Sinclair Broadcast Group does two things very well. It knows how to run local stations lean and mean. And it makes some of the most visually engaging local news in the country.
It also has a history of compromising its news operations with right-wing politics.
The Hunt Valley-based company is already the largest owner of local TV stations in the country with 173. And if it gets the necessary government and shareholder approvals for a $3.9 billion deal that it entered into with Tribune Media Co. today, it will have even more stations. It will be the broadcasting giant of giants at a time of great disruption in the media ecosystem – particularly when it comes to conservative media.
That matters because what has kept Sinclair from getting the respect its size should reasonably be expected to command are news judgments and on-air moments that seem connected to politics. Such moments have made some question how well Sinclair stations, like WBFF (Fox 45) in Baltimore, serve their communities. That issue multiplies exponentially nationwide if this deal goes through and is allowed after government review.
In 2014, WBFF misleadingly edited and aired video of a protest march to make it seem as if protesters were chanting “kill a cop.”
But what the marchers were actually chanting in response to the lead of a Baltimore woman, Tawanda Jones, whose brother had died while in police custody in 2013, was, “We won’t stop. We can’t stop ‘til killer cops are in cell blocks.”
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 nationwide.
In 2012, Baltimore residents received a strange robocall voiced by Jeff Barnd, then lead anchor at WBFF. Residents were told in the call that it was a "survey." But, in fact, the language of the questions they were asked was so loaded that it could create an unfavorable attitude toward Democrat Martin O’Malley, who was then governor.
At the very least, the questions could elicit answers that might support an on-air story showing a large segment of area residents opposed to him. The common political term for such a slanted survey is "push poll."
The robocall started out asking viewers a couple of questions about being bitten by ticks and contracting Lyme disease, which is transmitted by the insects. But while viewers were then urged to watch the late news to hear their comments during a story on the disease, the tick and Lyme queries were only the warmup or, what some saw as the come-on, for a much lengthier series of questions on Maryland politics and O'Malley, which seemed like the real purpose of the call.
The questions were about the Dream Act, The Civil Marriage Protection Act, Maryland income taxes being raised, O'Malley's "legislative agenda" and whether the governor backed the Civil Marriage Protection Act and the Dream Act to "further his political career"? In the call, Barnd described the Civil Marriage Protection Act as the "focus of his [O'Malley's] legislative agenda."
Here's how a sample question was worded: "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?"
Using the credibility of your lead anchor for political ends is exactly the kind of concern some analysts have about Sinclair gaining even more dominance in owning the hometown stations most Americans still identify as one of their most trusted sources of news and information.
Following the recently concluded and hotly contested 2016 presidential election, Sinclair again came under fire after Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, told business leaders in New York that it struck a deal with Sinclair: greater access to the candidate for what the campaign considered more balanced coverage than it was getting from national outlets like CNN and MSNBC.
In fairness, what was downplayed in some of the stories is that Sinclair insisted it offered the same deal to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Here is the key to the Tribune and Sinclair deal and the point where the business and political aspects converge.
Both station groups have pursued a strategy of station acquisition in swing states – those states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania where both parties have relatively equal levels of support and presidential elections have often been decided.
The idea here was that those stations would be cash cows in hotly contested national elections with candidates pouring buckets of PAC money into their coffers for advertising time. Clinton delivered with the most expensive campaign in presidential history.
Running the stations cheap and raking in the PAC money is a winning business model, but questions can reasonably be raised about how such stations serve their viewers. And it becomes an even larger question when you consider the added political clout such stations have because of their geography in swing states.
The political clout will become even greater if Sinclair uses one of the cable properties to launch a 24/7 cable operation like Fox News, which is reeling under the weight of firings and defections of top talent on and off camera. Federal investigations and discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits are going to have Fox News on the ropes for months if not years.
I think the suggestion that Sinclair could build a channel around recently fired Fox News star Bill O’Reilly is a long shot. Would you want to spend a fortune on a show host who is going to bring a boycott with him and drive women viewers away?
Sinclair knows economies of scale, and it will be taking scale to a new level if the deal with Tribune goes through. But I have never seen anyone in the company with the kind of vision it took to build Fox News. Nor do I see the kind of digital savvy at Sinclair that CNN has.
Maybe you don’t need vision in the media any more. Maybe size is the only thing that matters in this new media environment.