Last year, when conservative commentator Armstrong Williams took $240,000 in payoffs from the Bush administration to promote its education policies in the media, he needed to reach a national television audience to satisfy the terms of his lucrative deal. Fortunately for Williams, he was good friends with David Smith, the CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation's largest owner of television stations.
Although Smith says he didn't know Williams was on the take, he liked the pundit's pro-Bush views and was eager to hand him plum assignments at Sinclair. While on the Bush payroll, Williams did an interview for Sinclair with then Education Secretary Rod Paige, the man responsible for funneling him taxpayer money to secure such prime-time exposure. He also interviewed Majority Whip Tom DeLay, and even got an hour on camera with Vice President Dick Cheney, who rarely speaks to the media. "Sinclair brought me stuff that I did not have — real numbers, where you can get the speaker of the house or the VP," Williams tells Rolling Stone. "On Sinclair, I was talking to millions of viewers a night."
Even before the payoffs became public, the news staff at Sinclair was horrified. The producer who edited the interview Williams did with Paige calls it "the worst piece of TV I've ever been associated with. You've seen softballs from Larry King? Well, this was softer. I told my boss it didn't even deserve to be broadcast, but they kept pushing me to put more of it on tape. In retrospect, it was so clearly propaganda."
The Federal Communications Commission is investigating the cash-for-coverage deal, and other media outlets have severed their ties to Williams. But not Sinclair. Smith leaves open the possibility of putting the commentator back on the air, dismissing the entire controversy as "foolish." Williams, for his part, is confident that Sinclair will have him back. "David Smith has stood beside me as a friend," he says. "I'm not too concerned about my relationship with Sinclair, if you know what I mean."
In the firmament of right-wing media outlets, Sinclair stands somewhere to the right of Fox News. Its archconservative politics may not be served up with Fox's raw-meat bite, but what Sinclair lacks in flash, it makes up for in unabashed cheerleading for the Bush administration. It sent a team to Iraq to report "good news" about the war and forced each of its sixty-two stations to broadcast a pledge of support for Bush. Last April, it refused to air a Nightline special listing the name of every American soldier killed in Iraq, and it gave national exposure to Stolen Honor, a documentary attacking John Kerry, just weeks before the election. And each night, Sinclair requires all of its stations to air an editorial segment called "The Point," in which company vice president Mark Hyman rails against the "angry left" and "clueless academia," dismisses peace activists as "wack jobs," calls the French "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and supports a host of right-wing initiatives, from a national sales tax to privatizing Medicare.
Because Sinclair broadcasts mostly in out-of-the-way markets, beyond the glare of the national media, no one much noticed until recently. But within the company, current and former employees have long known that there is a fine line between ideology and coercion. Jon Leiberman, once Sinclair's Washington bureau chief, says Smith and other executives were intent on airing "propaganda meant to sway the election." An ex-producer says he was ordered not to report "any bad news out of Iraq — no dead servicemen, no reports on how much we're spending, nothing." And a producer Sinclair sent to Iraq to report on the war calls the resulting coverage "pro-Bush."
"You weren't reporting news," says the producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You were reporting a political agenda that came down to you from the top of the food chain."
At Sinclair, the top of the food chain is David Smith. An imposing man with a pink complexion and a confrontational manner, Smith comes across like an overgrown frat boy who suddenly struck it rich. His father, Julian Sinclair Smith, launched the family's first television station in 1971, and in the last decade, David and his three brothers have expanded the operation into a broadcast empire with access to four in one American households. During a daylong tour of Sinclair's headquarters, on the outskirts of Baltimore, Smith repeatedly boasts about his wealth ("I bet you wish you were my son," he tells me. "It would put you in a different financial bracket") and proudly shows off his travel photographs, which are mounted and displayed in the hallways of Sinclair's five-story office building. He makes no secret of his support for Bush and describes Sinclair as one of the only bastions of objectivity in American journalism.
"We're in the center," Smith insists, sitting in his fifth-floor executive suite. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the media is left of center. Paula Zahn or Peter Jennings or anybody who is attempting to pass himself off as reporting news — they're not telling the whole story. Dan Rather wants you to believe that Saddam Hussein is a nice guy! There are two companies doing truly balanced news today: Sinclair and Fox."
Smith had some experience in the media when he took over the company from his father — but it wasn't the kind of work most conservatives would appreciate. In the 1970s, he was a partner in a business called Ciné Processors, which made bootleg copies of porn films in the basement of a building owned by another of his father's companies, the Commercial Radio Institute. "We had the film-processing lab in operation for, like, a year," recalls David Williams, Smith's partner at Ciné. "The first film we copied was Deep Throat, which had just opened in New York and was not available anywhere else." According to Williams, Ciné got involved with the mob and was busted by the police. "How David got control of the family company after that, I don't know," he says. "He was just a big egotist. He wanted attention."
Smith's media connections came in handy in 1996, when he was arrested on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute who, police said, performed "an unnatural and perverted sex act on him" in a Mercedes owned by Sinclair. Charged with a misdemeanor sex offense, Smith cut an unusual deal: In lieu of doing community service, he ordered Sinclair to broadcast reports publicizing local drug programs. "The judge was outraged," former Sinclair reporter LuAnne Canipe told Salon. "He said, 'How can employees do community service for their boss?'"
Smith was equally creative when it came to skirting federal rules that forbid broadcasters from controlling two television stations in the same market. The scheme was simple: Smith's mother, Carolyn, and Sinclair employee Edwin Edwards would buy a station in a market where the company already owned an outlet, and then promptly turn control of the new operation over to Sinclair. In 2001, the FCC ruled that the broadcaster had violated federal ownership laws and slapped it with a $40,000 fine — but allowed Sinclair to keep the stations. Today the company owns or operates affiliates of every major network in twenty states — including two stations in Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh.
