If you don’t work in television, you may not be aware of the name Sinclair or what it means within the business. If you do work in television, the second I mention Sinclair there’s a pretty good chance your eyes involuntarily roll toward your forehead and you give a couple of knowing nods. On paper, the Sinclair Broadcast Group is the largest owner of local television stations in the country, with 173 total in cities and towns all across the nation, ranging from top market revenue-generators to barely-there outposts in the middle of nowhere. The Baltimore-based company also owns four radio stations and a cable network and, all-told, has generated millions for its majority owners, the family of its founder, Julian Sinclair Smith. But the stats don’t tell the whole story about who Sinclair is, what it does, and what its influence is on our discourse.
Put simply, the Sinclair Broadcast Group is Fox News at the local level. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that it’s as authoritative a disseminator of modern conservative dogma as Fox News if only because its reach is so vast. Even if you don’t recognize the Sinclair name, there’s a good chance you’ve been aware of the some of the various controversies that have dogged the company over the past several years. Sinclair was the broadcaster that, in April of 2004, preempted an episode of Nightline on its ABC stations because the show would be reading the names of American soldiers killed up to that point in Iraq. It was later reported that it would preempt regular programming two weeks before the 2004 election so that all of its stations could air the infamous “Swift Boat” documentary aimed at John Kerry. (Action by the DNC, who filed a motion with the Federal Election Commission, stopped that.) In 2010, Sinclair broadcast across some of its stations an infomercial that portrayed President Obama as a terrorist sympathizer who took money from Hamas. The infomercial had been produced by a Republican PAC. And in 2012, a series of Sinclair affiliates ran an “election special” that purported to be an unbiased look at the issues but which targeted Obama over and over again and largely left Mitt Romney unscathed.
There’s more, but let’s get to the point of why I’m bringing this up: Sinclair just fired an executive news producer at one of its stations for two tweets from her personal account that challenged the confirmation of Trump’s pick to head the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos. While the tweets don’t exist anymore — they were deleted as soon as the station, WWMT in Kalamazoo, Michigan, brought them up to her and eventually suspended her for them — the person in question says that, all in all, they were pretty tame, expressing frustration but not outright anger. I’m willing to take her at her word because, in the interest of full disclosure, she and I are friends and exes from way back. Her name is Randy and I was aware of what was going on with her last week and held the item for two reasons: 1) She requested that I do so, at least temporarily; 2) I was concerned about any potential blowback against her and her family from the usual suspects within Twitter’s alt-right basement brigade. However, there’s something here that deserves to be brought to light in at least some small way.
I obviously have some experience with being let go from a news organization for voicing my opinions, political and otherwise, online. But when I was fired, in 2008, it was by CNN, a global outlet that covers U.S. politics heavily and which can therefore make a good argument that a show of personal, off-air bias by one of its editorial employees negatively impacts it. This is a station in market #41 that in theory should cover more local weather and car crashes than national politics or really anything that could be impacted by a political bent of any kind. Honestly, who gives a crap what the political opinion of a middle manager at a TV station in Kalamazoo, Michigan is? The answer, of course, is Sinclair. That’s who. (The complaint about Randy’s tweets didn’t come from a viewer but from a former employee of WWMT who now works at a rival station.) Still, even a cursory examination of Sinclair and what the company stands for demands an immediate and obvious question: Would Randy have lost her job after eight good years with Sinclair and at WWMT if her tweets had been pro-Trump? I’ll let you make your own decision on that given what we know about this particular company.
And if you need to know more about Sinclair, just take a look at a stark internal memo issued by the company, one that followed Randy’s termination and seems to be a result of it or an accompaniment to it. The memo by Sinclair VP of news Scott Livingston — which was leaked and can be read in full at local TV-watchers’ site FTVLive — reminds everyone still at Sinclair that the company’s mission is “challenging the accepted narrative in the mainstream media” and that its affiliates’ social media accounts have apparently been seeing complaints about “a liberal bias” in their reporting recently. “We have to understand we are the news operation that takes additional steps to make sure our reporting is fair and unbiased,” Livingston writes. Now, know that when a news outlet touts its “lack of bias” as the reason for its supposedly superior journalism — and certainly any “extra steps” it takes — that’s often nothing more than coded doublespeak in the “fair and balanced” vein. (Later in the memo, Livingston actually uses that Fox News catchphrase.) To conservatives, the perennial boogeyman known as the mainstream media is forever tainted by the liberal menace, which seeks always to hide the truth from the world (with the truth, of course, being whatever conservatives want to hear).
Livingston extends the admonition to include “personal political postings” by Sinclair employees. In fact, maybe it’s not an extension given that this is stated right out of the gate, lending even more credence to the memo’s being directly tied to Randy’s termination. But considering Sinclair’s obvious political bent and the context provided by the rest of the statement, it’s tough to read the warning as anything other than, “If your politics don’t align with ours, keep it to yourself.” I said you should make your own decision whether you believe Randy would still have a job with Sinclair had her tweets been expressly pro-Trump, but make no mistake that I’ve made my decision on that. The internal Sinclair memo makes it clear that the company expects its news-editorial staff to, if not explicitly present biased coverage from a conservative perspective, then implicitly ensure that political stories that don’t adhere to a conservative worldview don’t go unchallenged or “balanced out” in the name of running contrary to “the accepted narrative in the mainstream media.” See, that’s the giveaway. It would be one thing if Sinclair said, “We’re objective. Period.” But Livingston tips his hand to the intrinsic bias, which is that Sinclair must stand opposed to the (presumably liberal) media grain.
But it turns out, Sinclair’s bias is deeper even than that, because it has a very specific bias toward Donald Trump. Remember how I said that there was more to learn about the controversies surrounding the broadcaster? Well, a story in Politico back in December detailed a speech given by Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner to business interests in which he revealed that the Trump camp, during the campaign, had struck a deal with Sinclair to provide access in exchange for “better media coverage.” According to Kushner, positive coverage from Sinclair stations in swing states would pay dividends by delivering necessary votes that cable news couldn’t or wouldn’t reach. Livingston denied the existence of any deal, but Kushner’s comments and the exclusive interviews Sinclair stations got from Trump during the campaign led The Washington Post to publish an exposé in December titled “How the Nation’s Largest Owner of TV Stations Helped Donald Trump’s Campaign.”
Randy will be fine. Much as I did when I lost my job at CNN, she accepts that voicing any kind of opinion, political or otherwise, when you work in news is a potential job risk and that it was the company’s prerogative to fire her. She knows she wasn’t “censored.” She says it’s unfortunate that Sinclair’s “internal investigation,” which supposedly began as soon as she was suspended without pay, lasted only, apparently, 24 hours and never took her extensive body of work at WWMT — which she says was politically objective at all times — into consideration. She points out what I once did: that it’s impossible to completely erase your own personal biases, so you work hard to ensure that your work, what the public sees, doesn’t reflect yourself or your opinions. She says WWMT managers told her that her tweets showed that she couldn’t be objective in her news coverage, which I can tell you for a fact is just nonsense. That, she says, is what hurts most, though — that anyone could think that about her.
But here’s the thing: Where her story and mine differ greatly is that CNN is lambasted incessantly by conservatives — and, specifically, viciously, Trump — as being a bastion of dishonest liberalism, yet the network fired me for my opinions, which had a center-left bent. Granted, my writing can be profane as hell, but at the very least, if CNN is all conservatives say it is, there would be no way the network could let me go because it disagreed with the political opinions I expressed.
Can Sinclair say the same thing about Randy? Can it honestly make that claim?