Most Americans don’t know it exists. Some refer to it as an “under-the-radar company.” Unlike Fox News and Rupert Murdoch, virtually no one outside of business circles could name its CEO. And yet, Sinclair Media Group is the owner of the largest number of TV stations in America.
“Sinclair’s probably the most dangerous company most people have never heard of,” said Michael Copps, the George W Bush-appointed former chairman of Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the top US broadcast regulator.
John Oliver – host of HBO’s weekly satirical show Last Week Tonight – used a similar line when he introduced an 18-minute segment on Sinclair last month by referring to it as “maybe the most influential media company you never heard of”.
But that is beginning to change. Sinclair’s size, right wing politics and close connections to Donald Trump’s White House are starting to attract attention. Democrats are wading in to the fray and demanding answers over Sinclair’s close ties to the Trump administration, which, they say, could mean the group is getting preferential treatment.
The New York Times refers to the group as a “conservative giant” that, since the Bush presidency, has used its 173 television stations “to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda”. The Washington Post describes it as a “company with a long history of favoring conservative causes and candidates on its stations’ newscasts”.
More recently, Sinclair has added a website, Circa, to its portfolio. But not any old website. Circa has been described as “the new Breitbart” and a favorite among White House aides who wish to platform news to a friendly source (a process otherwise known as “leaking”). As the US news site the Root put it: “What if Breitbart and Fox News had a couple of babies? What if they grew up to be a cool, slicker version of their parents and started becoming more powerful? Meet Sinclair and Circa –Donald Trump’s new besties.”
The growing anxiety in America over the rise of Sinclair stems from the belief the company’s close connections to Trump have allowed it to skirt market regulations. Already the biggest broadcaster in the country, Sinclair is poised to make its biggest move yet. If the FCC approves Sinclair’s $3.9bn purchase of an additional 42 stations, it would reach into the homes of almost three-quarters of Americans.
Another cause for concern, and increased scrutiny, is what’s seen as the company’s pronounced political agenda. Sinclair forces its local stations to run pro-Trump “news” segments. In April, they hired Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign spokesman and member of the White House press office, as its chief political analyst. His “must-run” 10-minute political commentary segments unsurprisingly hewed closely to the Trump administration’s message. The news and analysis website Slate, referring to Epshteyn’s contributions, said: “As far as propaganda goes, this is pure, industrial-strength stuff.”
Some local stations have reportedly chafed at the idea of pro-Trump “must run” packages. Sinclair’s management says the packages are necessary to provide viewers with diverse viewpoints as a counterweight to progressive leanings they’re convinced are held by the media, including the staff of their own local stations. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the media is left of center,” David Smith, then Sinclair’s CEO, told Rolling Stone in 2005.
But Sinclair’s politics isn’t restricted to Epshteyn’s contributions. It has a long history of airing material which has often been controversial, and for which it has been sanctioned in the past – all the while purporting to simply report the “news”.
While it doesn’t have the cultural cachet of major conservative networks like Fox News, Sinclair’s influence is more subtle. Unlike Fox News, which brands itself clearly and proudly, most viewers of Sinclair’s local stations have no idea who owns them since they are not branded as part of the Sinclair network.
But it is their intended purchase of a collection of new stations owned by Tribune Media – the former owners of the illustrious Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times – that has thrust them into the national spotlight unlike ever before.
“It used to be a few years ago there were some mergers that were unthinkable,” Copps, now with the DC-based watchdog group Common Cause, told the Guardian. “We’re in a period now when everything’s so wild that nothing is unthinkable.”
For the Trump administration, Sinclair has obvious appeal
The figure that looms large behind Sinclair is David Smith, whose father founded the company in the Nixon era. Smith recently ended his 28-year reign as CEO, and along with his brothers maintains what an industry publication called “iron-clad control” of the billion-dollar media empire as well as the company’s majority financial interest.
The Smith family, based in and around Baltimore, likes to keep a low profile – they give few interviews and David Smith has no Wikipedia page. “We would tend to maintain as much anonymity as we can,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 1995, one of the rare times he’s spoken to the press.
Their political agenda is somewhat less mysterious. Campaign finance records show the Smith brothers have historically donated overwhelmingly to Republicans. And a Washington Post analysis of the company’s 2016 presidential election coverage found Sinclair stations were unusually favorable towards Trump and negative towards Hillary Clinton.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Sinclair conducted zero interviews with Clinton. But it touted 15 “exclusive” ones with Trump, which aired mostly in critical swing states in the final months of the election and without any commentary, despite the copious fact-checking Trump interviews tend to require. Sinclair has insisted it had no special arrangement with the Trump campaign and that Clinton simply did not make herself available to them. Clinton campaign officials say they spurned Sinclair for a reason, though her vice-presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, gave a handful interviews to Sinclair stations.
According to Politico, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner told a room full of Manhattan business executives that the campaign had struck a deal with Sinclair to secure better coverage in the states where they needed spots most.
The manner in which Sinclair looks set to expand – specifically, with Trump paving the way – is causing widespread anxiety throughout media and political circles. The focus of the concern is Ajit Pai, the man Trump appointed as head of the country’s top broadcasting regulator, the FCC.
Since he began work in January, Pai has been busy relaxing the protections for local broadcasting that had previously limited Sinclair’s expansion.
Trump’s new-look FCC has moved swiftly to clear the hurdles for Sinclair’s proposed takeover of Tribune. A day before Trump was inaugurated, Smith invited Pai to a meeting at the Washington-area headquarters of the company’s ABC affiliate. Within 10 days of taking over the FCC, a New York Times investigation found, Pai had already relaxed a restriction on TV stations’ sharing of resources, including ad revenue – precisely the topic Smith had met with Pai about.
