One afternoon last December, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was holding court at the lectern in the Brady Room, when a reporter raised a provocative question: Does President Trump understand the difference between Russian propaganda – the real “fake news” – and the American press? Sanders’ response elicited groans from the press corps, whom she charged were “purposefully putting out information that you know to be false.”
The next day, at the headquarters of TV-WJLA, a drab, fluorescent-lit office space in Rosslyn, Virginia, the press conference was fashioned into a segment for the local nightly news: “Media Errors Lend Some Credence to Charges of ‘Fake News.’” As the spot opened, WJLA correspondent Kristine Frazao told viewers that CNN was “walking back” a months-old story that revealed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had opted not to disclose meetings with a Russian official on a security-clearance form. According to Frazao, CNN had now published newly released documents, showing that Sessions had actually received permission from the FBI to omit the meetings. CNN’s embarrassing mistake, Frazao intoned gravely, was “prompting President Trump to once again call them fake news.”
A jumbo-sized tweet swooped into center frame: “[T]his could, in fact, be a fraud on the American Public,” Trump wrote, blaming “Fake News CNN.” WJLA then cut away, with practiced dramaturgy, to the footage of Sanders scolding CNN’s Jim Acosta: “There’s a very big difference between making honest mistakes and purposely misleading the American people – something that happens regularly.”
To the average viewer – who consumes about two hours of television news during the work week – CNN’s mistake surely appeared damning: Sessions had merely followed instructions from the FBI, the resulting scandal an invention of left-leaning media outlets, and now even CNN had admitted it. But this was not accurate. CNN never “walked back” the story, as Frazao reported. The network’s first report had included the details all along, describing how Sessions first included the meetings, then, once given permission, erased them. That was the point: By requesting permission to omit the meetings, Sessions’ behavior suggested an awareness of impropriety. CNN’s follow-up story published a newly discovered FBI email that merely verified this timeline. “None of that has anything to do with ‘fake news,’” says Lorraine Branham, dean of the Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University. “If anything, they created fake news,” she says of Sinclair. “And that’s the problem.”
Since 2014, WJLA has become an unofficial Washington bureau for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest holding company of broadcast television stations in the United States. The Sessions “fake news” segment glowed in the living room of more than a half-million Americans in towns like Sioux City, Iowa; Toledo, Ohio; and Flint, Michigan, and aired across the country 31 times, according to iQ Media, a real-time TV and media measurement company and non-partisan data provider. The stations that aired the WJLA segment were among at least 75 nationwide on which Sinclair exerts direct influence on newscasts – and among the 192 stations overall Sinclair counts in its empire. According to iQ, on any given Wednesday night at 6 p.m. – the typical time for a station’s evening newscast – more than 2.5 million viewers are watching Sinclair stations in America.
At Sinclair, it’s common for broadcasts produced by WJLA – or, just as often, Sinclair headquarters near Baltimore – to be shoehorned into local programming across the country. This month, Sinclair’s “must runs,” as the segments are called, received renewed attention when a video compilation produced by Deadspin showed local news anchors across the nation ventriloquizing a Sinclair-crafted script, warning viewers of “one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” an echo of both Frazao’s segment about CNN and Trump’s grievance against the press. Layering the voices of dozens of anchors, the video created what sounded like a kind of cultic chant: “Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias,” the anchors intoned. “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” According to iQ Media, during a 12-day period beginning at the end of March, the promotion ran 875 times on 83 stations, reaching an audience of 17,242,745 viewers.
Sinclair’s programming has also featured must-runs from Mark Hyman, a former Navy intelligence officer who was a corporate exec for Sinclair when he first went on air in 2001. Though he’s currently on leave, his segments in the past year included attacks on the Southern Poverty Law Center, The New York Times and a favorite scourge: college campuses (“Grow up, snowflake”). Another regularly featured Sinclair persona is Armstrong Williams, who has long hosted a weekend show – even during his tenure as campaign adviser to Ben Carson – to highlight such issues as the plight of persecuted evangelicals and the tyranny of the minimum wage. Weekends also allot space to Sharyl Atkisson, a former CBS correspondent who, among other things, has lent support to Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of being wiretapped by President Obama (Atkisson says Obama wiretapped her, too). This year, a new commentary segment, “Bottom Line With Boris,” features former Trump White House staffer Boris Epshteyn, who unspools quasi-literate paeans to the scourge of the national media and Trump’s “both sides” truth-telling during Charlottesville. Sinclair’s must-carry content is of such unalloyed Trumpian variety, that The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple tells Rolling Stone that it runs “incredibly close to state-run, pure propaganda.”
