What it’s like to watch Sinclair—and why that’s the story

The headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group is shown April 3, 2018 in Hunt Valley, Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Last Wednesday night, the evening news anchors on Sinclair’s flagship station, WBFF in Baltimore, introduced the 10pm broadcast with the story of a double murder. Over the course of the hour-long program on the Fox affiliate, anchors Kai Jackson and Jennifer Gilbert presented segments on the state legislature, a drop in Baltimore’s homicide rate, a doggie field trip to Disneyland, and weather. So. Much. Weather.

To anybody who lives in Baltimore, WBFF’s Fox45 News at 10 looks like any other local newscast in America—a fact largely lost in the recent furor over the “must-run” segments with political agendas aired by Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns the Baltimore station and 192 others around the country.

Jackson and Gilbert, the WBFF anchors, were two of the dozens of Sinclair journalists who stared into the camera last month and read from a script handed down by their corporate bosses, criticizing “biased and false news.” The must-run read-throughs, featured in a Deadspin video that launched a news cycle 10 days ago, restarted a long-running media critique of Sinclair.  The company hasn’t been shy about picking up the anti-press talking points of the president as it seeks antitrust approval from Donald Trump’s Justice Department for a major acquisition.

ICYMI: The story of a journalist who became a killer

That most Sinclair broadcasts look neutral, says Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, is what makes Sinclair all the more insidious. “In a way, the fact that it looks normal most of the time is part of the problem,” she argues. “What Sinclair is cynically doing is trading on the trust that develops among local news people and their local audience.” The controversy surrounding Sinclair is about more than partisanship, media consolidation, and government oversight. It’s about the very manner in which the American public understands where their news comes from and how it’s made.

Last week, Jackson and Gilbert didn’t do any editorializing. Their broadcast’s stories came in staccato bursts rarely lasting more than a minute, and what national reporting existed was factual and seemingly untainted by political slant one way or the other. No one would confuse the program with the pro-Trump cheerleading of Fox News’s primetime hours. When Boris Epshteyn, a sort of low-energy Sean Hannity who serves as Sinclair’s chief political analyst, did appear, it was at the tail end of the 10pm broadcast. His segment wasn’t introduced by the affiliate’s anchors, and in fact seemed disjointed from the rest of the program.

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David Zurawik, who has covered Sinclair for nearly three decades as The Baltimore Sun’s television critic, says that lack of a blatant political slant isn’t surprising. “It’s not a cartoon right-wing operation; [it looks] like local news,” he says of the station’s coverage. “[It’s] very aggressive in covering police and schools and City Hall. The problem is when [it does] something political, [it drags] you back to realizing [its] approach. That’s what’s frustrating as a critic, because you want to be fair, but at some point you’ve seen it enough that you say, ‘There’s an agenda here, I’m sorry.’ It’s my duty to remind viewers of that, that even when it looks clean and down the middle, it might not be, because we don’t know what we’re not seeing.”

Zurawik and his former Sun colleague David Folkenflik, now NPR’s media correspondent, point to a number of moments over the last two decades to explain how Sinclair arrived at its current status as the ideologue of local news. There was the time, shortly after the September 11 attacks, when Sinclair mandated that all stations run an editorial supporting President Bush’s approach to fighting terrorism. In 2004, the network sent reporters to Iraq to find positive, “untold stories” that the “liberal media” wasn’t covering. Later that year, Sinclair refused to air a Nightline episode in which Ted Koppel read aloud the names of the American soldiers killed in battle because it was “motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.” In 2012, WBFF’s then-evening news anchor recorded a robocall phrased in “a way that might be damaging to [Maryland’s] Democratic governor.” More recently, Frederick G. Smith, a member of the family that owns Sinclair, made a donation to Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte’s campaign the day after he assaulted a Guardian reporter.

Neither WBFF nor Sinclair management responded to CJR’s attempts to contact them for this story. In a public statement, Sinclair attributed the controversy surrounding the recent “must-run” message to “our opponents,” and claimed “the message is not a political statement.”

Over the past two decades, Sinclair has gone from controlling a few dozen broadcasters to being the country’s biggest owner of local stations. The company’s ideological approach is especially relevant because its stations devote more of their time to national news than competitors owned by other companies. A recent study by two Emory University political scientists found that “stations bought by Sinclair reduce coverage of local politics, increase national coverage and move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction relative to other stations operating in the same market.”

Related: Sinclair’s ‘Orwellian’ attack on the press

Sinclair isn’t used to being in the spotlight. It has come under greater scrutiny since it proposed acquiring Tribune Media last May, a $3.9 billion purchase that would land the company stations in New York and Chicago, and place its programming in nearly three-quarters of American homes. Months after Sinclair announced its intentions, the FCC voted to approve rules that allowed television broadcasters to greatly expand the number of stations they own. While recent negotiations between Sinclair and regulators have thrown up some obstacles to the Tribune purchase, the realization that there existed a media behemoth most Americans had never heard of led to increased scrutiny of Sinclair.

Though reporters like Zurawik, Folkenflik, and The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi have been covering the company for years, the dispersed nature of its holdings and the lack of national focus on local news have allowed it to fly more or less under the radar. Folkenflik acknowledges the role of the Deadspin video in stripping away “the veneer of independent thought and [revealing] the inorganic-ness and insincerity propelling the whole enterprise.” At the same time, he argues, “if Sinclair owned 40 stations, wasn’t involved in some big deal, and hadn’t been cut an incredible break by the administration, I don’t think people would be blinking about this.”

Since the Tribune deal was proposed just under a year ago, reporters at major publications have been devoting more time to unpacking Sinclair’s history, slant, and business plan, while HBO’s John Oliver took satirical aim at the company last summer, exposing its practices to a new audience. That coverage, argues Zurawik, is a silver lining to all the controversy surrounding Sinclair. “One thing that’s coming out of this, is that we all say look, longterm the only way we’re going to be able to deal with the revolutionary change in media and information is media literacy education,” he says. “We need to become more sophisticated about the information we consume.” And perhaps that’s the best we can hope for out of this saga: that consumers learn a bit more about how their local news is made.

Viewers understand, to some degree, what they’re getting when they turn on Fox News or MSNBC. But local news is a whole different beast. Many of the anchors are seen as members of the community, and viewers may expect them to represent the concerns of that community rather than the national corporation that employs them.

Folkenflik argues that the current attention to Sinclair provides an opportunity to reflect on larger questions about who controls the news. “It’s a chance for people to get involved, to be aware. We’re seeing a moment when local news is on the precipice: Is news going to be meaningful? Are news organizations going to be able to hold local institutions and local political figures accountable? Do they have the mission, the resources, the resolve to do that?” he asks. “This is a moment where consumers have to decide [which] institutions they want to support and how they want to support them. Sinclair is perfectly capable of doing good news, but if consumers see things that offend them, they need to show it. It doesn’t have to be people in the streets; they just have to make smart choices.”

Related: Sinclair’s ‘Orwellian’ attack on the press

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.