Editorial: The Sinclair Propaganda Machine

Set aside "values" and voter fraud for a moment and just take a look at Sinclair Broadcasting Group. If the nation's largest owner of TV stations didn't actually help reelect George W. Bush it wasn't for lack of effort. Their message to America now: Our man won, deregulation will continue and we've only just begun ... to expand.

First a recap, then a fresh glimpse inside Sinclair. Back in April, Sinclair ordered its ABC affiliates not to air an episode of Nightline during which host Ted Koppel planned to simply read the names of the fallen soldiers – around 700 at the time. When pressed to explain this unprecedented move, denounced sharply by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) among others, Sinclair's CEO, David Smith, responded: "ABC is disguising political statements as news content."

In early October, less than a month before "the most important election of our lives," Sinclair brazenly ordered its 62 TV stations (including several in the major swing states of Ohio and Florida) to preempt regular programming to air, just days before the election, a documentary attacking John Kerry.

Not only was the documentary, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," created by a Bush family friend, but it was filled with demonstrable lies.

Yet Sinclair's VP, lobbyist and one of the nation's most high-profile conservative commentators, Mark Hyman, responded (reportedly with a straight face): "This is a powerful story... The networks are acting like Holocaust deniers and pretending [the POWs] don't exist."

Former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, not quite your average flaming liberal, was flabbergasted: "Ordering stations to carry propaganda? It's absolutely off the charts." Even Sinclair's own Washington bureau chief, Jon Leiberman, called it "biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election." He was promptly fired.

Those incidents have been publicized. What goes on in Sinclair's daily operations, however, is something many of us know little about.

"More Aggressive Than Fox"

For starters, a single studio at Sinclair's home office in suburban Maryland, known as "NewsCentral," creates news segments which are then mixed with live broadcasting at the 62 stations to create the "illusion of local news," as Paul Schmelzer put it in an AlterNet article from late October. He went on: "In some cases, personnel at the local station have to coach on-air personalities at Sinclair central casting on tough regional pronunciation of town names."

The Sinclair story reads like a cautionary tale about media consolidation. The centralized and hierarchical structure allows a tiny editorial team in Maryland to fundamentally control the news that reaches nearly 25 percent of the American audience. The product, says media critic Jay Rosen, is "more aggressive than Fox News Channel."

Or, straight from the horse's mouth, ex-Washington bureau chief Lieberman: "(N)ewsroom leaders (at the encouragement of Hyman) started suggesting pro-administration story ideas. They made sure that every political story had a comment from the Bush administration... But I know in my heart what they're doing is wrong. It's not fair and balanced ... It's pure propaganda, and they're trying to shoehorn what should be a format for editorials or commentary into news,"

It's enough to make Rupert Murdoch blush.

Which brings us to Sinclair's pride and joy, a nightly editorial broadcast called "The Point," produced and delivered by none other than Sinclair V.P. and lobbyist, Mark Hyman. Ironically, these one-minute segments are a shameless attempt, as Sinclair's CEO so eloquently said of Nightline, at "disguising political statements as news content."

Media Matters for America, a New York-based not-for-profit progressive research center, analyzed all segments of "The Point" between Nov. 2 and Dec. 1, and concluded this: "'The Point' contains a steady stream of one-sided anti-progressive and pro-Bush rhetoric that is broadcast without a progressive counterpoint."

Samples from "The Point" bear an uncanny resemblance to Republican talking points:

  • On Oct. 25, Hyman claimed that Kerry earned the Silver Star for killing a "wounded man as he retreated from battle." Dick Cheney's vaunted factcheck.org had already debunked that charge.

  • On Oct. 26, just a week before the election, Hyman echoed the Swift Boat liars' Kerry smear: "13 American POWs... rebutted Kerry's claims that his 1971 testimony accusing American servicemen of 'war crimes' ... harmed no one." Hyman also referred to the POWs' claim in "Stolen Honor" that Kerry's actions worsened the POWs' treatment: "[T]hey say ... Kerry's testimony was used by their Communist captors."

  • On Nov. 15, Hyman claimed that the Democratic Party is in "the clutches of the Angry Left" and that "Mainstream America will not vote for a party run by Hollywood liberals, greedy trial lawyers and clueless academia."

  • On Nov. 18, Hyman claimed: "Religion, particularly Christianity, has been under attack by the left for several years. And the presidential election results have already led to increased attacks."

