Sinclair Broadcast: The Puppetmasters

On the surface, nothing in the April 17, 2001 evening news broadcast on Baltimore’s WBFF-TV was atypical. A reporter from the Fox affiliate covered efforts by environmental groups to clean up the North Branch of the Potomac River in western Maryland. It featured visuals of factory crud in the river, interviews with canoeing enthusiasts, and a shot of the Westvaco Paper Mill, the apparent cause of the river's contamination.

But there was one oddity: The station devoted its resources — use of the corporate helicopter, a news crew and valuable air time — to a story 160 miles from its headquarters. So far away, in fact, that locals can't even tune into the broadcast. So far away that there's another major national market, Washington DC, in between.

So why did this particular station reach beyond its service area to report on an apparent act of philanthropy? Because this Fox affiliate is owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc., where such efforts are green-lighted when the station's corporate owners are personally, financially, or politically affected by the news, according to current and former staffers who spoke to AlterNet only on condition of anonymity.

One such staffer says that Sinclair Vice President J. Duncan Smith asked Craig Demchak to take on the story. "Duncan comes in and says: 'Craig, we need this story, it's affecting my property. We've got to slam these people,’" recalls that person. "He was told 'This is destroying my property, we've got to stop it.' If it had been anybody else's property, would they be sending the helicopter there to see it? No way in hell."

In its story on the Westvaco pollution, the Baltimore Sun describes Smith as a "landowner on the Potomac," and the Allegany County clerk's office shows at least one Smith property in the area — a 3.65-acre parcel near Rawlings — owned by Smith's mother. The newscast didn't disclose Smith's alleged connection to the story, nor did it refrain from interviewing a representative of Safe Waterways in Maryland (SWIM), an advocacy group founded by Smith.

"We did the story because it was a worthwhile story," says Demchak, denying knowledge of Smith's property and Sinclair's relationship to SWIM, a surprising oversight given that the organization counts six Smiths among its 11 trustees — including Sinclair CEO David, vice presidents Frederick and J. Duncan, and mother Carolyn. Repeated calls to Smith's office and WBFF's news director were not returned, but Demchak insists that the personal interests of the Smith family had nothing to do with the story. A newsroom staffer disagrees: "They don't care about news. They care about moving their agenda, whether it's clearing up their property in Western Maryland or moving their political candidates to the forefront."

Charges that executives' interests, and not journalistic considerations, drive the company's news practices aren't new for Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of 62 stations nationwide and an assortment of ventures that trade in everything from cars to television transmitters to computer software. From its thwarted plan to force each of its stations to preempt programming days before the presidential election to air the anti-Kerry documentary Stolen Honor to its refusal to air the Nightline episode "The Fallen," which showed pictures and read the names of US soldiers who died in Iraq, the company's overt political biases have been a lightning rod for media activists.

Through the SinclairAction campaign (of which AlterNet is a part), some 36,000 emails were sent to Sinclair advertisers in protest of the planned airing of Stolen Honor, which prompted Staples, Inc., to not renew advertising contracts on local Sinclair news broadcasts. But while Sinclair drew considerable media attention for its political bias, a more nuanced form slipped under the radar — self-interested reporting on issues of financial import to the company or its executives.

A former producer remembers her first assignment as a Sinclair employee, a three-part series on high-definition television (HDTV). "I was told who I needed to interview, what questions I needed to ask, and then when I wrote my script, I had to take my script up to the vice presidents and get my script approved by them," she says. One of them, Technology Vice President Nat Ostroff, has "no connection to news, no knowledge of news whatsoever," she says.

"I'm doing three-minute packages on a subject that no one but them cares about and I'm interviewing only the people that they want me to interview in order to get the soundbites that they want," says the source." I told them I had a problem with it, and they said, 'Just get it done and you won't have to hear any more about it.'" As with the Nightline and Stolen Honor imperatives, all Sinclair stations were instructed to air the three-part series, whether they carry the network's centralized news program, NewsCentral, or not.

HDTV and DTV (digital television) are issues so high on Sinclair's priority list that CEO David Smith testified on them before a Senate committee and the FCC. And last week, the FCC dealt broadcasters like Sinclair a blow: the commission denied their request for "multi-cast must-carry," a provision that would require cable companies to make available all of a station's digital offerings to subscribers.

When the congressionally-mandated switch from analog to digital television takes place in a few years, broadcasters will be able to use the amount of spectrum that now can carry just one analog channel to broadcast six (and eventually more) channels. But, while the potential for ad revenues can expand exponentially, broadcasters like Sinclair refused to consider increasing their public-service programming, which sealed their fate with the FCC.

In a statement where he singled out Sinclair, commissioner Jonathan Adelstein explained his no-vote:

"[W]ithout some baseline public interest obligations, I cannot conclude that every broadcaster will treat extra digital program streams with the same sense of responsibility for local service... Recent events seem to validate claims that broadcasters' news coverage has been increasingly devoid of information to help citizens participate in their democracy, or, worse yet, promoting an ideology or unbalanced political agenda thinly disguised as journalism."
Says Free Press policy director Ben Scott:
"Without mandatory public service standards on digital TV, broadcasters will only be interested in picking the programming that costs them the least to produce while raking in the maximum advertising revenue. Don't count on genuine local programming. Get ready for reruns of reality TV."
Refusing to transcribe such corporate interests into news is what ultimately got Jon Leiberman, former chief of Sinclair's Washington bureau, fired. "For the most part stories were dictated...I felt like I was part of a propaganda arm,” says Leiberman. “I'd asked out of my contract three different times for ethical reasons, saying that we were doing agenda-driven news and that wasn't the type of journalist I was." He says that, beyond the hard-right tilt of VP Mark Hyman's nightly commentaries on The Point, which are carried on dozens of Sinclair stations, a better gauge of the company's biases would come from an analysis of the stories Sinclair chooses to cover:
"If you go through the newscasts — you don't even have to do it with a fine-toothed comb — you'll see how far to one end of the political spectrum they are. Moreso if you look at the stories they're choosing to enterprise, stories that they're putting together and shooting the interviews out of DC and Hunt Valley. Those are about 100 percent to one side of the political spectrum."
Company priorities were evident, he says, in the fact that he and a crew were sent to New York to interview Stolen Honor author John O'Neil the day before the book's release — resulting in three broadcast stories — yet Sinclair didn't mention abuses at Abu Ghraib until two weeks after the story broke elsewhere.

