Lately, the media is just as much in the news as it is covering the news. Most of it we see. The power of Fox and Friends. The daily scoops from The New York Times and Washington Post. Sean Hannity and his talk-radio acolytes, the progressive mantra of MSNBC.
But one outlet is more pervasive than all these. Its 173 television stations, soon to be 216, broadcast into the living rooms of three-quarters of American homes. Its stations feed a daily diet of Trumpisms. Former FCC Chairman Michael Copps, has called it “the most dangerous company most people have never heard of.”
How did it get so powerful? Who runs it? And why, during the 2016 campaign, did it do 15 interviews with Donald Trump and zero with Hillary Clinton?
These are just a few of the questions in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, as Jeff Schechtman talks to journalist Lucia Graves. Graves is a US correspondent for The Guardian who has looked deeply into Sinclair and whose article This is Sinclair, “the most dangerous US Company you never heard of,” appears in the August 17th issue of The Guardian.
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Mostly as a result of the cacophony of news about the media itself, we know who the players are. The blonde ambition of Fox, the blaring at war posture of Breitbart, Talk Radio and its collection of Hannity acolytes, the progressive voice of MSNBC, and the renewed investigative journalism of The Washington Post and The New York Times.|
|However, the company you may not know is the one that below the radar may be the most insidious, most effective and most in service of the current administration. Sinclair Broadcasting controls 173 local television stations and is looking to buy 43 more. If it does it will have, to mix metaphors, its right wing tentacles into three quarters of the living rooms of America.|
|Today, we’re going to focus on Sinclair with my guest, Lucia Graves. She’s a US columnist for the Guardian. She’s previously been a staff correspondent for the National Journal, and a staff reporter at The Huffington Post. It is my pleasure to welcome Lucia Graves here to talk about her article in The Guardian: This is Sinclair, “the most dangerous US company you’ve never heard of.”|
|Lucia, thanks so much for joining us.|
|Lucia Graves:||Thanks so much for having me today.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Great to have you here. First of all, tell us a little bit about the history of Sinclair. Where did this company come from? Where did it get started?|
|Lucia Graves:||Well, it’s headquartered just outside Baltimore and it was founded under another name in ’71, actually, but it wasn’t until more recently that it became sort of a political point of interest. The founder was Julian Sinclair Smith and he was described as the patriarch of the Smith family, which now owns Sinclair, and he was more of a technical person. He started out in radio and then sort of gradually shifted to television, but his four sons, who’ve taken over the business, have taken it in a more sort of explicitly political direction.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And it has been, certainly of late, a blatantly political direction, even more so in many ways than Fox and what we’ve seen there in terms of it’s really insisting that it’s message get out through its local stations.|
|Lucia Graves:||Yeah, well I think one of the concerns that a lot of people have is the apparent relationship it has with Trump’s FCC, the regulatory body for media in the US. Since Trump took office, the head of the FCC has made a number of moves that make it easier for Sinclair to expand its reach to 72 percent of American households, which is twice the number of households that used to previously be legal, but they’ve relaxed regulations to make it possible for Sinclair to move forward with this big merger. And they haven’t signed off. There’s still an approval process that needs to take place, but people expect that the FCC is working hand in hand with Sinclair and I think that most people believe it’ll be approved.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk a little bit about these 10-minute political commentaries that Sinclair has made their local stations run that you talk about in your article.|
|Lucia Graves:||Well, so one of the reasons people don’t know what Sinclair is is because, unlike the sort of big national syndicates like Fox or ABC, Sinclair is partners with local news stations, so it will show up just as your local NBC affiliate or ABC affiliate, whatever the syndicate is, but there are trademark elements of Sinclair stations, and one of them is what you mentioned: they must run 10-minute political commentary segments. And April Sinclair hired Boris Epshteyn, who’s a former campaign spokesman for Donald Trump and works in the White House Press Office, so I think it’s not surprising that a lot of these 10-minute commentary segments sound a lot like Trump’s messaging from the White House and that they’re beamed into 72 percent of American households through the television.|
|The power of that is pretty disturbing, especially given the war on media that Trump has waged since taking office. This will essentially allow him to not cooperate with the more traditional outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post because he can go around them. His former spokesman has the 10-minute political segments that just get beamed into people’s televisions, so it really changes the incentive for him.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It’s interesting that this also started during the campaign when the Sinclair stations did numerous interviews with Trump and zero interviews with Clinton.|