Since January, the Times report found, “Pai has undertaken a deregulatory blitz enacting or proposing a wishlist of fundamental policy changes advocated by Mr Smith and his company.”
Tom Wheeler, Pai’s predecessor at the FCC, who is now at the Brookings Institution, said: “What’s surprising is how fast the Trump FCC moved and how they moved without any real opportunity for public comment and without any following of procedural due process … So you look at that kind of behavior and scratch your head.”
To better understand such behavior and where it’s leading, it helps to consider where Sinclair began.
David Smith’s father, Julian Sinclair Smith, described by the company’s official history as “patriarch to the Smith brothers”, founded the company in 1971, and kept a hand in the business until his death, following a battle with Parkinson’s, in 1993. But the company’s greatest evolutionary changes began around 1990, when the brothers bought up the remainder of their parents’ stock, kicking off an extended buying spree that would last decades.
As Sinclair grew, so did the scrutiny. And increasingly, the Smith brothers found themselves not just the broadcasters, but the subject of the news.
In 1996, David Smith was arrested on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute who performed what the police called “unnatural and perverted sex on him” in a Mercedes owned by Sinclair. More disturbing to critics than the misdemeanor sex offense, though, was the unusual way he got out of doing the court-ordered community service that resulted from his plea bargain in the case: by having his broadcasting company do what amounted to publicity hits for local drug counseling programs, packaged as news.
LuAnne Canipe, a former reporter for Sinclair, said the incident was also indicative of a broader culture of office sexism. “Let’s just say the arrest of the CEO was part of a sexual atmosphere that trickled down to different levels in the company,” said Canipe, who left Sinclair in 1998. “There was an improper work environment. I think that because of what he did, there was a feeling that everything was fair game.”
One person concerned by Sinclair’s growth: Rupert Murdoch
The growth of Sinclair may have passed below the radar, but not past another media mogul – Rupert Murdoch, chairman and acting CEO of Fox News.
Although Sinclair has insisted it has no interest in competing with national cable news platforms like Murdoch’s, industry observers say the mogul is already planning a strategy to combat the rise of a potential rival. After a failed attempt to outbid Sinclair for Tribune, Murdoch is threatening a switch of Fox’s broadcast affiliates from Sinclair-owned stations to those of a smaller independent broadcaster.
But it isn’t just Sinclair’s business interests that are a cause of creeping concern – its political affiliations could be, too.
Take the case the former congressman Bob Ehrlich, a Maryland Republican who later become governor. After pressing the FCC to fast-track Sinclair’s request to acquire more stations, Ehrlich enjoyed company perks like the frequent use of a Sinclair executive’s luxury helicopter, as the Baltimore Sun reported in 2002. By the time full details of the report emerged, Ehrlich had already won his gubernatorial election.
In 2004, Sinclair leadership reportedly ordered its local affiliate stations to air a documentary critical of the Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, based on allegations which later proved unfounded – that Kerry had exaggerated his record as a swift-boat officer in the Vietnam war.
A Washington DC bureau chief publicly resisted and was fired for the offense. The incident sent ripples through its stations, but Sinclair said media reports about the controversy exaggerated the issue.
Around the same time, as George W Bush faced criticism over the faltering war in Iraq, Sinclair ordered seven of its stations not to run an episode of Nightline in which host Ted Koppel read the names of every American soldier killed in the war, saying it “undermine[d] the efforts of the United States in Iraq”. The decision sparked a major backlash, including from the Republican senator John McCain, a Vietnam war veteran, who wrote a letter to David Smith calling the decision “unpatriotic” and “a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces”.
Other times, Sinclair’s influence has been more ambiguous. When the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs was assaulted by the then US congressional candidate Greg Gianforte on the eve of his election in Montana, the local NBC affiliate, recently purchased by Sinclair, refused to air Jacobs’s audio recording of the incident, despite entreaties from NBC executives in New York. The local news director said she was not influenced by Sinclair, noting the purchase was not yet complete. Gianforte won the election, and, the day after the Montana Republican was charged with assault, Sinclair’s vice-president and director Fred Smith donated $1,000 to him.
Meanwhile, with its 2015 purchase of Circa, a mobile aggregated news app, Sinclair has control for the first time of a national text-based news outlet. Backed by a staff of 70, Sinclair transformed the app into conservative-leaning platform offering thinly sourced scoops – often written without any author byline other than “Circa staff” – that frequently seem to advance the Trump administration’s agenda du jour. Trump and his aides have returned the favor by linking to Circa’s content, and it’s become a favorite source of Sean Hannity, Fox News’s most obsequious Trump booster. (Sinclair denies Circa has any political orientation, noting that it does not carry op-eds.)
The rise of Sinclair has also recently stirred the Democrats in Washington, who have become increasingly vocal on the issue.
This summer, Senator Maria Cantwell led a group of colleagues in urging commerce and judiciary leaders to carefully examine the pending deal with Tribune, citing concern “about the level of media concentration this merger creates, and its impact on the public interest”, according to the lawmakers’ June letter.
And this week, House Democrats in top FCC oversight positions wrote directly to the FCC’s Pai expressing their dismay at what they perceive to be a “pattern” of preferential treatment toward Sinclair.
In addition to changes paving the way for Sinclair’s merger, Pai’s FCC has proposed eliminating one of its most fundamental rules, which requires local news stations to actually have a local studio where they broadcast the news.
Now, the agency seems poised to do away with local broadcast protections, which would allow Sinclair and other broadcasters to save money by cutting local staff and to impose more editorial input from corporate headquarters.
And that means many more Americans will be hearing from the most dangerous company most people have never heard of – whether they know it or not.