Yet local television may be the country’s most trusted source of news – more so than national newscasts, newspapers and family members, according to data from the Pew Research Center. And local affiliates are by far the largest source of TV news in American households, according to Nielsen, reaching 40 percent of viewers aged 25 to 54 last year, compared to cable’s 17 percent. National broadcast networks, such as ABC, NBC and CBS, own access to the national airwaves. But companies like Sinclair have made local brick-and-mortar stations an increasingly powerful part of the news industry – its affiliates imbued with mainstream credibility, ironically, by operating under the logos of the mainstream networks they excoriate. In interviews with more than 60 current and former employees and leaders in the broadcasting industry, I repeatedly heard concerns about Sinclair’s use of the public air waves to infuse national and (sometimes local) news with a political bent, a task aided by the company’s three-decade quest to sidestep and eliminate regulations that would otherwise limit its reach and influence. “When they make us air those must-runs, you can hear teeth gritting across the room,” one former station personality tells Rolling Stone. Wrote another in an email, “I’m truly sickened by what they make us do.”
Sinclair’s approach derives from the personal beliefs of its owners, the elusive Smith brothers, four men from Baltimore led by the second-eldest, Sinclair chairman David Deniston Smith (who in an email declined to comment for this story.) According to former employees, Smith’s preoccupation with the perceived left-leaning bias of traditional media has driven the focus of Sinclair’s news coverage since at least 2001. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the media is left of center,” Smith told Rolling Stone back in 2005. More recently, he told New York Magazine, “We don’t talk to the print media as a general principal, as we find them to be so devoid of reality and serving no real purpose.”
“When they make us air those must-runs, you can hear teeth gritting across the room,” says a former Sinclair employee.
This year, Sinclair is making a play to buy Tribune Media, a deal that will reap the company as many as 40 new stations, bringing its total to 232, which will reach an estimated 72 percent of Americans – a figure that prompted Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab to declare 2018 “the year that every media market in the country gets its own Fox.” Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Obama, says, “Local broadcast licenses – given out for free – are for delivering local news and local information. You can’t have localism if somebody owns 70 percent of all the audience reach in America.” The Tribune deal is expected to be finalized in time for the midterm elections. “If Sinclair does this,” says Chris Ruddy, CEO of the right-wing Newsmax website, “it’s going to be the biggest game change in American politics.”
BY THE TIME the country’s early national news broadcasts arrived during World War II, captivating the public with grainy footage of beaming GIs and thundering tank units, the FCC had classified the airwaves as a public good: Broadcast stations, like schools and highways, would serve the “public interest.” The FCC made a criterion of a local station’s licensure its commitment to local viewers, not its corporate owners. To do this, delicate safeguards were constructed, like caps on market reach and limits on station ownership. Such concepts, known as “localism,” came to form the pillar of American broadcast television. In 1971, Julian Sinclair Smith, a radio operator and talented engineer, launched WBFF, a small station outside Baltimore. Trained at nearby Johns Hopkins University, Smith was precisely the kind of owner the FCC’s local protections favored. Small and family-owned, WBFF – which Smith called Chesapeake Television Corporation – stood for “Baltimore’s Finest Features,” and ran children’s shows and black-and-white movies.
Years later, in a family interview with the Baltimore Sun, David Smith and his brothers recalled a childhood with the television always set to WBFF, and afternoons spent at their father’s station wielding soldering irons; for the cash-strapped family, the station was a fifth sibling, “kind of like a baby,” David said. Of Smith’s sons, it was David who showed the greatest aptitude for the business. In 1969, he graduated from Baltimore City College High School, a prestigious magnet. According to records filed with NASDAQ, in 1971, two years after David graduated, he took a job at WBFF, where he oversaw maintenance until 1978. It was toward the end of this period that 24-year-old David conjured up a curious side enterprise – bootlegging 8-millimeter pornographic films in a station basement. The team’s first moneymaker was Deep Throat, but the project shuttered after a year, when police raided the studio. One of Smith’s confederates in the business, which they called Ciné Processors, described Smith to author Eric Klinenberg as an impetuous risk-taker with an outsize ego.