According to Leiberman, in the eight months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, roughly nine out of every 10 news stories reported by Sinclair's Washington DC bureau had a pro-Bush or anti-Kerry spin — a ratio that parallels the proportion of anti-Kerry commentaries made by Hyman over 12 days in September (10 of 12) and the percentage of the $2.3 million in campaign contributions made by Sinclair employees to Republicans over the last eight years (90 percent), as reported by the Center for Public Integrity.

Management's conservative values became clear after September 11, 2001, when it required its anchors to read statements of support for President Bush, alerting viewers that "We stand 100 percent behind the President in his vow that terrorism must be stopped" (It launched a website, in conjunction with the on-air proclamations).

But it wasn't until Maryland's 2002 gubernatorial elections that Leiberman realized just how far to the right his bosses were. It was another time when J. Duncan Smith's helicopter — and ethics — made headlines.

The sole director of Whirlwind Aviation, Smith provided then-candidate (and now governor) Republican Robert Ehrlich with a luxurious Dauphin Eurocopter to use for campaign trips and a post-election family vacation. Only after prodding by the Baltimore Sun did Whirlwind turn over documents indicating that the campaign was billed $1,000 an hour for what normally would rent for $2,500 an hour. More than half of the $13,750 cost was deemed an "in-kind" campaign contribution — one that wasn't initially reported and therefore apparently violated campaign finance laws.

Why this generosity towards Ehrlich? In 2001, Ehrlich wrote a letter urging the FCC to act on Sinclair's request to purchase TV stations. Christopher Hanson of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, told the Sun, "If you're an entity that owns a news outlet that is supposed to provide fair and balanced coverage of the campaign, and yet at the same time are providing aid to one of the candidates in the campaign, that puts them in a severe position of conflict."

Meanwhile, Sinclair's news arm, led by Mark Hyman, took to lashing out at Ehrlich's opponent, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In his commentaries Hyman called it a "scandal," for example, that an agency under Townsend's purview had failed to track certain gun purchases. Sinclair's Fox 45 did its part by becoming the only media outlet to report that Townsend's staffers were the subject of a federal investigation into the misuse of government anti-crime grants — allegations that were never substantiated.

As the former producer said, another such “news story” was planned by David Smith. At a dinner party he reportedly heard "that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was thrown from a horse, and that she might have some mental disability as a result...They assigned a producer to it who tried his darnedest to put a story together because he was being rided [sic] on it and couldn't get anyone to confirm that she was thrown from a horse. It never ran because it was never confirmed."

To current employees, such efforts are just more evidence of the lengths to which management will go to punish those they oppose. Employees know, says one source, "that speaking to the media is grounds for dismissal," and others who have left the company are now facing legal threats. Some employees believe that emails and phone calls are monitored at the corporate offices, and former employees are often told by friends on the inside to call only on cellphones.

As Rolling Stone reported last week, Sinclair employees received a memo stating, "We know if you use your e-mail to send jokes to your friends and co-workers. We know if you view porn... We know if you order parts for the car you are trying to restore...We know how many people searched for Janet Jackson after the Super Bowl (97 searches)." One source contacted by AlterNet refused to speak other than to say simply, "These people are evil."

Evil or not, Sinclair epitomizes the kind of me-first, ideology-driven media peddled by the likes of Armstrong Williams, Jeff Gannon, and Bill O'Reilly, where personal, political, and economic motives openly trump principle and the public good. While Leiberman attributes Sinclair's agenda-driven news to, among other factors, a belief by David Smith and others that "the media has been so liberal that they're doing the right thing by trying to balance the tables," another former producer offers a more encompassing view. "David Smith has very strong political beliefs, and he felt that if he could use his media influences — I mean, he owns 60-something stations — why not use it? And at the same time he'd be making money, because commercial time sells better with news than it does with something like King of the Hill. 'Hey, I can make money, save money, and get out my political views.'"

If only such logic were successful. Dubbed one of the "worst managers of 2004" by BusinessWeek, Smith can boast some less-than-stellar numbers: after watching his stock tank by 17 percent in the 11 days following the Stolen Honor controversy, his company's share values remain 39 percent below the price one year ago. And after seeing record-breaking political advertising expenditures last year, the company anticipates a 2 percent drop in revenue in the first quarter of this year, despite a boost from its airing of the Super Bowl on some stations. But as Hyman suggested to Rolling Stone, maybe it's not entirely about the money. "People who'd never heard of us before suddenly knew who we were. We're on the map."

Which is fortunate because, as David Bennahum, Senior Fellow with Media Matters for America, commented:
"At a time when the television industry recorded strong earnings from political advertising — 2004 logged more political advertising revenue than at any other time in history — Sinclair's earnings were lackluster, underperforming less well-positioned rivals. What other reason, apart from mismanagement, can explain these dismal revenue numbers? Advertisers, the stock market, and the public all punished Sinclair for placing a partisan political agenda ahead of all other interests."

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