During last year’s presidential campaign, Jared Kushner reportedly made a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group: The Trump campaign would provide Sinclair’s local news stations with intimate access to the candidate, in exchange for “fair” coverage of the GOP nominee.
Here are some of the ways that Sinclair kept its broadcasts fair and balanced, according to the Washington Post:
Sinclair-owned stations and its Washington bureau scored 15 “exclusive” interviews with Trump over the past year, including 11 during the final three months of the campaign in critical states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. They did 10 more with Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, from August through October, as well as 10 with Trump surrogates, primarily Ben Carson. Sinclair stations aired five such interviews with Clinton running mate Tim Kaine and two with Chelsea Clinton but none with Clinton or another top surrogate.
… Mark Hyman — a Sinclair executive and conservative commentator who appears on Sinclair stations — regularly criticized Clinton or highlighted positions favorable to Trump in his on-air commentaries. “Most Americans know very little about the leaked Clinton emails,” he said in one, which aired on Oct. 27. “Major news organizations buried the most damaging. So we’re sharing some with you.”
… News stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton were distributed to Sinclair stations on a “must-run” basis — that is, the stations were required by managers in Washington to make room in their evening newscasts or morning programs for them.
… A “must-run” email from Washington managers to stations on Sept. 13 read this way: “DESCRIPTION: Why did Hillary Clinton struggle with disclosing her medical diagnosis? She has been repeatedly faced with previous questions of trust. Can a president lead with so many questions of transparency and trust?…There were no equivalent “must-run” stories examining Trump’s refusal to release his medical or tax records or about questions surrounding his charitable foundation.
Even if Kushner hadn’t held out the promise of access, Sinclair might have offered such fairness, nonetheless. The company’s longtime chairman David Smith is a big-dollar GOP donor, whose family helped fund one of Trump’s super-PACs. When Sinclair purchased Washington, D.C.’s ABC affiliate in 2014, the network’s editorial bent took a sharp right turn. And the aforementioned Mark Hyman routinely delivers conservative commentary on the local news broadcasts of Sinclair stations around the country.
Following Trump’s election, Sinclair hired the president’s former spokesman Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst — and Trump’s FCC relaxed rules on how many local stations a single owner can control.
Sinclair was already the largest owner of local television stations in the U.S. in 2016. That footprint gave the company tremendous influence, as Kushner eagerly explained to business executives who later spoke with Politico:
Kushner highlighted that Sinclair, in states like Ohio, reaches a much wider audience — around 250,000 listeners — than networks like CNN, which reach somewhere around 30,000. “It’s math,” Kushner said according to multiple attendees.
Last year, a Pew Research study found that nearly 60 percent of American adults get their news from television — and 50 percent of those rely on local stations. The study also found that likely voters make up a disproportionate share of the local television audience.
This week, Sinclair capitalized on the FCC’s new laissez-faire attitude, purchasing Tribune Media for $3.9 billion — and, thereby, claiming ownership of enough local television stations to reach 70 percent of American households. To have its deal finalized, Sinclair will need to secure further cooperation from the FCC. Currently, the regulator bars any one broadcaster from claiming greater than 39 percent market share. To stay under that cap, Sinclair may need to sell off its less desirable holdings. Or, maybe not: The FCC’s Republican chairman Ajit Pai has suggested that the 39 percent-limit could be raised.
Sinclair also secured the Tribune’s crown jewel, WGN America, a cable network that reaches 80 million homes, just 10 million fewer than Fox News. On a conference call with investors Monday, Sinclair executives said they would be shifting WGN away from “high-cost originals” (i.e. scripted dramas) and toward more “cost-effective originals.” That remark has fed speculation that Sinclair may try to refashion WGN into a Fox News competitor — an endeavor that could be launched with the aid of erstwhile Fox News star Bill O’Reilly and a few of red America’s other favorite (alleged) sex criminals.
There would be several obstacles to such a rebrand. To name just one: Turning WGN into a news channel could violate the terms of agreements between the network and cable operators, and result in some of the latter dropping the former from their packages.
It’s also possible that the profit motive will temper Sinclair’s partisan leanings on local channels. As the New York Times notes:
Whether Sinclair uses its expanded reach to push its conservative-leaning views remains to be seen. Any ambitions to do so would face significant hurdles.
For one, television, where ratings beget advertising revenue, is not a forgiving medium for dissatisfaction, several media analysts and specialists said. Because overnight ratings are readily available, Sinclair will know almost instantaneously if its programming is attractive to viewers or driving them — and advertising dollars — away.
If you are not serving the community’s needs, you will know it, and you will know it fast,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute. “In television, if you fail to serve, you will pay the price.”
Regardless, the largest provider of cable news in the United States is a proud mouthpiece for the Republican Party; the largest purveyor of “left-leaning” cable news recently hired right-wing commentators George Will, Hugh Hewitt, and Nicolle Wallace; and America’s leading newspaper has an editorial page populated by multiple conservative climate-change skeptics but not a single democratic socialist, despite the fact that one of the most (if not the most) popular politicians in America identifies as the latter.
And now, a company aligned with the far-right Republican president will supply local news to a supermajority of American households, pending the approval of that president’s administration.
The greatest trick the “liberal” media ever pulled was to convince the world that it exists.