaking out about fake news. The video immediately went viral. Even though there had been plenty of folks warning about the ills of Sinclair Broadcast Group — in particular Brian Stelter of CNN, who gave Timothy Burke of Deadspin the idea for the video, and John Oliver, who featured a story on Sinclair on "Last Week Tonight" last year — it was the Deadspin video that finally hammered home just how disturbing the story is.

The gist is that for decades now Sinclair has been amassing a series of local TV news stations. It currently owns almost 200 local TV stations in 100 markets and reaches about 40 percent of all households. It is in negotiations to purchase Tribune Media and its 42 local stations, which would allow the company to reach more than 72 percent of American households.

But it’s not just the sheer magnitude of the Sinclair operation that is of concern; it is its right-wing bent and its forcing of local stations to air the same, nationally-oriented content. Mother Jones has referred to it as "Trump TV," but its pushing of right-wing content to its stations dates back to the post-9/11 era when it began requiring its stations to run “The Point,” an opinion segment hosted by conservative political commentator Mark Hyman. “The Point” segments were often openly pro-Bush, and in one example Hyman claimed that “terrorist leaders would dearly love to see President Bush replaced with Senator Kerry.”

That right-wing spin only worsened in the last election. A Washington Post analysis found that Sinclair stations ran 15 “exclusive” interviews with Donald Trump and 10 with Mike Pence. In comparison, the company’s stations aired no interviews with Hillary Clinton. Stations are required to air terrorism alerts daily. Local stations are also required to air must-run segments by former Trump administration official Boris Epshteyn, “The Bottom Line with Boris,” a move Media Matters describes as “force-feeding local audiences Trump propaganda between community news and weather.”

It was refreshing to finally see the story of Sinclair’s stranglehold on local TV news gain some traction, but it was disappointing to see how news coverage missed the real point. News focused on the Sinclair segments as examples of propaganda and as a threat to a free press, which they undoubtedly are. But the big story here is the way that Sinclair is setting itself up to control the political narrative in local TV markets. Forget Fox News as the #1 news provider — Sinclair may soon become the prime source of information for local publics, a shift that will give it overwhelming political influence.

It isn’t exactly surprising that mainstream news media chose to focus on the Sinclair story as a free press issue. It was a spin that allowed them to congratulate themselves for their brave coverage and look down on those poor anchors on local TV who were forced to read canned lines. Lee Camp pointed out on Redacted Tonight just how ironic it was to see Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough chastise their local counterparts, when only a few years before they confessed to basically reading what was given to them as well.

No one is surprised when they catch the news media engaged in hypocrisy these days. Trust in news is at an all-time low. But here's the catch: Trust in local news is higher than in national news. Folks perceive local news as more invested in communities and less partisan. And that’s what makes the story of Sinclair a perfect example of how the right has totally out-strategized the left.

Sinclair is redefining local news, positioning themselves to have massive influence in politics, and the left is letting them do it.

Sinclair saw early on that they had a prime opportunity to convey a right-leaning message to local TV audiences and reap massive profits while doing it. Forty-one percent of registered voters trust their local news outlets to report the truth, according to a Morning Consult/POLITICO poll conducted last year. Only 27 percent said they have more faith in the truthfulness of national news coverage.

Local news isn’t just trusted; it’s popular. According to a Pew Research Center report, local news draws larger audiences than cable and network news. On average, 20.7 million Americans watch the evening news on local ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox affiliates, and of the almost 60 percent of Americans who get their news from TV, nearly half depend primarily on local TV. Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a senior attorney at Georgetown’s Communications and Technology Law Clinic, explains that “[t]he most important force shaping public opinion continues to be local, over-the-air television.”

Unlike Fox News and InfoWars, who bellow their blustery politics at their viewers, Sinclair is far subtler. It blends coverage of the weather and local sports with the sort of must-read segments highlighted by Deadspin. These right-wing propagandistic segments are consciously and carefully intercalated with community-relevant news.

Epshteyn told Morning Consult he “believes local news’s communal focus lends its coverage more credence.”

“Local news is at the heart of American communities,” Epshteyn explained. “Viewers trust their local news sources because their content serves their communities.”

“I’m proud to be able to build on the great work of local reporters and share my political analysis,” he added.

Epshteyn proves that Sinclair is completely aware of its strategy to draw on the trust of a locally committed audience. Yet there is proof that Sinclair simply uses local loyalties to move local news towards partisan national coverage.

A new study by Gregory J. Martin and Josh McCrain shows that stations bought by Sinclair reduce coverage of local politics, increase national coverage and move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction relative to other stations operating in the same market. They found that, compared with similar stations in the same market, once Sinclair takes a station over, it increases its coverage of national politics by roughly 25 percent and decreases its coverage of local politics by roughly 10 percent.