  • But here's the most precious:

  • Complaining of "liberal media bias," Hyman said: "Observing the national news networks report on this year's presidential race is like watching a set of referees tackling the visiting team in a football game. They've definitely chosen sides."

But none of this should come as a shock from a corporation in which the owners – David D. Smith and his three brothers – and their executives made 97 percent of their political donations during the 2004 election cycle to Bush and the Republicans. The brothers alone have given $121,000 to the Republican Party since 1999, and each of them contributed the maximum $2,000 to the 2004 Bush campaign.

Yet "Sinclair is barely profitable and laden with debt," says USA Today. So why would successful businessmen throw so much money at it? Surely right-wing ideology only goes so far?

In fact, Sinclair believes its right wing ideology will pay dividends.

Political Interests v. Shareholder Value

Bill Carter, writing in The New York Times, cited what's known as "the Sinclair payback provision." Sinclair put stockholders at risk in its attempt to become a "king maker." The idea was to support Bush and his crusade to further deregulate media consolidation. After all, Sinclair already engages in questionable practices like having the CEO's mother buy a station in a market where Sinclair already owns the legal maximum of one. And Kerry had promised to halt deregulation.

So now that Bush is re-elected, what would stop Sinclair from continuing its pro-Bush campaign, a la Fox News? The good news is, Sinclair is vulnerable. Following it's plan to air the anti-Kerry "attack-umentary," progressive groups went into overdrive, complete with blogs like DailyKos and Democratic Underground, listing some of Sinclair's advertisers. Then came a website, Boycottsbg.com, with a complete list of advertisers and their contact info. Before long, according to Media Matters, over 150,000 phone calls had been made prompting several sponsors to pull their ads. Within a week the corporation's stock dropped 10 percent resulting in a $60 million loss in value.

As the threat of shareholder lawsuits loomed, Media Matters Senior Fellow David S. Bennahum commented: "Sinclair's decision to air 'Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal' places partisan political interests ahead of shareholder value by jeopardizing the renewal of FCC licenses, stimulating grassroots advertiser boycotts and triggering potential investigations into the company's misuse of its licenses to use the public airwaves."

Although it portrayed itself as an embattled casualty of attempts to suppress free speech in an on-air editorial, Sinclair was ultimately forced to air a far more balanced program that included only snippets of "Stolen Honor," as well as bits of the pro-Kerry "Going Upriver."

With the reelection of George W. Bush, however, Sinclair is emboldened. The steady stream of one-sided editorials signal that rather than give up, the media giant is redoubling its efforts – and so are its critics. FCC commissioner Michael Copps noted, with remarkable foresight, in a 2001 decision to fine Sinclair for willfully exceeding the commission's one-TV-station-per-market limit: "Sinclair has crossed the line into behavior that the majority has found to violate the commission's rules. In assessing a fine on Sinclair for this violation, the majority purports to stop the expansion of Sinclair's forays... but in fact it merely points out that lines have been crossed, while allowing Sinclair to run over those lines and to continue its multiple ownership strategy."

Now, a new coalition called Sinclair Action has emerged with a mission to "Protest Sinclair Bias and Misuse of Public Airwaves." AlterNet is a founding member of the group, which includes: Media Matters for America, Outfoxed creator Robert Greenwald, MoveOn.org, MediaChannel.org, Free Press, Working Assets, and the Institute for America's Future.

At 10:30 A.M. (EST) today, three things will happen. First, the coalition will send a letter to Sinclair's CEO, David D. Smith, urging him to adhere to traditional broadcasting standards: "We believe that you are falling short of your own standards – standards that news broadcasters should certainly uphold... The fairest way to remedy this situation is for Sinclair to provide a meaningful opportunity for those with an opposing point of view to respond to editions of the 'The Point.'"

A second letter will be sent to major sponsors of the station making them aware of Sinclair's inability to meet traditional broadcasting standards and asking that they work with the members of Sinclair Action to urge Sinclair to balance its perspective.

Finally, David Brock of Media Matters, Timothy Karr of MediaChannel.org and Robert Greenwald will hold a press conference to announce the launch of a nationwide campaign aimed at drawing attention to the conservative slant in Sinclair Broadcasting's "The Point" because, as Sinclair has said, "We do not believe political statements should be disguised as news content."

We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

An analysis of Sinclair's "The Point" is available at SinclairAction.com, along with video clips of "The Point," a discussion forum for Americans to share their views on the subject, and a mechanism to track and contact advertisers appearing on Sinclair's news broadcasts.

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