In 1985, the company rebranded as Sinclair, and the brothers formally joined its leadership. Unlike their ailing father, they were given to visions of conquest. The company ballooned at an astonishing pace, launching stations with down-market programming in dirt-cheap markets. They also pioneered the use of local-marketing agreements, joint-sales agreements and shared-service agreements – a Russian-doll scheme in which stations running Sinclair content were purchased, essentially, by shell companies, allowing Sinclair to pole-vault FCC ownership limits. Other companies quickly followed suit. The violations, former FCC chair Wheeler bitterly recalls, were “hypocritical and dishonest.” But the gambit worked: In 1991, Sinclair owned five stations; by 1998, 64. An exuberant David Smith told the Baltimore Sun: “We’re forever expanding – like the universe.”
The Smiths’ rise was occasionally punctuated by controversy. In 1996, a year after the company went public, David was arrested for a rendezvous with a prostitute in the company Mercedes. (The 31-year-old woman described him to police as a “regular date.”) In the spirit of Sinclair’s rule-bending, Smith at first avoided harsher sanction in part by directing Sinclair-owned stations to run public-service announcements praising the state’s drug court. (The charge was later overturned, according to station employees from that time.) The Smiths evinced a down-home sensibility, and under the brothers’ leadership the company also began venturing into small-bore moneymaking schemes: funeral homes, Baltimore restaurants, and a car dealership company called Atlantic Automotive.
By the mid-Nineties, politics began to percolate into Sinclair’s sensibility, if not necessarily its programming. One Baltimore reporter, Terrie Snyder, remembers interviewing for a position as WBFF’s court reporter at that time. “So,” David Smith asked Snyder near the end of the interview, “what’s your opinion on abortion?” “I said to him, ‘I don’t think anyone’s personal opinion belongs in the newsroom,’” Snyder says. “But he kept pushing. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He wanted to know my opinion on every hot-button issue. It was like he was taking inventory.” When Snyder didn’t get the job, she called a friend at the station who was involved in the hiring process. Smith, she was told, had said, “She’s the most interesting person I’ve ever interviewed, and I’ll never hire her. She’s too liberal.”
According to former employees, it was September 11th that galvanized the Smiths’ politics. Days after the attack, the Baltimore anchors were instructed to read a loyalty pledge to President Bush on the air, according to reports from the time: The station “wants you to know that we stand 100 percent behind our president and his vow that terrorism must be stopped.” The anchors also suggested that messages be sent to a Sinclair-created website, supportournation.com, which would send messages of support for “President Bush, and we will send it on to our nation’s leaders.”
“It was a good, fun, cohesive operation until 9/11,” recalled a high-placed former employee at the Baltimore headquarters. “And then it was like something went crazy – they just were nuts.”
Soon after, Mark Hyman began his on-air editorials, in which he painted the mainstream media as the “Hate-America crowd.” He later asserted, “terrorist leaders would dearly love to see President Bush replaced with Senator Kerry.” As the 2004 presidential election neared, ABC’s Nightline ran a memorial show to honor the war dead in Iraq. Sinclair ordered its seven ABC stations not to air it — but did attempt to air a 40-minute documentary called Stolen Honor that criticized Kerry’s war record. (Hyman said stations that refused to air the film were “acting like Holocaust deniers.”) In a 2005 interview with GQ, Jon Leiberman, the former chief of Sinclair’s Washington bureau, recalled a mandate to report only positive stories in Iraq. “Your stories need to look more like Mark’s editorials,” he recalled Smith saying. In the eight months before the 2004 election, Lieberman estimated nine of ten Sinclair stories had an anti-Kerry agenda. “For the most part, stories were dictated,” Leiberman, a two-time Bush voter, recalled in an AlterNet interview. Leiberman was fired soon before the election for telling the Baltimore Sun that Stolen Honor was “blatant political propaganda” meant to “sway the election.”
The company continued to expand, and in 2011 embarked on the biggest shopping spree in its history – packing into two short years the acquisition of 74 stations in 19 states. In 2013, the spree culminated in a nearly billion-dollar acquisition of 13 new stations, which included WJLA. Shortly after the purchase, Sinclair convened a station meet-and-greet in WJLA’s first-floor newsroom, where Smith addressed the crowd: “I’m here for the money,” he declared, according to witnesses. “What are you here for?”
