NEW YORK — NEW YORK - For the briefest of moments yesterday, Mark Hyman looked forlorn as he futilely made calls on a cell phone in a vacant hotel banquet room.
The conservative television editorialist for Sinclair Broadcast Group had just wrapped up a sit-down interview with Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But he hasn't been able to secure time with Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. And, during a weekend of major protests against this week's Republican National Convention, Hyman hadn't received even a single response to his telephone calls to the chief anti-war coalition.
He shook his head, and then shrugged. The senator and the protesters may know little about Sinclair and less about Hyman. But the joke is on them. If Sinclair's ratings figures are to be believed, roughly 1.8 million American adults watch Hyman every day. That puts him in the company of far-better known pundits, such as the right-of-center populist Bill O'Reilly or the conservative Sean Hannity on the Fox News Channel - and far more than Joe Scarborough on MSNBC.
In fact, that audience would make Hyman, based at Sinclair's Baltimore County headquarters, one of the most widely watched conservative television commentators in the country.
"My commentaries are my own alone," Hyman says. "I say exactly what I believe." This week, the deeply tanned former U.S. Navy intelligence officer - now a captain in the Naval Reserves - is contributing taped editorials for Sinclair from the Republican National Convention. Hyman, 46, resembles many of the delegates here. He has close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and was wearing a dark, pinstriped, three-button suit and an American flag pin with a Secret Service emblem on his lapel.
Hyman did much the same thing from Boston during the Democratic National Convention, contributing five editorials to his station's broadcasts. But there was one difference - each pummeled John Kerry or his Democratic allies for perceived shortcomings. Hyman's unlikely to criticize President Bush very hard, if at all - but then, as Sinclair's chief commentator, his strong point of view is his calling card.
"I'm pretty conservative, but I'm a pragmatic guy," Hyman says.
Hyman's daily editorials, called "The Point" last several minutes, unlike the hourlong shows of O'Reilly or Hannity (shared with Alan Colmes). "The Point" appears every night on most of the television stations owned or operated by Sinclair - the largest collection of stations in the country. Saturdays are usually reserved for viewers' letters.
Exact comparisons are tricky because of the way in which Sinclair gets ratings from Nielsen Media Research. The O'Reilly Factor, the top-rated show on all cable news, attracts about 2.5 million viewers nightly - over the age of 2. Hyman, according to aggregated Nielsen ratings estimates from February, draws about 1.8 million over the age of 18, although that figure includes rebroadcasts.
But his reach occurs well out of the national media spotlight. Sinclair, after all, has no stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington or any of the country's other top 10 markets. Instead, the company has built up an empire of lesser stations in small to mid-sized regions; the largest market in which it has a presence is Minneapolis, followed by Sacramento, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Baltimore - where Sinclair owns WBFF-TV, a Fox affiliate, and controls WNUV-TV, a WB affiliate. Smaller cities like Asheville, N.C., Flint, Mich., Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Charleston, S.C., are amply represented.
"He's interesting and fun to watch, somewhat refreshing in his approach to things - in the sense that not all original thoughts originate in Washington. I like that," says John Bilotta, a media relations consultant with government clients who befriended Hyman when he was a foreign correspondent for United Press International in London in the late 1980s.
This year, Hyman traveled to Iraq to find "good news stories" that he said were overlooked and undertold by a media that is intent on showing the invasion and occupation in a bad light. Along with Sinclair's corporate leadership, Hyman made national waves earlier this year by condemning Ted Koppel of ABC News for reading a roster of U.S. service members who died in Iraq on Nightline.
It was, Hyman said, a blatant anti-war gesture by the network. And Sinclair pulled the program from the seven ABC affiliates it owns and runs. The move was denounced by many newspaper editorials - and by a number of lawmakers, including Arizona Sen. John S. McCain, a Republican who supports the war. McCain called Sinclair's stance "unpatriotic." Joe Conason, a liberal columnist for the New York Observer, dismissed Hyman as "a dull facsimile of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity."
He is sometimes a bit stiff in front of the camera, and he typically gestures at the camera at the end of each taped editorial as he says, "And that's the point." But Hyman appeared comfortable yesterday as he sat at the hotel in Midtown Manhattan and interviewed Ehrlich. There are probably two good reasons for that. Both are conservative - though Ehrlich is a bit more moderate. And Hyman worked for Ehrlich in the mid-1990s as a congressional fellow when the governor served in the House of Representatives. "I helped to create this monster," Ehrlich joked yesterday.
David D. Smith, the CEO and chairman of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, hired Hyman to become a corporate vice president and head of the company's lobbying and public affairs efforts. Hyman says he hasn't lobbied in Washington for nearly three years - since his first editorial, which followed soon after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He's devoted himself instead to his daily appearances on the editorials that are broadcast on more than 40 of the 62 stations owned or controlled by Sinclair.
His easy relationship with Ehrlich echoes that of the Smith family, which controls Sinclair and has been a generous financial backer of Republican causes and candidates, including Ehrlich and Bush. This year, Hyman served as the chief speaker at a fund-raising dinner for Anne Arundel Republicans, at which Ehrlich was the featured guest. Hyman says he's willing to visit almost any group that invites him to speak - but that, for some reason, Democrats rarely do.
According to Carl Gottlieb, who joined Sinclair in 2002 from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based think tank, Hyman's editorials are a visible, familiar and often controversial element of one of Sinclair's most cherished initiatives. From its Baltimore County studios, Sinclair creates a newscast for 16 stations - the number is growing - by integrating locally generated stories into a highly stylized format of fast-paced news laced with edgy takes on politics and popular culture.
"We're not our here to be provocateurs or anything, but if we're not making a difference one way or the other, why do it?" says Gottlieb, Sinclair's managing editor for the standardized program, called News Central. "You can get bland, middle-of-the-road targeted news anywhere - I dare say, right here in Baltimore."
What Hyman does, Gottlieb says, "is so strong. Like everything else, there are people who love him and people who hate him." The commentaries are more heavily produced than the typical television editorial, integrating interviews - such as yesterday's with Ehrlich - and videotaped footage. Hyman sometimes passes story ideas along to Sinclair reporters. But both he and Gottlieb say he respects the distinction between news staff and those offering opinions.
Hyman lives with his wife and their two sons and two daughters just outside Annapolis. He came to journalism in a roundabout way. He was the son of a U.S. Air Force veteran and moved frequently, spending part of his childhood in Maryland. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and later became an analyst, determining threats to Navy fighters from North Africa and the Middle East. He also served as a weapons inspector to ensure arms reductions in former Soviet Bloc countries.
He says he often found himself in conflict with those Pentagon planners who said that the Soviet Union, and later Russia, remained a big enough threat to justify major - and expensive - weapons programs. Instead, he wrote studies for the Navy in the late 1980s and early 1990s about the potential dangers posed by smaller countries such as Libya and Iraq - before the first Gulf War.
Now, he sees himself taking on similar sacred cows nightly on "The Point." "You pick up a daily newspaper, they've got a give-and-take, a response, an editorial page," Hyman says. "It's embarrassing for our media that the print media has some engagement and response with its readers. Talk radio does that. For television it's virtually non-existent.
"We thought that stimulating viewers - getting them engaged was important. Whether they agree or disagree is less important."