Now Sinclair is poised to become even bigger if its proposed deal with Tribune Media goes through. That deal, which seems likely to succeed, also reminds us of the extraordinary ways that Sinclair has been able to take advantage of a wave of deregulation that has been overseen by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Under Ronald Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that broadcast networks devote time to contrasting views on issues of public importance, was dropped in 1987.  This paved the way for the openly partisan broadcasting we see on Sinclair stations. Then, under Bill Clinton’s tenure, as Mother Jones explains, The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the industry and unleashed a wave of consolidations, which set Sinclair on a buying spree, quickly gaining a reputation for its low-budget approach. Now, with Sinclair-friendly Trump appointee Ajit Pai, who was originally named to the FCC by Barack Obama, in charge of the FCC, there is less and less regulatory power to stand in Sinclair's way.

Last October, Pai spearheaded the end of the Main Studio Rule, which required local TV and radio broadcasters to maintain studios in the communities where they were licensed. The move benefits media conglomerates like Sinclair and allows them to centralize much of their news operations, which reduces boots-on-the-ground local reporting and distances the news from the communities they serve. The Main Studio Rule began in 1940 to ensure that TV and radio broadcasters address local audiences' needs. Now local news doesn’t need to be produced locally. That is worrisome.

Well before this latest blow to the authenticity of local reporting, there had been a growing convergence of content on local news. Back in 2014, Mother Jones reported that Sinclair had been buying up more than one station in a market and airing the same segments. In almost half of the then 210 U.S. television markets, one company owned or managed at least two local stations. A lot of these stations broadcast very similar or even completely identical newscasts. A Pew Study on local TV news consolidation found that in 2014, one in four local stations relied entirely on shared content.

As these changes were taking place in local news media, the Democrats remained largely silent — or, when they did speak out, ineffective — while the right basically got away with major policy changes that benefited their pocketbooks and their politics.

It’s not news, but it bears repeating: The Democrats have been blowing it at the local level for years, while the GOP has been out-strategizing and outsmarting them at every turn.

We know the numbers: When Obama began his first term, Democrats controlled 59 percent of state legislatures; now they control only 31 percent, the lowest percentage for the party since the turn of the 20th century. They held 29 governor’s offices and now have only 16, the party’s lowest number since 1920. As of March 30, 2018, Republicans controlled 56.1 percent of all state legislative seats nationally, while Democrats held 42.5 percent. Republicans held a majority in 67 chambers, and Democrats held the majority in 32 chambers.

For years there have been reports of the various ways that the DNC has ignored congressional and state races and neglected to allocate needed resources to down-ballot races. In the election that brought us Trump, we also found that the DNC had state parties pass-through their share of campaign funds. Campaign finance records showed that nearly $2 million in donations to the Hillary Clinton Victory Fund initially routed to individual state party accounts was immediately transferred to the DNC, which was laboring to pay off millions of dollars in debt. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In 2016 the DNC blew off the local in favor of protecting and paying party insiders.

The lack of attention to state politics didn’t only affect state laws; it also paved the way for the gerrymandering disasters that have crippled the Democrats. While the 2018 midterm elections will play a major role in setting the stage for legislative redistricting in 2020, when new congressional voting districts will be redrawn, thus far Republicans have benefited from gerrymandering.

There has been abundant proof of the DNC’s lack of interest in supporting local politics — a lack of interest that has crippled the party and helped the Republicans. But there has been much less attention to the way that Democratic political leaders have also allowed the news media at the local level to be dominated by the right.

As Brett Edkins points out, at exactly the same time that Sinclair was amassing its media monopoly, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats unveiled their “Better Deal” economic agenda, which placed anti-monopoly policy at the center. Yet, when they did challenge the proposed merger between Sinclair and Tribune, they never once mentioned the partisan nature of Sinclair’s broadcasting and its potential to affect local communities.

Whether a story of cronyism, ineptitude, inefficiency or corruption, it is astonishing to note that Democratic leadership was incapable of fending off the rise of Sinclair. It is even more amazing to note that Democrats don’t seem to understand the power and influence held by local news in shaping the political views of communities.

As Pew reports, “The roughly one-in-five U.S. adults (19%) who feel highly attached to their communities demonstrate much stronger ties to local news than those who do not feel attached.”

They further report that “those who say they always vote in local elections (27% of U.S. adults) display strikingly stronger local news habits than those who do not regularly vote in local elections.”

They suggest that this data may be a reflection of the unique service local journalism provides in its coverage of local elections and politics. One doesn’t need to speculate too much to consider the “unique service” we can expect from Sinclair in this regard.

This all matters urgently because we have seen a rising tide of local activism that needs a local outlet to disseminate its story. From the Women’s Marches across the country to Indivisible to the rising tide of March for Our Lives student protesters, there has been a new pivot to the local as the space from which to begin and engage in political action. But if there is no local coverage of these local acts, their potential impact will be diminished. And, if the coverage that does exist is mocking, derogatory, biased and bigoted, it may well affect their success.

While there are clearly other forms of media besides TV that can cover these stories on a local level, there is proof that TV holds an especially powerful place in communities. We can thank Burke of Deadspin for deciding to “make a dumb video” that managed to get the public to pay attention to this crisis. But if we are to have any chance of fending off the Sinclair right-wing agenda, we are going to have to do more than express outrage and make memes. We are going to have to practice politics and make policy, and we can’t count on Democratic leadership to help.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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