How a semi-secret right-wing media empire is blanketing America with lies

By conquering local TV and spewing relentless pro-Trump propaganda, Sinclair is winning a war no one noticed

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published June 18, 2024 9:29AM (EDT)

In this photo illustration a Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBG) logo is seen on a smartphone and a pc screen. (Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
In this photo illustration a Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBG) logo is seen on a smartphone and a pc screen. (Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Propaganda used to be a dirty word in this country. Long associated with authoritarian regimes in countries like Russia and China, propaganda as it has been understood over the decades meant centralized control over the way a nation’s citizens access the news — not just the news about the country they live in, but about that country’s place in the world. 

When Vladimir Putin took over in Russia a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the first things he did was to begin his gradual seizure of control over the Russian media. Ownership of newspapers and broadcasting stations, both television and radio, had only recently been privatized, and Putin engineered a process whereby one news outlet after another was sold to friendly oligarchs. Eventually, virtually all formerly independent news outlets were returned to de facto state control as Putin tightened his grip on power.

In Hungary, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has sought to follow the Putin model, closing unfriendly news outlets for violating various newly-passed laws and turning them over to the control of oligarchs friendly to his regime. Right-wing media figures like Tucker Carlson and, through him, broadcast companies like Fox News have approvingly noted Orbán’s control over how people in Hungary get their news. When Carlson was the biggest prime-time host on Fox News, he even broadcast his show from Budapest for a week, promoting Orbán and the “illiberal democracy” he  brought to his country.

In this country, the takeover of broadcast and print news has progressed more slowly, but arguably just as surely. Sinclair Broadcast Group, owned by the arch-conservative Smith family of Baltimore, went on a buying spree that began back in the 1980s and ‘90s, taking control of local television stations around the country. Sinclair even came up with a way of getting around FCC rules that barred ownership of two competing stations in one market throughj so-called local marketing agreements, under which Sinclair could operate a second station in a given market by selling it to a corporation that would eventually come under Sinclair’s control if and when FCC rules are relaxed. Next came so-called shared services agreements, which allowed Sinclair to control a third station in Columbus, Ohio, where Sinclair already operated two stations.

Then Sinclair doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on its strategy to take over local stations, beginning another buying spree, this time buying multiple stations from media outfits like Cox Communications and Allbritton Communications. Cox sold Sinclair five stations, Allbritton sold seven. On Sinclair went, buying cable outlets such as the Tennis Channel and Bally Sports, a network of local sports channels. In 2017, Sinclair went after Chicago-based Tribune Media, in a takeover attempt that would have dramatically increased the company's footprint, putting Sinclair in 10 major-city media markets. Over a period of years that purchase eventually fell apart, but Sinclair came out of the whole thing with control of 193 stations in more than 100 markets around the country. 

With that immense market control, Sinclair started experimenting with supplying centralized news content through morning shows that ran on multiple local Sinclair-owned stations. From there, they went on to produce a show called “The National Desk,” a two-hour evening newscast provided to Sinclair stations that did not have local news shows. Then Sinclair began “must run” news segments that were centrally produced but required to be run as part of Sinclair-owned stations’ news broadcasts. The “must run” segments began with support of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and went on to include stories critical of the so-called “deep state,” a political fiction that Donald Trump has pushed since he first ran for president in 2015. Sinclair has continued over the years to run pro-Trump “must run” segments, including excerpts from Trump speeches criticizing CNN and other news outlets as “fake news,” while praising Sinclair Broadcasting. 

Now we find ourselves in the midst of the 2024 election campaign, and what is Sinclair doing? Last week, Sinclair picked up the widely-discredited Wall Street Journal story about Biden’s age and cognitive abilities, and began broadcasting “must run” segments featuring allegations that Biden is showing “signs of slipping” made by — wait for it — former Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. Sinclair news hosts read from identical scripts describing the Journal’s story as “calling into question the mental fitness of President Joe Biden.” The issue, Sinclair hosts told their audiences darkly, “could be an election decider.”

Was anybody else quoted by either Sinclair or the Wall Street Journal about Biden’s alleged diminished capacities? Nope. Did either the Journal or Sinclair mention that McCarthy had been quoted in the New York Times praising Biden’s negotiating skills during discussions in the Oval Office over the budget in 2023? 

