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Sinclair analyst Boris Epshteyn, right, and Kellyanne Conway arrive for the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Sinclair analyst Boris Epshteyn, right, and Kellyanne Conway arrive for the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Sinclair Broadcast Group’s decision this week to remove former Trump aide turned political analyst Boris Epshteyn from its airwaves is good news, no two ways about it. As of Friday, there are no more “Bottom Line with Boris” commentaries running on any of the group’s 193 stations, nor will the Hunt-Valley-based media company be publishing Epshteyn’s newsletter.

But I am not near being ready to buy the spin being sold with the cancellation, claiming the company is moving away from commentary to make way for more fact-based local news and investigative journalism. You don’t showcase someone like Epshteyn and cozy up to someone like Trump for the last three years, then all of sudden join the ranks of serious and respected journalists seeking truth without fear or favor with one announcement. Even in today’s topsy-turvy, short-memory, social-media-driven world of ever-shrinking media standards, you can’t that easily get rid of the stink of behaving like a partisan operation in the service of a politician waging a war on journalists and the very notion of truth.

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Slick PR and skilled strategic communications go a long way in these truth-troubled times, but it will take more than some public relations talk about journalism for folks to forget those Trump tweets praising Sinclair ― tweets that Epshteyn surely helped the company get with his servile praise of the president on Sinclair’s airwaves. Call it coincidence if you want, but some of that Twitter love from the White House came just as Sinclair was trying to win Federal Communications Commission approval for its purchase of Tribune Media, a deal that ultimately fell apart.

“So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” Trump tweeted in April 2018. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

In my opinion, Epshteyn was the most shameless Trump propagandist on American television during the Trump presidency, and that’s saying something when you think of Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro or Sebastian Gorka ― to name only a few of the more widely known members from that tribe of Trump’s media bootlickers. Hannity and Pirro certainly had bigger audiences, but what Epshteyn lacked in reach he made up for in fervor.

A month or so after Epshteyn’s hiring in 2017 as chief political analyst by the Hunt-Valley-based broadcaster, I wrote, “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.”

It only got worse.

He crossed a line in November 2018 when he echoed the racist language of the president in calling a caravan of immigrants at the Southern Border an “invasion” and insisting that the use of tear gas on them was necessary. One had to wonder if even Sinclair was getting a little uncomfortable.

What I found most troubling about the relationship among Trump, Epshteyn and Sinclair was that in forcing all of its stations that produced news to carry Epshteyn’s commentaries, Sinclair was not only force feeding the pro-Trump views of its chief political analyst to millions of viewers in small- and medium- sized cities across the country, it was wrapping his right-wing rhetoric in the credibility, respect and trust that hometown anchors, reporters, weatherpersons and sportscasters had built over the years with their audiences in each of those cities and towns. That kind of violation of trust also does not go away overnight with an announcement ― not with the staffers at the stations or their audiences in all those towns and cities.

With Epshteyn’s hiring, I saw Sinclair’s string of local stations as the last major link in a right-wing messaging machine that started with Trump’s massive social media presence on Facebook and Twitter and extended down through the digital realm with Breitbart News and into cable TV with Fox News and Fox Business Network.

Does ditching Epshteyn change all that? Forgive me for being skeptical, but I have been covering this company for three decades.

In the NBC.com story first reporting the removal of Epshteyn from Sinclair’s airwaves, the company is described as saying "it wants to prioritize what’s important to people on a local level and is putting more focus on the kind of investigative work represented by ‘Project Baltimore,’ a report that looked into alleged grade fixing in the Baltimore school system.”

The NBC report cited an “internal memo” at Sinclair saying it will be “expanding” its “local investigative journalism footprint in daily newscasts.”

"Sinclair always prioritizes what’s important to people on a local level and that includes local investigative journalism,” a spokesman for the company said in response to an email asking for confirmation of that report.

If Sinclair wants to get out of the commentary business to do more local investigations, I say great. Last month, I wrote a column begging the local TV stations, like Sinclair’s WBFF here, to raise their games and join The Sun in doing some of the heavy lifting needed to help try to save Baltimore from its history of closed doors, corruption and crooked politicians. Sinclair certainly has the resources to do that kind of reporting.

But again, I ask if the company’s documented history of right-wing politics will shape what kind of investigations it does.

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I am all for all the investigations we can get of Baltimore schools no matter what the motivations behind them. The system has massive issues. But chronicling dysfunction in any realm of Baltimore City life is regularly contextualized by the right as evidence of what you get with 30 years of Democratic rule. That’s the narrative Trump invoked with his “rat infested” tweets over the summer, if you will remember.

I will be less skeptical of Sinclair’s commitment to journalism without favor when I see it do a deep investigation of a conservative politician or operation. Let’s say Larry Hogan, for example, and the current iteration of the governor’s Change Maryland operation, which The Sun’s Luke Broadwater described as a “new political lobbying organization that can accept unlimited, undisclosed donations, the kind of war chest that critics decry as ‘dark money.’”

Sinclair has a lot of history to overcome if it wants to be seen as serving citizens and democracy first rather than an ideology.

Here are just a couple of highlights form that history, which I have reported.

In 2012, Baltimore residents received a robocall voiced by Jeff Barnd, then lead anchor at Baltimore’s WBFF. Residents were told in the call that it was a “survey.” But, in fact, the language of the questions they were asked was loaded to the point that it could create an unfavorable attitude toward Democrat Martin O’Malley, then Maryland’s governor.

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As I wrote at the time, 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.” I received one of the calls myself at home.

The call included questions 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 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 — already a time of heightened police-community tensions.

I’m glad to see Epshteyn off the airwaves in Sinclair stations here and around the country. And it makes sense for the company to also cancel commentaries by Ameshia Cross, which were added in January and presented as a liberal counterpoint.

Christopher Ripley, Sinclair’s CEO, said in an NBC interview in September that the company prides itself “on offering fair and balanced reporting and making sure we present both sides.”

I will believe it when I see it. And if I do see it, I will be one of the first to applaud it. A Sinclair that uses its resources for fact-based journalism and down-the-middle investigations would make Baltimore and the many other cities where it has news-producing stations better places to live.

But I am not ready yet to forget its partisan history nor its many full-throated, must-carry segments from Epshteyn offering all-out support and celebration of Trump.

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