In fact, Sinclair was likely after something other than profit: In WJLA, Sinclair had acquired a respected news outfit that could boast of ties to Washington, a veteran staff, and a physical newsroom co-occupied with Politico at the time. Passable production quality – the magic ingredient of Hannity-style infotainment, and the obstacle that might separate Hyman-esque, green-screen rants from credibility – appeared to have been surmounted, an important step to achieving broader influence. “People didn’t really care about Sinclair until WJLA,” one senior Sinclair principal tells Rolling Stone. “Buying it gave them a seat at the table in D.C.” The senior principal went on, “This claim – that they’re not interested in claiming Fox News as a competitor – is just bogus. They are, and they’ve been talking about it. They’re planning it … Did they see an opening in this niche in the world? Absolutely.”
DURING THE SUMMER of 2016, the Clinton Campaign hired a staffer named Mitch Rivard. Rivard is the kind of young talent that any campaign might hope to attract; at 26, he’d left behind a comfortable job in Washington politics, moving back to Michigan, his home state, to become the communications director for the campaign there. He often measured his candidate’s progress by polling his parents, who hardly cared for politics, and whose tether to the presidential race was largely through the local news in Bay City. Rivard’s job was to execute a strategy heavily reliant on broadcast television. “We would be pushing to try to get one TV clip over three print clips,” Rivard tells me. “That was the most important. Hands down.” When Chelsea Clinton announced a campaign stop in Grand Rapids, a key suburban encampment for Republicans, Rivard fielded the requests for interviews. After some wavering, he decided to grant one to the local Sinclair station, WWMT. A twentysomething correspondent with spiky, gelled hair, named Nick Minock, arrived at the appointed time, switched on his microphone and asked, “How do you feel your mother has handled the Benghazi investigation?”
Rivard looked on while the reporter dug into questions about Hillary Clinton’s health – she had recently stumbled in public – and the “deplorable” comment: “Is that something that is disheartening to you – this tone that’s been happening in this campaign?” Later that night, the segment was edited to include parts of an interview with Republican state Sen. Rick Jones. “I’m really upset about how she left people in Benghazi to die, very upset about that,” Jones said. “I’m very concerned about her health. I mean, to have a possible future president falling down several times?”
According to reports, first broken by Politico, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner came to a private agreement with executives of Sinclair during the campaign. In Kushner’s telling, the two sides brokered a series of exclusive interviews with Trump and other campaign officials – and in exchange for access, Sinclair would broadcast the interviews without commentary. (If there were other terms, they remain unknown.) Only when the election was over did the agreement surface (when Kushner, who recently saw his security clearance downgraded, boasted about it at a gathering of financiers). “I think old-school journalists roll over in their grave when they hear operations like that,” says Bob Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Journalism. “The idea that a major figure, in a story that journalists are covering, is making deals with the very journalists who are supposed to be doing the covering – I can see why that has many people alarmed.”
Sinclair officials denied any impropriety in the arrangement, responding that executives had made the same overture to the Clinton campaign, only to be rebuffed. During the final three months of the campaign, Sinclair affiliates broadcast a score of Trump campaign interviews nationwide: 11 exclusive interviews with Donald Trump; 10 with Mike Pence; and another 10 with Trump campaign surrogates, according to one count in The Washington Post. (Sinclair also broadcast five local interviews with Tim Kaine, and two with Chelsea Clinton.) Throughout the campaign, WJLA’s must-runs continued at a steady pace. Internal Sinclair emails, obtained by the Post, make clear the intention of the programming. “DESCRIPTION: Why did Hillary Clinton struggle with disclosing her medical diagnosis?” reads one must-run. “She has been repeatedly faced with previous questions of trust. Can a president lead with so many questions of transparency and trust?”
Over the summer, Clinton campaign staff in Brooklyn debated what to do about Sinclair, whose leadership had, in fact, approached the campaign for a series of exclusive interviews with Clinton. They considered it. “It could have been a great outlet for us,” says Jen Palmieri, Clinton’s top communications strategist. But after toe-testing the waters with a Tim Kaine exclusive and, in Rivard’s case, Chelsea Clinton, the campaign reached a quick verdict. “Their questions were hostile, and it was a very unfavorable package,” Palmieri recalls. “There’s the opportunity cost: Asking Tim Kaine or Hillary Clinton to do an interview with people you know are going to twist it to make it look bad.”
