Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Sinclair taking perilous political path with Boris Epshteyn

I ended last week’s column on the hope that Baltimore-based Sinclair would use its clout as the nation’s largest station group to do better journalism, not yield to the temptation of becoming more partisan on behalf of President Donald Trump.

On Monday, Sinclair confirmed to Politico that it was adding air time for Boris Epshteyn, the former Trump campaign adviser on messaging and White House aide who now serves as the company’s chief political analyst. Epshteyn’s commentaries will now appear eight or nine times a week on all stations, Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s vice president of news, told The Sun. They had previously run three times week on a must-run basis.

So much for high hopes as to which way Sinclair is headed.

Since joining Sinclair in April, Epshteyn has consistently parroted Team Trump’s position in “Bottom Line With Boris” segments. Some of his commentary has come as close to classic propaganda as anything I have seen in broadcast television in the last 30 years.

In support of “scaling back” White House press briefings, Epshteyn told viewers in one segment: “From the very start of the Trump presidency, the press briefings have veered way off course … They have become much more theater than information gathering — theater in which, frankly, the press often plays the leading role. … The briefings have devolved into a circus and a distraction.”

On the controversial request for personal voter data from a commission set up by Trump to look into what the president insists is election fraud, Epshteyn said, “The states should do everything within their power to cooperate with the commission.”

On Trump’s performance in office, Epshteyn proclaimed, “The president made veterans’ issues a focal point of his campaign, and his administration is now delivering on those campaign promises.”

The images playing onscreen behind Epshteyn as he made this claim showed Trump walking triumphantly to a podium, flanked by columns of American flags and faced with an auditorium full of supporters, their arms raised in applause, presumably for the way he is allegedly delivering on those campaign promises.

And here’s Epshteyn’s assessment of Team Trump’s performance: “The American people demand change, and they demand action. And that’s exactly what they’ll get going forward.”

Epshteyn turned to Kellyanne Conway for an assessment of how the American people were feeling about Trump’s performance. She’s the counselor to the president who used the term “alternative facts” to describe the administration’s claim that Trump had the largest inauguration crowd in history.

“Go ask a coal miner or a farmer or a truck driver or someone who works in the health care profession how they feel about some of the great moves he’s made in the first few days,” she said. “And they will tell you they feel very buoyant.”

Here’s an idea, Epshteyn: Go and actually ask a farmer, truck driver or health care worker. Don’t ask a White House employee and expect me to take her word for it.

That’s what viewers of Sinclair’s 173 stations, including WBFF (Channel 45) in Baltimore, have been getting in the form of political analysis. And now they are going to get three times as much of it. Lucky them.

And there are going to be even more viewers getting that kind of home-team critique of Trump in towns and cities across the country, with Sinclair poised to add 42 more stations thanks to its $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media. (The deal is awaiting approval from the Federal Communications Commission.)

Livingston said Epshteyn’s segments are “clearly identified as commentary” and are a small part of what Sinclair does. The eight or nine “Bottom Line With Boris” segments will run about 90 seconds each for a total of 13½ minutes a week of commentary from the former Trump aide, he explained.

By comparison, WBFF Fox 45, Sinclair’s Baltimore station, alone produces nine hours of local news a day Monday through Friday and eight hours on the weekend, according to the news executive. That’s 53 hours of news a week.

“Local news is at the heart of Sinclair. We know that our greatest responsibility is serving our local communities by providing relevant information,” Livingston said.

In a follow-up email, Livingston offered Sinclair’s Connect to Congress segment an example of how he believes Sinclair’s national clout helps local news stations better serve their communities.

“Each week, when Congress is in session, we set up a camera in the Capitol Rotunda and offer lawmakers a chance to speak directly to constituents in their districts, through our local stations,” he wrote. “On many weeks, more than two dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers will participate in these direct interchanges with our stations in their respective districts.”

Sinclair has been a national political force at least since 2014 when it gained control of WJLA-TV in Washington with the purchase of Allbritton Communications. But the Tribune deal will take it to another level.

WJW, the station Sinclair is acquiring in Cleveland, is a good example of what the company is adding. WJW is Cleveland’s leader in news ratings, a powerhouse in a key battleground state, according to Mark Dawidziak, veteran television critic for The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland.

Therein lies a deeper political issue of Sinclair’s growth and its history of mixing conservative politics with news. It has come to own local TV stations in states that often play a disproportionately important role in national and local elections. And, in addition to WJW, it is about to add stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia with the Tribune purchase.

Tribune bought 19 stations in 2013, primarily as a business strategy. Management understood that in hotly contested elections, the stations could become cash cows with political advertising pouring in. With national elections every two years and the campaign cycles in many of them getting longer and longer, political ads would provide a significant revenue stream. The only risk was in how fast political advertising would leave TV and migrate to digital as some other forms of advertising had done.

But those who bet that the TV dinosaur still had life left in it won big. Stations in some states during the last two national elections cycles added extra newscasts just to have a place to park all the ads Super PACS wanted to buy for their candidates — or against their opponents.

Owning stations like WJW in states like Ohio also has great political potential. In a hotly contested race, having a political analyst on a local station saying positive things about a candidate can make a difference. The kind of coverage a candidate receives in newscasts also matters. Even the placement of political ads can have an effect.

And there is yet another layer of value to a company with a conservative bent like Sinclair.

In her book “Dark Money,” New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer chronicled the way a group of rich conservatives, including Charles G. and David H. Koch, bankrolled a campaign to move American politics to the right following widespread Democratic victories in elections in 2008. With Barack Obama in the White House and looking like a good bet for eight years, the strategy was to go local, spend big to win state races and try to start changing the country from there.

Think of Scott Walker’s 2010 election as governor of Wisconsin and his immediate efforts to reduce benefits for unionized government workers and teachers as an example of the operation’s success.

For that strategy to work, you need a media infrastructure that is centralized in its message but operates at the local level in its delivery. I cannot think of a media company today that fits that description better than Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Sinclair is no stranger to using its stations politically.

In 2012, I reported on a robocall to Maryland voters voiced by Jeff Barnd, then WBFF’s lead anchor.

In the call, which Barnd described as a “survey,” respondents were asked a series of questions, some about Martin O’Malley, then the Democratic governor of Maryland. And the language of the questions was loaded to the point that it could create an unfavorable attitude toward the governor — or at least elicit answers that might appear to support on an-air story alleging that a large segment of viewers opposed him. The common political term for such a slanted survey is "push poll."

Here's a sample question: "Governor Martin O'Malley made same-sex marriage the focus of his legislative agenda. Do you think he's using the issue to further his political career?"

In 2004, Sinclair ordered its ABC affiliates not to air an ABC News “Nightline” program, “The Fallen,” which was intended to honor the service men and women who died in the war in Iraq. It featured anchorman Ted Koppel reading each name of the deceased as a photograph appeared onscreen with her or his name, military branch, rank and age.

In an online statement at the time, Sinclair explained its pre-emption by saying the show was “motivated by a political agenda.”

Today, Sinclair is ordering its stations to carry commentary from Epshteyn. It’s not hard to see a political agenda favoring all things Trump in “Bottom Line With Boris,” even if it is only 13 ½ minutes a week, a relatively small part of overall Sinclair news content.

That’s a lot of politically motivated, pro-Trump messaging on local TV when you multiply it by more than 200 stations.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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