The chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group met Donald Trump at the White House during a visit to pitch a potentially lucrative new product to administration officials.
David D Smith, whose company has been criticized for making its anchors read a script echoing Trump’s attacks on the media, said he briefed officials last year on a system that would enable authorities to broadcast direct to any American’s phone.
“I just wanted them to be aware of the technology,” Smith said in an interview. He also recalled an earlier meeting with Trump during the 2016 election campaign, where he told the future president: “We are here to deliver your message.”
Sinclair is the biggest owner of local TV in the US, and may soon reach 72% of American households if a proposed $4bn takeover of a rival is approved by federal regulators. It is accused by critics of having a conservative bias, which it denies.
The company has been a driving force in the development of a new broadcasting standard known as Next Gen TV, and is one of the first involved in making chips for televisions, cellphones and other devices to receive the new transmissions.
A broadcasting industry group, of which Sinclair is a prominent member, lobbied federal authorities last year to force manufacturers to incorporate the chips in all new devices. This would have created orders for millions of chips and probably new revenues for Sinclair.
Smith said his White House meeting was not financially motivated. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided last November to make incorporating chips voluntary. Sinclair had itself stopped short of calling for compulsory installation but said the government might need to consider this in the future.
As well as entertainment, the chip allows mobile devices to receive messages from an upgraded government public warning system, through which authorities can send video statements and multimedia even when telephone lines are down.
“The public interest aspect is enormous in terms of the lives it will save,” said Smith. The chips would, he said, allow authorities to target any individual cellphone, all phones in a specific zipcode, or other select recipient lists.
“If you were Rudy Giuliani on 9/11,” Smith said, referring to the then mayor of New York City, “you would have turned on your desktop, typed in an access code, and gone live to every phone or pad or device in the marketplace in seconds.”
Smith said he was unable to recall precisely when the White House meeting took place and which officials he briefed. But during the same visit, he said, “I was invited to say hello to the president, so I said, ‘Hey, great, have a nice day.’”
Smith did not respond to follow-up questions on whether Sinclair’s proposed purchase of Tribune Media was discussed with Trump or other officials. The White House did not respond to questions and requests for comment.
Smith made an offer to Trump in 2016 after Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. Ben Carson, now Trump’s housing secretary, helped arrange a meeting at Trump Tower, according to Smith, who like Carson is based in the Baltimore area.
“I asked [Trump], ‘Would you like us to embed with you during your campaign?’,” said Smith. “And he brought a bunch of people in the room, and I said: ‘We are here to deliver your message. Period.’”
Smith denied that this amounted to Sinclair acting as a mouthpiece for Trump. He said it meant only that Trump could be interviewed by Sinclair whenever he chose. Smith said a similar offer was extended to Hillary Clinton by letter but was not taken up by the Democratic nominee.
“What I get out of it is access to a guy who’s running for president,” said Smith. “Or a guy who’s running for US senator, or governor, or anything else. As any other news organization does. You want to be on TV? Sure, we’d like to have you on TV.”
Asked for an assessment of Kushner’s role in Trump’s White House, Smith laughed and said: “I don’t know what his role is. Nobody does.” He added: “Look … he’s obviously a smart guy, a successful guy.”
Smith tried to dismiss criticism of Sinclair that has mounted since CNN revealed news anchors across the US were being instructed to read identical scripts decrying “fake” news, which mirrored Trump’s long-running attack on journalism.
Describing the controversy as “the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Smith claimed rank-and-file Sinclair staff who had been expressing dismay to media reporters did not understand that the scripted segments were in their own interest.
“If people believe you more than they believe somebody else, they’re more likely to watch you,” he said. “And you know what that means? We might get a higher rating. And you know what that means? We will therefore make our spots worth more. And you know what that means? That means I will make more money, which means I can pay you more money.”
Despite multiple detailed accounts finding that Sinclair’s news coverage is skewed politically to the right, Smith insisted that his news output was not biased. “If anybody can show me otherwise, in the context of any local news that works for me, then show me,” he said.
Smith said he had “zero tolerance” for “political spin” of any kind, and even said he had fired staff in the past after they displayed bias in their coverage, though he said he could not recall any specific examples.
“If you believe philosophically, so strongly, that you can’t just stand in the center and tell the truth, then go work someplace else,” said Smith. “I don’t care.”
Smith professed to have “no interest in politics” and even suggested that his reputation as a backer of Republicans was inaccurate. “I probably give more money to Democrats than I give to anybody,” he said.
According to federal filings, Smith has contributed $206,650 to Republicans and $132,350 to Democrats in congressional and presidential campaigns since 1995. He also gave $36,000 to two political action committees (Pacs) that have consistently contributed more to Republicans than to Democrats.
Smith also defended Sinclair’s strident news analysis segments hosted by Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump adviser. Epshteyn’s so-called “must run” segments, which Sinclair headquarters instructs local stations to show during news bulletins, have generated controversy for laundering White House talking points.
“Boris Epshteyn does not do news,” said Smith. “He does commentary, and it is defined as commentary throughout.” Epshteyn has latterly spoken in front of a logo that includes “Commentary” in a smaller typeface. During some earlier editions, he was introduced by anchors as a commentator but then spoke without an onscreen commentary label.
Smith said Epshteyn’s output was more clearly labelled than the work of opinionated Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity. He spoke more favourably of Hannity’s primetime colleague, Tucker Carlson, who is renowned for heated disputes with his guests.
“I like to watch people argue, and the people he brings on are good at it,” said Smith.
As for the current argument about his company’s news broadcasts, Smith declared himself the winner and said he would not make concessions. “I don’t know what I would change,” said Smith, “because everything that we’ve done is absolutely unassailable under any circumstances.”