Sinclair owns more stations in presidential swing states than any other company: In Pennsylvania, four; in Ohio, Iowa and Florida, nine apiece; and in Michigan, five. Sinclair’s reach in these markets far surpasses its competition. According to data shared by Nielsen, in the Columbus, Ohio, market, during the final month of the election, Sinclair stations reached 70 percent of adult viewers; CNN’s percentage was 36. In Grand Rapids, the seat of Sinclair’s flagship station in Michigan, local viewership outpaces cable 55 percent to 22. Sinclair’s dominance has put its stations in lucrative positions to run political ads; a few Clinton staff described the frustration of funding a news outlet that was seemingly dedicated to their defeat. “It’s not as if our positive ad is going to wash away the negative content Sinclair viewers just heard,” Palmieri says. “In terms of what’s more credible – the story or your ad – the story is going to be more credible.”
In Michigan, where the margin of difference proved just over 10,000 votes, the Clinton campaign had downplayed traditional get-out-the-vote efforts, according to campaign officials. Instead, they adopted an approach that largely expected voters to be persuaded by the news. As recently as 2011, Sinclair had just one station in Michigan. But by 2016, Sinclair operated five – including its flagship WWMT, based in a turnkey suburb of Grand Rapids. By dint of its size and breadth, Sinclair was permitted to operate what became, in essence, a small network that spanned the state of Michigan. WWMT’s supposedly local campaign interviews, for instance, potentially reached 56 of the state’s 83 counties. Even as Sinclair’s five stations broadcast their signal under separate logos – CBS, Fox and ABC, stations that were supposedly competing for viewers – they had hired a single reporter, Minock, to cover the election for all of them. Johanna Dunaway, a professor at Texas A&M who researches broadcasting, had never heard of such a concept – local news conducted at a vast, regional scale. “No one does this,” Dunaway says. “It’s almost the ultimate of what people have been concerned about.”
Whatever deal was struck between Sinclair executives and Kushner, its contours were apparent in Michigan. In the final two months of the campaign, Minock was granted one-on-one interviews with Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, as well as interviews with Sarah Palin, Ben Carson, two with Mike Pence and, finally, two with Trump himself – most billed, truthfully, as “rare, exclusive interviews you won’t find anywhere else.” The sit-downs, to put it generously, were delicate. “The one good thing WikiLeaks has done is really expose truly how corrupt these people are,” Don Jr. explained to the nodding reporter; in another, he offered an uninterrupted homily on Clintonian corruption that seems more like a Rorschach of his own family values: “All the pay to play. All the graft. All the theft. All the abuse. The decades of scandal,” says Don Jr. “This is the person we want in there, in the White House?”
Most striking, though, is what was missing from WWMT: Pussygate, the single most perilous story to the Trump campaign, appeared to have all but vanished from the 6 o’ clock news. The Access Hollywood tape was never discussed, much less played. When opportunity presented itself, Minock asked Ivanka of her father’s plan for working women. The newscast did, however, cover Clinton’s emails in three separate specials. (“I sought out interviews aggressively from both campaigns, accepted nearly every one that I could get, and asked tough questions of both sides,” Minock wrote Rolling Stone in an email. “My job was to provide fair and accurate coverage of both campaigns … I believe that was accomplished.”)
Interestingly, even operatives in the Clinton campaign were hesitant to ascribe ill intent to Minock, whom they viewed as caught in a difficult dilemma. Current and former Sinclair employees have said that the specter of corporate authority can be difficult for young reporters to manage. In an industry beset with mergers and buyouts, a previous era of station veterans, well churched in the art of standing up to management, has increasingly become displaced by young staffers fresh out of journalism school.
“These young guys are all good people, who started in journalism because they had altruistic ideas. And slowly, they’re being fed the Kool Aid,” one former Sinclair news director told me. “Slowly, they’ve gone from being independent, good journalists to essentially shills for this very conservative product.”
In this way, the Deadspin video has set off personal, at times anguished deliberations among younger employees. Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merril School of Journalism in Maryland, a feeder school to Sinclair, says, “The faculty had been getting phone calls from alums at Sinclair that are going, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ We’re getting questions from our young alumni: ‘If I go to work for them, will my career be over?’” Dalglish recently received a phone call from a former student. “She was upset because she had been accosted in a local grocery store,” Dalglish tells me. That’s what happens, she went on, “when you involve the newsroom people in spreading what is really political commentary.”