"Sinclair is the most aggressive broadcaster in trying to increase the number of stations it controls," says Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit law firm in Washington, D.C. "They figured out how to be a very big fish in some pretty small ponds."
Most of the illegal deals involved Smith's mother, Carolyn — but she does not appear to be very involved in running the vast network of stations she owns. As I am meeting with Mark Hyman, the vice president who produces Sinclair's evening editorial, the elderly Smith strolls into Hyman's office on her walker and delivers the mail.
"Mrs. Smith is amazing," Hyman tells me. "She's here every day sorting the mail. If you touch it before her, you're in big trouble."
Hyman, a former Navy intelligence officer whose walls are covered with drawings of battleships, shows off the Sinclair operation with the pride of a new parent. Local news is the most lucrative part of the business — in a typical market, it accounts for a third of all ad revenue — and Sinclair has come up with a novel way to make it even more profitable. First, the company slashes news staffs at its local affiliates to as few as fifteen employees, compared to as many as eighty at its competitors. Then it produces programs at its headquarters, called News Central, that are designed to look like local news. As we tour the studios, Hyman calls my attention to the anchor desk and backdrops, which have been created to match those at Sinclair affiliates. That way, when the company's on-air personalities sit in Baltimore and banter with local anchors, viewers think the broadcasts are taking place in their hometown. "There's no indication that these pieces are coming from News Central in Maryland, no disclaimer," says Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a media-reform group based in Northampton, Massachusetts.
In addition to deceiving viewers and cutting costs, Sinclair's news operation enables it to shape the tone and content of the evening news at every local station. The company delivers its message in News Central segments it labels "must carries" — those that every affiliate is required to air. In addition to Hyman's editorial, these segments often include "Truth, Lies and Red Tape," which trots out examples of government waste, and reports by Sinclair's Washington bureau that are skewed to the right.
Behind the scenes, Sinclair gives generously to Bush and the GOP. A report by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity found that ninety-five percent of Sinclair's $335,000 in campaign contributions since 1998 have gone to Republicans — "a lopsided record of giving unmatched by other major television broadcasters." All told, the company gave $23,000 to Bush and $217,000 to the Republican Party.
Sinclair's use of the airwaves to support Bush has sparked public outrage. Last spring, families of veterans killed in Iraq were angered by Sinclair's refusal to air the Nightline special identifying the fallen soldiers, and the publication Broadcast and Cable said the company "simply replaced Nightline's worthy tribute with its own political agenda." In an open letter to David Smith, Sen. John McCain called the decision "a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves."
When Sinclair ordered its stations to replace their regular prime-time shows with Stolen Honor, the anti-Kerry documentary, it created an even bigger firestorm. Media-reform groups organized a boycott of Sinclair advertisers, and the company's stock tumbled seventeen percent, losing $105 million in days. Institutional investors threatened to sue the company for placing politics before profits. Faced with such unprecedented pressure, Sinclair backed down, airing a watered-down version of the film.
The controversy extended to Sinclair's own newsroom. Many News Central staffers were convinced that their journalistic credibility, already compromised by the company's partisan image, would be further diminished by the attack on Kerry. "I had interviews lined up that were canceling left and right, very similar to what happened during the Nightline debacle," says Leiberman, the D.C. bureau chief who was a rising star at Sinclair. "And it was becoming impossible — I'm not exaggerating-impossible for us to interview any moderate or any Democrat in Washington."
On Sunday, October 17th, Sinclair called a mandatory meeting for the entire News Central staff. According to several who attended, Leiberman stood up and voiced his opposition to Stolen Honor. "Each and every one of us is going to lose our credibility if we lend our voices and our writing and our faces to this product that clearly isn't news," he said. "It's propaganda. It's meant to sway the election — we've been told that by people inside the company."
Sinclair's vice president of news, Joseph DeFeo, looked at Leiberman. "You may face consequences for not choosing to participate in this," Leiberman recalls him saying. Then DeFeo looked around the room. "Anyone else want to join him?" he asked. No one spoke up. But many Sinclair employees say privately that they agreed with Leiberman. "I was glad that someone finally had the guts to say something," says one. "Everyone who works there feels the same way and says it in private, but it doesn't leave the building."
"Jon did a great thing," another veteran says. "He stood up to the Hymanator." The next day, after Leiberman made his concerns public, Sinclair fired him. (Sinclair refuses to comment on the incident.)
Employees report a pervasive climate of fear at Sinclair. Staffers worry that management is listening to their telephone calls, and a recent notice sent to all employees warns that the company is monitoring their e-mail and Internet use. "We know if you use e-mail to send jokes to your friends and co-workers," the memo states. "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)." Employees laugh when told that Smith insists he runs Sinclair like a family. "They are blinded," a former producer says. "They think their employees are loyal, but really they're not in touch with what's happening in their own newsroom."
Citizens groups are challenging the company's bid to renew its licenses in North and South Carolina, saying Sinclair's lack of local news and one-sided programming fail to satisfy even the bare-minimum standards imposed by the FCC. "They're so used to being able to buy their way through Washington that Smith actually believes he can get away with it," says Silver of Free Press. "That's what's really scary."
But up on the fifth floor at Sinclair, Smith remains unconcerned about the backlash. Indeed, with the company deep in debt and struggling to boost revenues and ratings, all the scandal may be good for business. "Fox proved one thing: People like controversy," Smith says. "I'd do one of those Stolen Honor specials every month if we could. The lesson was very straightforward: That we can do this kind of content, pre-empt the networks and make more money."
Hyman agrees with his boss. The controversy "was worth $10 million in free advertising," he says. "People who'd never heard of us before suddenly knew who we were. We're on the map."