I’ll give you one guess.

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Now Sinclair has gone full-court press on Biden’s age, running repeated video segments that are alleged to show the president’s “senior moments.” The segments are part of a package sent out as a “must run” to Sinclair stations, also including a story that features a quote from a spokesman for the Trump campaign saying, “The lights are on but nobody’s home.”

What do these videos show? They show Joe Biden at a Juneteenth celebration at the White House watching a musical performance. Sinclair’s segments describe Biden as “dazed” and “not moving” at the Juneteenth event and then show an edited clip of Biden’s remarks during which he slurs the word “history.” Biden, of course, has had an acknowledged speech impediment throughout his life and his decades in politics. He occasionally stumbles over words and often jokes about it. 

Sinclair’s coverage of Biden’s visit to Normandy Beach for the D-Day anniversary celebration last week included a rumor spread on Elon Musk’s X platform (formerly Twitter) that Biden had soiled himself at the celebration. The “must run” segment included the words “diaper,” “poop” and “pooping,” summing things up with the editorial remark that the D-Day appearance “paints a poor picture for President Biden, 81, who is fighting off harsh criticisms of his physical and mental capabilities.” The “must-run” segments all appeared at the same time on June 10, 9:24 Eastern, on at least 86 Sinclair-affiliated stations, according to a report on Judd Legum’s Popular Information.

Sinclair's “must run” segment on Biden's D-Day appearance included the words “diaper,” “poop” and “pooping,” and concluded that the event “paints a poor picture" of Biden, "who is fighting off harsh criticisms of his physical and mental capabilities.”

Legum adds that Sinclair then featured a June 13 must-run segment covering Biden’s attendance at the G7 summit in Italy, alleging that Biden “appears to start wandering off at the G7 summit and has to be handled back in.” Actual footage of the event shows Biden leaving the group of leaders to walk over to greet parachutists from each of the G7 nations who had landed nearby. 

Sinclair has received so much blowback for this shameless propaganda that the company felt obliged to respond, issuing a statement last week claiming it was "outrageous and offensive" to suggest that its coverage of Biden and its relentless parroting of the Journal story were "politically biased."

In fact, this propaganda is being produced in conjunction with the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign, and then distributed around the country through a network of TV stations owned and operated by a company that reliably supports the Republican Party and Donald Trump himself. Similar garbage-content is being produced by Trump-friendly print media like the New York Post and other right-wing papers. Trump himself shows up at his campaign rallies week after week and talks about Biden “wandering around,” with a wink and a nod to the right-wing media’s tsunami of misleading and fabricated “coverage” of Biden’s alleged missteps and mispronunciations.

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Meanwhile, Trump frequently cannot identify politicians who appear with him — twice calling Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas, a friend and ally he has known for years, "Ronny Johnson" — and descends into nonsensical tirades about electric boats and marauding sharks he fears are ready to attack him.

You could, perhaps, try to write all this off as politics as usual in the modern era of partisanship and intractable division. It’s happened before. Remember the “Swift-boating” of John Kerry in 2004 when he was running against George W. Bush? Coordinated lies about Kerry turned his heroism and his Vietnam medals into a liability when he was running against a man who managed to dodge the draft by joining the Air National Guard and then refusing to show up for meetings.

But this time around it’s different, and a lot worse. With the network of local television stations owned by Sinclair and Fox News on cable systems around the clock, we’ve entered a world that even Orbán and Putin would admire. While those two authoritarians had to use state power to control the media in their countries, right-wingers in this country have used big money and capitalism to accomplish something similar: American-style propaganda produced by the Republican Party and the Trump campaign, and sent out nightly by Sinclair Broadcasting on stations that reach more than 40 percent of American households, That doesn’t even include the reach of Fox News propaganda blathered nightly by Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. 

It’s not news. It’s a red blanket that has been thrown over America by right-wing billionaires and a political party that has embraced the kind of authoritarianism that once upon a time this country stood against. 

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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Age Commentary Donald Trump Internet Joe Biden Media Right-wing Media Sinclair Broadcast Group