Sinclair leaders dispute this. And they marshal a creative argument: It’s they who are the victims of unfair must-runs and newsroom mandates, which come from the real corporate bullies – the networks. “All major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, etc.), through their network agreements require companies like Sinclair to carry hours of network programming each day,” Sinclair offered in a statement provided by a public relations spokesman. “This ‘must-carry’ programming includes analysis and perspectives from people like George Stephanopoulos, a co-host of Good Morning America and the host of This Week; Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show; and many other hosts and contributors with clear political ideologies. All Sinclair stations carry this must-run content each day, without rebuttal.”
To call Colbert a must-run – no different than Epshteyn’s editorials – is clever, but wrong. For one, while the Smiths do have an empire, it remains an empire of hand-me-downs: Imagine if the family who runs your local Ford dealership dialed up Detroit, demanding unpopular changes to the product line – and then told the local salesmen to castigate Ford’s reputation in the showcase lobby, even as the dealership profited from its cars. It’s the popular Ford brand that gets customers through the door. Television is no different: Slots devoted to Lester Holt and Stephen Colbert are the reason so many viewers are watching Sinclair stations at all. Far from being besieged by unfair must-runs, Sinclair enjoys a credibility that’s been loaned to them by the networks: The company is happy to put the logo of broadcasters at the bottom of its screens, cashing in on a national brand of journalistic integrity.
“What Lester Holt is reporting on is actual news,” says Dalglish. “When they directly involved their newsroom people in these promotional pieces, we thought that really crossed a line.” Branham, the Syracuse dean, called Sinclair’s statement “dishonest.”
But viewers may not be sensitive to these distinctions; Dalglish and Branham doubted that Sinclair’s leadership understood the price of deploying a community’s trusted journalists to fight the company’s political grievances for them. After one Sinclair anchor in San Antonio, Delaine Mathieu, read the must-carry script, she was besieged with vicious online comments: “Trust me, this was awful,” she pleaded in one comment. Tellingly, the company has offered a different defense of the script, which seems to belie its appeal to public service; in an interview with Forbes this week, Sinclair CEO Christopher Ripley said the company was motivated largely by business. “This particular message was tested with thousands of consumers and the findings were overwhelmingly positive,” he said, adding, “It’s too early to tell if this had the desired effect of increasing viewership.”
As the 2016 campaign entered its final weeks, Rivard became increasingly nervous about Sinclair. He described what he saw as a full-scale effort marshaled for Trump, not on Facebook or cable, but on the public airwaves. “It did not matter the location,” says Rivard. “It did not matter who it was. Sinclair always had the exclusive.”
SHORTLY AFTER the election, David Smith arranged to see Donald Trump. During the campaign, the two men had fashioned a bond, if not a friendship; two executives keenly familiar with the power of television. According to a recent interview in the Guardian, Smith recalled a meeting with Trump during the election, in which he proposed embedding reporters with the campaign. “We are here to deliver your message,” Smith said in his appeal. “Period.” Then, in their first post-election meeting, according to events first described in the New York Post, the two discussed changes at the FCC. Trump reportedly asked Smith, “What do you need to happen in your business?”
By December 2016, one of the candidates for chairman of the FCC was Ajit Pai, a Republican-nominated commissioner and a stalwart against regulations at the FCC during the Obama administration. During the presidential transition, Sinclair executives interacted with Pai three known times. On two of those occasions, Pai neglected to disclose the meetings. Though the meetings took place on social occasions, most industry observers described the omissions as significant. Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner on the FCC appointed by President Obama, said, “There’s a lot of meetings in a short period of time. And the timing of some of them are striking.”
“Everything the FCC has done is custom-built for the business plan of one company, and that’s Sinclair,” said an FCC commissioner.
Trump, too, appeared interested in the young commissioner. In a letter to Congress last September, Pai wrote that Trump summoned him to meet on two occasions – once in Trump Tower, before the inauguration, and later in March, a day before being nominated to lead the FCC, in a private meeting inside the Oval Office. The contents of both conversations are largely unknown. A day after the Oval Office meeting, during a Senate oversight hearing, Sen. Tom Udall asked Pai if Trump had instructed him to aid a particular company, like Sinclair. Pai demurred, saying, “I would leave that to the White House to disclose.”
The FCC was conceived as an independent agency, with members approved by the Senate, and who take an oath of office to remain independent from the president. It’s true that a deregulatory agenda could hardly be construed as an act of fealty; such measures, pursued by numerous chairmen and commissioners, have bestowed bounty on countless companies in different sectors. In the first year of the Trump administration, Pai has diligently prioritized changes that, according to close industry observers, consistently benefit one company: Sinclair.