|Lucia Graves:||Yeah, that was a cause for concern with a lot of people. David Smith has said, the main brother in charge, he was CEO for almost 30 years until stepping down to a sort of more senior advisory role. Since Sinclair’s been in the limelight these last couple of months, he likes to keep a low profile.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||To what extent do you think that Sinclair is going to be able to continue to keep this low profile? There seems to be more attention focused on it lately, and you mentioned in your Guardian story that there’s suddenly some interest in congress in what Sinclair has been doing and the lax FCC regulatory aspect of it.|
|Lucia Graves:||Well, the kind of reach that Sinclair is going to have and the blatant way that it’s embraced Trump’s messaging, both through television and there’s recent online acquisition of the new site Circa, means that it is going to be a lot more in the spotlight.|
|During the campaign when, as you mentioned, it gave 15 interviews to Donald Trump and zero to Hilary Clinton and things like that, it was sort of out shown, I would say, by Fox news and people. Fox news is branded as a conservative outlet, people know what that is and Murdoch, the Chairman of Fox News, has been in the limelight for decades, so I think there was a lot more interest at the time around Fox. But given, I think, Trump’s increasing favoritism towards Sinclair and the huge $3.9 billion merger, that’s going to be changing very rapidly.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||You mentioned Circa a few moments ago, this website that Sinclair is in the process of purchasing, or I guess has purchased. Talk a little bit about what that is and what do you think they hope to do with it.|
|Lucia Graves:||Well, Circa is one of the relatively recent additions to their portfolio and it started out as a mobile news app. It was out of Silicon Valley; had nothing to do with Sinclair, the Smith brothers who own Sinclair. But they acquired it ostensibly because for the innovative things it was doing with mobile applications, but it’s really just being used as a very traditional news site online with these short articles. They don’t even necessarily have a byline, an author byline on them, so it’ll just say “by Circa staff.”|
|Some of the stories read kind of like an aggregated BuzzFeed article, you know, just not very much content kind of pulling from the internet, and some of them have sort of a pro-Trump bent, so I think the perception is that this is going to be the new Breitbart for him, sort of a favored website that he can leak things to that he doesn’t want to give to The Times or The Post or more outlets with real trained reporters.|
|Another thing that happened was with The Tribune merger, ahead of the Tribune merger, Tribune got rid of some of its properties that it had been building with investigative journalists and feature writers. They just, I think in August, started staffing up for a new investigative website at Tribune, and as soon as it became apparent, before it was announced, but as soon as it became apparent the Tribune was going to be acquired by Sinclair, they started firing those journalists or sort of like laying off everyone who was associated with that new investigative hard-hitting team and I think in favor of things like Circa, which is the model that Sinclair likes.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Given how big Sinclair is, how many people work there, how many employees they have that have come from a diverse background, what does your reporting tell you in terms of any potential pushback within Sinclair, within the organization among employees to its hard right agenda?|
|Lucia Graves:||Well, this is something that’s been apparent, going on for some time. I mean, I think that even 15 years ago, people graduating from journalism school would be told don’t go to work for Sinclair. They pay people terribly, they get rid of veteran reporters. It was just seen as a cheap unkind employer and not a place to go if you wanted to have real experience, and since then the political agenda has become part of that concern.|
|There were some good reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post on what has happened with Sinclair taking over local affiliate stations in Washington, DC and also in Washington State, and the sort of concerns that veteran reporters had there at the initial transfer of power and then also how quickly they shed all of their talent, both because more senior experienced reporters are expensive or more expensive than people just out of college. But also because I think there’s a perception that they might have a better understanding of what constitutes real journalism and make trouble for Sinclair when they try to push these 10-minute segments and that kind of thing.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the other rules that Sinclair is trying to get eliminated, which is something that the FCC has had as a rule for a long time, is this requirement that local news stations actually have a local studio in the community that they broadcast from. Talk a little bit about that.|
|Lucia Graves:||Yeah, so in addition to paving the way for Sinclair’s merger, the FCC is proposing that one of its most fundamental rules that requires you having an actual physical studio where you’re doing the broadcasting in order to be considered a local news studio and treated with what are frankly federal protections for local news, that that be eliminated which will make it possible for Sinclair to do a lot more nationally pushed segments from its headquarters.|
|One of the reasons you don’t hear the name Sinclair is because it’s supposed to be something that’s produced. It’s supposed to be the news you’re watching is produced by a local studio by local journalists who are embedded in the community and who you have come to know, but under the new federal guidelines that they are changing, that may very well no longer be the case.|
