Sinclair Broadcast Group thrusts itself into the news
When Sinclair Broadcast Group ordered its ABC affiliates to preempt Ted Koppel’s “Nightline: The Fallen” roll call tribute to U.S. military killed in Iraq, calling it a political statement “disguised as news content,” Comedy Central’s mock newscast “The Daily Show” jumped into the fray with its own list. Called “The Funding,” the Comedy Central list was a partial recitation of recent monetary donations to the Bush campaign by top officials of Sinclair.
“Clearly,” noted host Jon Stewart, “they prefer their politics disguised as money.”
Sinclair’s decision to pull ABC’s “Nightline” has focused new attention on the Maryland-based station group, which has joined companies such as radio powerhouse Clear Channel Communications and Walt Disney Co. on a list of corporations some accuse of censoring political thought in order to curry favor with Republican-controlled Washington.
Known for including conservative commentary in its news and for its almost exclusively Republican political contributions, Sinclair also has been a petitioner in Washington as it seeks relaxation of the federal limits on the number of stations one group can own. With management control or outright ownership of 62 stations, Sinclair is already one of the nation’s largest broadcasters, reaching nearly one-fourth of all TV homes. And it has taken centralized control of TV news to a new level: Many of its stations carry news reports the company calls “News Central,” which are produced in Maryland but made to feel as though they are local, a practice that Sinclair says has allowed it to add cost-efficient news to stations that had been without newscasts. But the practice has been sharply criticized among journalists.
One daily “News Central” feature is an editorial called “The Point,” which is anchored by Mark Hyman, who is also the company’s spokesman and its Washington lobbyist, although he hasn’t done any lobbying since August 2000 and said Friday he isn’t likely to in the future. Hyman and a Sinclair reporter went to Iraq earlier this year to file reports on the progress that had been made there, saying that other media had focused too much on the negative side of the story.
Critics said that while neither the donations nor the newscasts are problematic individually, they raise questions when coupled with the company’s commercial interests. “The problem with Sinclair is that they have both partisan political and commercial reasons to pull their punches in their daily coverage of news events,” said Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group that conducts investigative research on public policy issues. In addition to leaning Republican, he said, “they have business before the federal government and the Bush administration, and so the public in the cities where they have stations is getting anything but fair or balanced news coverage. The specter of pandering, to be direct, is grotesque and incredibly disconcerting in a democracy.” Lewis said the Sinclair decision to preempt its programming is part of “an increasing pattern of decisions by broadcasters that seem to be out of timidity or to curry favor.”
Sinclair’s Hyman sharply disputed the notion that there is any connection between what he called individual political contributions from company executives and Sinclair’s news programming, which he called “pretty balanced.” “No, of course not,” he said, adding that “the reason why some on the left have characterized us as conservative is that we run stories that others in the media spike.”
The company’s political action committee, he said, hasn’t been active since September 2002, and, he said, “I don’t track people’s personal contributions, so it’s none of my business.” Nor has the company been actively lobbying in Washington, he said, although it has used the Federal Communications Commission’s comment process to make its views known.
When it comes to political contributions, many broadcasters, like other companies, try to hedge their bets by spreading the money around between Democrats and Republicans, albeit often giving an edge to Republicans, who control Congress and the White House. Disney, for one -- which this week denied accusations that it refused to let its subsidiary Miramax distribute Michael Moore’s new anti-Bush film because it feared political repercussions -- has given an evenly split $94,000 to Democrats and $93,500 to the GOP this election cycle from its political action committee. Chief Executive Michael Eisner gave $5,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee and at least $1,000 apiece to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).
Sinclair, by contrast, in recent years has given 98% to 100% of its contributions to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., campaign finance watchdog group
Sinclair this year ranked No. 9 of the top 20 radio and TV station group political contributors, according to the center. The company’s executives donated more than $65,000 to political causes this election cycle, 98% of which went to the GOP. Sinclair Vice President Frederick Smith gave $50,000 to the Republican National Committee this year, and he and several other top executives contributed $2,000 each to President Bush’s re-election effort.
Sinclair isn’t alone in its support of Republicans; more than half of broadcasting’s top 20 political donors, including radio giant Clear Channel, gave the bulk of their money to Republicans. Clear Channel, which garnered attention for its crackdown on indecency on company airwaves in an attempt to avoid more stringent fines from the FCC, funneled 71% of the $366,291 it gave this election cycle to Republicans.
The San Antonio-based broadcast powerhouse booted racy talk show host Howard Stern from six of its stations Feb. 24 and fired another off-color host, Bubba the Love Sponge, earlier this year, after shelling out a $755,000 fine for his foulmouthed commentary.
Regarding Sinclair, “I do believe they have a right to choose where they want to make their political contributions and I do believe they have a right to preempt certain programming,” said Bob Steele, an ethics professor at the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism school. “But the question is: Are they using these rights responsibly? Are they using their political contributions in a way to inappropriately leverage anything from their license holdings to their influence with powerful people when it comes to FCC or legislative agendas?”
Sinclair, Steele said, “is not alone, certainly, among media owners.” He points to the current Disney debate, and to Clear Channel, noting, “Some suggest Clear Channel’s response to the decency issue was predicated by its own self-interest. For years they allowed the same type of programming to exist and, in fact, they thrived on it,” only to speak out against some of their own shock jocks when faced with government criticisms and possible financial penalties. “It’s reasonable to at least raise the questions about when somebody and why somebody does what they do,” Steele said.
Susannah Rosenblatt in Los Angeles contributed to this report.