By Trump’s inauguration, Sinclair’s interest in Tribune was not a secret. But some industry analysts expressed skepticism. The road to a merger would run through a regulatory obstacle course. For a deal of such proportions to pass the FCC, it would require an aggressive pace of deregulation to increase the number of local stations a single company could hold. “Local-ownership rule changes take time,” wrote Kannan Venkateshwar, a media analyst for Barclays. “Even the Republican-led FCC, which raised the limits in the early 2000s, recognized the need to maintain a limit on ownership.”
But during the first months of the Trump administration, the FCC pursued a series of rollbacks, beating a path through regulation wide enough for a potential merger. In February, Pai relaxed some oversight on shell companies, a request that Sinclair executives had urged during a meeting with Pai in Arlington, Virginia, during the transition. By fall, the duopoly barrier, which bars a company from owning two big stations in the same city, vanished. So did the main-studio rule – requiring that a local station in a community physically exist there – raising the possibility, for the first time, that Sinclair or other stations could outsource an entire station to a different region.
But the merger is now made possible, above all else, by the reinstatement of an archaic rule, called the UHF discount. In the 1950s, Ultra-High Frequency stations were a radical experiment in the FCC’s localism agenda, a way to make room for smaller stations on higher channels, like WBFF, the Smith family’s UHF station. But UHF technology was poor – the signal was weaker, the picture fuzzier – so in order to give these owners a leg up, the FCC counted their audiences at half size, thus allowing families like the Smiths to own twice as many stations as the national cap allowed. But when the country’s broadcast frequencies became digital, the UHF became a meaningless anachronism, and Wheeler led the FCC to undo the UHF discount, thus dimming Sinclair’s hopes of further large-scale expansion. In the proceeding, Pai, then a commissioner, agreed that he wanted the UHF discount relegated to “the history books,” if it could be offset with more deregulation.
Despite his acknowledgement of the obsolescence of the discount, in April 2017, Pai brought the discount back – a rule that had been invented precisely to limit the growth of behemoths like Sinclair. The path to the merger was essentially cleared. “It’s a particularly cynical manipulation of the rules,” says Congressman David Price, who has co-sponsored legislation to end the loophole. “It’s so clearly relevant to maneuvers that are underway to pull off specific mergers.” Says Rosenworcel, “Everything that the FCC has done is custom-built for the business plan of one company, and that’s Sinclair.”
Last summer, New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, who called for an investigation into Pai’s conduct, formally asked the FCC for any communications, public or private, conducted with Sinclair. “It seems like he met with them and said, ‘What do you need?’” Pallone says. “And they said, ‘OK, this is what we want the FCC to do’ – and then he does it.” This year, the FCC’s inspector general opened an investigation, which appears likely to examine whether Pai coordinated with Sinclair to benefit the company. “That’s just not the way the FCC is supposed to operate,” Pallone says. “That’s what we’re trying to investigate. To what extent are they just doing the bidding of Sinclair?” (Chairman Pai and FCC officials declined to comment on matters before the agency.)
At a café in downtown Washington, I met a senior government lawyer who has previously worked closely with Pai and Sinclair officials. Trump’s selection of Pai to lead the FCC, he points out, was an urgent priority, rating among the earliest presidential actions, predating even Trump’s travel ban. “Why did Trump pick Ajit so quickly, someone he had no connection with?” the lawyer asks. Telecom insiders, the lawyer adds, have begun to wonder “if one of those meetings that Ajit made with David Smith, right after the election, was ‘I’ll make sure you’re taken care of. I know you’re close with the president. If you get that locked down’” – meaning Pai’s nomination – “‘I’ll make sure your stuff gets locked down, too.’”
In March 2017, Pai was featured on Sinclair stations, seated opposite commentator Armstrong Williams. “This guy really has courage, he’s really tough, he knows who he is,” Williams said of Pai. “Where do you find that kind of self-awareness, that kind of courage that propels you?” Later that year, Pai, who was once a corporate lawyer for Verizon, took the stage at a telecom dinner at the Washington D.C. Hilton. “How do you choose between your lifelong love,” said Pai at the lectern, “and your newfound crush?” as he extended a hand out to the Sinclair table.
