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

Sinclair Broadcast Group is finding out how harsh the national spotlight can be

The Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group has been getting a lot of notice in recent months as it awaits government approval to take over Tribune Media. The acquisition will add 42 TV stations to the 173 Sinclair already owns, according to its website. That’s a lot of clout in a lot of living rooms for what is already the nation’s largest station group.

But much of the coverage in recent months about Sinclair’s brand of TV news has been negative, with analysts voicing concern over what they see as right-wing politics being injected into local newscasts on company stations.

Sinclair has “used its 173 television stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda since the presidency of George W. Bush,”The New York Times wrote in a report May 3 on the company’s growth. In June, The Washington Post described Sinclair as a “Baltimore-area company with a long history of favoring conservative causes and candidates on its stations’ newscasts.”

I have been writing about Sinclair since 1989, when I joined the Sun as television critic. I have seen and reported on a lot of evolutionary change at the company, which was founded in 1986 and went public in 1995, often through the lens of its Baltimore station, WBFF Fox-45. There were times when the station compromised its news product in ways I think no responsible broadcaster should — and, in one case, faced community outrage for it. And there was a time in 2009 when company officials said they might have to seek bankruptcy protection if they could not pay down outstanding debt that was coming due.

But never have I felt Sinclair was in as precarious a position as now. With the increase in size has come far more intense scrutiny. It’s not flying under the radar any longer.

And in this highly partisan era of Donald Trump’s presidency, the temptation for Sinclair to get more political is going to grow. Sinclair has a history of involvement with Republican politicians and conservative politics. Going down that road with Team Trump could have serious consequences for the company’s credibility and brand.

Criticism from mainstream members of the media is one thing. There are certain places we generally won’t go, such as outright ridicule and mockery. We hew to standards that generally demand evidence to back up each point of criticism.

But not satirists like John Oliver, who delivered potentially the most damaging scrutiny last Sunday on his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

Sinclair had previously been immune to a primetime takedown by someone of Oliver’s skill and stature because the company wasn’t widely known or important enough to matter. Now it is, and ridicule of the Sinclair brand of news is being seen by millions.

Oliver used some of the TV satirist’s most effective tools — mockery and humor — in his takedown of Sinclair. In highlighting what he sees as Sinclair’s connection to furthering the Trump agenda, Oliver talked about the hiring of Boris Epshteyn, a former member of Trump’s campaign team, as chief political analyst.

Instead of telling viewers how far out he thinks some of Epshteyn’s views are, Oliver showed video of the Trump surrogate in 2016 telling CNN’s Jake Tapper, “Barack Obama may have won in 2008 in North Carolina due to illegal voting.”

“Boris, where are you getting that from? Barack Obama won in North Carolina because of voter fraud?” Tapper asked incredulously.

“Now, obviously, that is nothing even resembling a fact,” Oliver told viewers after showing the exchange. “The claim he’s making received a Pants on Fire! rating from PolitiFact. And even if it was true, which it isn’t, Obama still would have beaten [GOP opponent John] McCain by 162 electoral votes. Which raises the question: Do Trump surrogates even know why they are lying, or are they driven by some vague instinct like when a cat sits inside a box?”

The comedian then launched into a mock conversation with a cat — or, presumably, a Trump surrogate like Sinclair’s Epshteyn.

“Why are you doing that?”

“I have no idea. There’s just something inside me that tells me I should.”

Tapper’s reaction suggests how off-the-rails he thinks Epshteyn’s claim on Obama is. But it’s the linkage Oliver creates between Epshteyn and the image of cat sitting stupidly and smugly in a box that makes Sinclair’s chief political analyst seem ridiculous in viewers’ minds.

There’s going to be more satire of Sinclair in coming weeks and months, you can count on it. The company might even get big enough for “Saturday Night Live” to set its sights on next season.

Sinclair has brought some of that scrutiny on itself because of its relationships with politicians – the kinds of relationships mainstream news organizations generally eschew.

In 2002, The Sun reported that a Sinclair executive let then-gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. use a “luxury executive helicopter” at a discounted rate during and just after the campaign. Ehrlich, a Republican, was elected governor in that race.

The Sun also reported at the time that Ehrlich had, in 2001 while he was a member of Congress, “prodded the Federal Communications Commission … to move more quickly on requests” from Sinclair for approval to acquire additional stations.

Sinclair, which at the time owned 62 stations, was seeking FCC approval to add 14 more. That is the same kind of approval it now needs for the Tribune deal to go through.

That kind of relationship was off-camera. But what happens on-camera in Sinclair broadcasts is also responsible for some of the scrutiny. Oliver focused on features that are distributed to all stations, like “Bottom Line With Boris,” a political analysis segment from the former Trump aide.

My bottom line on local TV stations is how well they serve their communities with their news and public affairs programs.

In 2014, WBFF misleadingly edited and aired video of a protest march to make it look and sound as if protesters were chanting “Kill a cop!”

But what the marchers had actually been chanting in response to Tawanda Jones, a Baltimore woman and protest leader whose brother had died while in police custody in 2013, was, “We won’t stop. We can’t stop till killer cops are in cell blocks.”

As I wrote at the time, that's a very different representation of the marchers.

That was only five months before the unrest following the death in Baltimore of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody — a time of heightened police-community tensions locally and nationwide.

There was instant community outrage to the video. Sinclair apologized and fired two staffers.

“I have looked into this situation,” Scott Livingston, vice president of news at Sinclair, wrote in an email to me after the event. “We sincerely regret the error. We have apologized to the people directly affected. We did a thorough investigation and took appropriate action. We have reviewed our internal process to ensure something such as this doesn't happen again.”

Sinclair did take the matter seriously. But Livingston did not answer my question about how that misleading report found its way onto air.

Mistakes are made in journalism. I get that. But to this day, every time I think of Sinclair, I think of that incident and wonder how that edit could have been made — especially at such a troubled time in Baltimore.

In an email, Livingston declined an interview request for this column.

He did, though, send a follow-up email, saying, “I want to point out that our stations create thousands of hours of local news and community programming every week and that content serves the unique information needs of our viewers in our various markets.”

His email continued: “Recent coverage has selectively chosen to highlight particular pieces that we’ve aired as commentary. This creates a false impression of the totality of our local news operations. Sinclair is committed to local news and is proud of everyone in our newsrooms for the quality, award winning news coverage they consistently produce for their viewers.”

Sinclair has the talent and resources to make a positive journalistic difference in the many communities it serves. I hope it chooses to go that route, rather than get more political.

Either way, a lot of people will be watching – and some will writing about what they see.

dzurawik@baltsun.com

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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