|And also it may not even be apparent that that’s changing because Sinclair doesn’t say anywhere on the station that it’s Sinclair. You just may the faces of your local newscasters change and you may see more of the segments, but viewers won’t actually know that this is happening, necessarily.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Tell us a little bit about what went on with the Sinclair station in Montana during the recent special election, during the recent special congressional election up there, where there was this last minute kerfuffle, this fight between a reporter and one of the candidates.|
|Lucia Graves:||I’m glad you asked about that. That’s a interesting case. So, this was my colleague, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who works in the DC office with me, covering US congressional candidate Greg Gianforte’s election in Montana. Ben, my colleague, was asking him a question about the GOP health care bill and the candidate got agitated and assaulted him, threw him on the ground. And Ben had a recording of all of this that was being aired nationally on The Today Show, and it was hands down the biggest political story in the state that night.|
|However, the local NBC affiliate, which had recently been bought by Sinclair, refused to air Jacob’s audio recording of the incident in which he is assaulted, and it’s clear from the recording what’s happening. He sort of narrates it as it’s occurring. It’s an NBC affiliate station, even though it’s owned by Sinclair, and NBC executives in New York were pretty irate to not have the biggest political story of the day, at a very sensitive time, coming right before the election.|
|I actually was able to read the email exchange between the local producer in Montana and NBC executives in New York, and the news director there said things like, “Oh well, The Guardian is a liberal outlet. It can’t be trusted.” I mean, never mind that NBC is also branded as a liberal outlet, and this is one of the differences between major national outlets and Sinclair, which purports to have no political outlook whatsoever, even though to look at the organization and the donations of the people who run it, that’s clearly not true.|
|So anyways, they refused to run the audio and Greg Gianforte, who’s now in congress, went on to win the election the following day. And another interesting detail here is I called the local news producer who made this decision and asked her if it was influenced by Sinclair executives, and they had denied that it was influenced by Sinclair and they also know that they were in transition, having been bought by Sinclair, but that it wasn’t finalized at that point and made a lot of denials to that effect.|
|But the day after, there was a police report filed on my colleague’s assault. Fred Smith, the Vice President of Sinclair, donated $1,000 to Greg Gianforte. He’s, at this point, making national headlines all over the country for having assaulted a reporter, so for a news executive to donate to a candidate after that I think sends a very clear message that is frankly hostile to journalism.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Is Sinclair concerned that there will be eventually or might be pushback from its various suppliers from the NBCs of the world and the CBS’s of the world, the companies that supply the content for these local stations?|
|Lucia Graves:||Yeah, you know, that’s a great question. It’s a business question too, obviously as well as a political question, and sort of a journalistic integrity question. So far, the main source of that kind of push back that I’m aware of is Rupert Murdoch saying that he may pull his Fox affiliate stations from Sinclair and go with a lesser known company with less influence, but I think the best seen is sort of that threat and he hasn’t moved forward with that at this point. I think it’s because Sinclair is seen as being a threat, potentially, to Murdoch’s conservative news empire, so it would be more of a business consideration, I think, than anything about journalistic integrity that is at this point moving people.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Have any of the other companies, NBC, or any of the others really talked about pushing back on this and pulling their programming, their entertainment programming from Sinclair stations?|
|Lucia Graves:||At this point I have not heard anything to that effect, no. NBC did push back around this particular incident in Montana, sort of asking why it wasn’t being covered, and I know there are other examples of case by case things like that, but that would be a major financial decision with a lot of business implications for the company, so at a time when Sinclair is immensely powerful and positioned to become more powerful still, and with that expanded reach comes more clout, I think it’s going to be harder than ever for people to say no to Sinclair.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Lucia Graves, her article in The Guardian is This is Sinclair, “the most dangerous US company you’ve never heard of.”|
|Lucia, thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.|
|Lucia Graves:||Thank you so much for having me today.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you.|
|Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.org. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy.org podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.|
|If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.|
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from puzzle pieces (barcoo / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).
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