Pai might soon face a Clinton-style email probe. The IG’s investigation echoes concerns from at least 10 U.S. senators and four House members who have called for more scrutiny into the FCC’s relationship with Sinclair. According to the FCC’s rule-making schedule, Pai’s next priority could be a reconsideration – or even complete elimination – of any national ownership cap at all, allowing Sinclair to purchase as many stations as it wants. “It’s the timing and the rapidity of hitting all of these things, exactly in the sequence that Sinclair needs them the most,” the senior lawyer tells me, later adding, “This is an agency run rogue.”
EARLIER THIS YEAR, WWMT’s Minock was flown to Washington, where he joined other local television reporters to meet with Trump in the Oval Office for a photo-op and off-the-record discussion. Later, Trump would invite reporters to dine with him for lunch in the East Room, where they gathered over braised short ribs and red wine sauce. Minock wasn’t at the lunch but he later joined the group of reporters as they were granted access to nine Cabinet secretaries – including Elaine Chao, Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos – as well as then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The interviews, part of an administration effort to court local media, were a significant coup for any local reporter. Last May, the interviews ran across Michigan on consecutive days for a week, painting a picture of calm and control in a White House reported to be in considerable disarray. Minock asked Spicer how he would grade the administration’s first one hundred days. “I think you give the president an A,” Spicer said.
A few months later, when Trump made a visit to Detroit, the president granted an exclusive sit-down interview during the trip to the young Sinclair reporter. “What’s the difference between being a CEO of a very successful company and being president of the United States?” Trump was asked. The interview was recut by Sinclair and aired across the country as a national news package.
The Tribune merger would give Sinclair a foothold in Philadelphia, Chicago, L.A. and New York. It would also gain 11 new stations in presidential swing states, including 60 percent of the news-producing stations in Iowa, according to the consumer-watchdog organization Allied Progress, which opposes the merger. The prospect has concerned politicians on the right as well as on the left. In an op-ed for Politico, former Republican House Speaker Tom DeLay wrote that “for the sake of the conservative movement, a truly diverse press, and real competition, the DOJ should stick to Trump’s campaign promise to protect the public against the ‘concentration of media power’ and reject the Sinclair-Tribune merger.” When I told one media executive I was having trouble finding people independent of Sinclair to make the case for the merger, he laughed. “There is no one in favor of the merger,” he said.
If the Justice Department approves the Tribune merger, which seems likely, Sinclair will have to sell off a few stations in order to comply with FCC limits. But Sinclair appears to be returning to the shell-company strategy of its earliest days: Some of the proposed mystery buyers are Cunningham Broadcasting, owned by the estate of the Smiths’ deceased mother, while another, Steve Fader, is the CEO of Atlantic Automotive, in which David Smith owns a controlling interest. If the sale is approved, Sinclair would still operate the stations jointly, and retain the ability to buy them back later. “This so-called sale is a total sham,” says Craig Aaron of the organization Free Press, and a fierce critic of Sinclair. “It’s just Sinclair setting up its cronies as the license-holders on paper.” (In a public statement, Sinclair vice president of policy Rebecca Hansen said, “These agreements are structured to be consistent with similar agreements that the FCC has approved for over 10 years.”)
This year, WJLA’s news and commentary packages have teetered between Trumpian cheerleading and frothing conspiracy: Dark warnings about the so-called “deep state”; the wisdom of decertifying the Iran deal; and the folly of the pro-gun control “March for Our Lives” rally. Over the winter, WJLA aired a series of segments alleging bias on the part of special investigator Robert Mueller. (“You have complete conflict of interest,” Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, told viewers.) Such programming dovetailed with Hyman’s must-run editorials: “We do it. Russians do it. Everyone does it,” Hyman said of Russian interference in the 2016 election. “Meddling in another nation’s democratic elections is actually routine behavior.”
One American media executive, who has dealt intimately with Sinclair, tells me the key to understanding the company’s model is knowing it’s not about journalism – in fact, it’s not even about television. “It’s a real-estate play,” he says. “They look at broadcast TV as a retail store, and the public airwaves as the land that it sits on.” There are now two families in Washington, he adds, whose empires are built on television and real estate – and both of their worldviews center on the politics of white grievance. “Don’t miss the similarities,” he says. An obscure patriarch. Prodigal sons with rapacious appetites. Strong-arm tactics. And a shared revulsion of the media elite. In Washington, the media executive said, Trump found a family just like his. “Other than the fact that the Smiths are much more mentally stable,” he muses, “they are the Trumps.”
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