Sinclair Broadcast’s pythonlike grip on local news stations across America became a national issue two weeks ago when our sister site Deadspin posted a video story showing dozens of anchors at Sinclair stations forced to recite Donald Trump’s talking points about “fake news.”
On top of making trusted anchors across America look as if they’re making a synchronized hostage video, Sinclair has forced stations to air “must-run” stories on the “deep state,” “terror alerts” and “illegal immigration”—not to mention political commentary by white nationalist and former Trump staffer Sebastian Gorka.
Forcing this kind of commentary and coverage on local news stations between the farm report and local high school’s football scores isn’t just bad for independent journalism; it also endangers democracy in general. If left unchecked, Sinclair’s influence could turn the impending Democratic “blue wave” of the 2018 midterm elections into a trickle, ending what might be America’s best and last hope to provide any checks and balances on the Trump administration.
Sinclair’s history of dabbling in electoral politics didn’t just start when a former reality-television host managed to stumble into the White House in 2016. In April 2004, Sinclair ordered its ABC affiliates to pre-empt the Nightline special “The Fallen,” wherein host Ted Koppel would read the names of over 700 soldiers who had died during the invasion of Iraq. Right before the November presidential election to elect George W. Bush or John Kerry, Sinclair required its stations to run Stolen Honor, a propaganda documentary suggesting that Kerry’s Vietnam service record was false. Public outcry caused Sinclair to back off.
In the weeks before the 2010 midterm elections, Sinclair stations from Iowa to Kentucky to western Pennsylvania were forced to run a 25-minute documentary called Breaking Point, which, among other things, suggested that Barack Obama wanted to “kill some crackers,” and that Republicans were the only way to save America from the Kenyan-born, Muslim-terrorist sleeper agent. Perhaps the last part was an exaggeration. But only a slight exaggeration, since the story didn’t mention Birtherism by name.
Democrats took major losses in each of these elections, and while Sinclair can’t be given full credit, millions of dollars in free Republican talking points across the airwaves is no small in-kind contribution, either. Now, even with Republicans quitting right and left, and Democratic enthusiasm reaching #Beychella levels, could a flood of GOP-leaning Sinclair coverage in crucial states make a difference between a wave and a ripple this fall? We at The Root investigated.
We took a look at all House races listed as Democratic or Republican “toss-ups” as of April 6, according to the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. While the sites had slightly different analyses, our team settled on three Democratic and 20 Republican “toss-up” races, meaning that the election could go either way this fall. We then cross-referenced these congressional races with the media markets where Sinclair owns at least one television affiliate, according to its own website; analysis by Vox.com; and, in some cases, calling the stations directly and asking which congressional districts they broadcast in. The results should give Democrats pause.
Sinclair Broadcast’s reach is vast, but the number of markets where the company could potentially affect close midterm races range from rural Texas to upstate New York. The table below lays out the stations, the races and the potentially affected markets. In some cases, Sinclair owns more than one station in the same market, or the congressional district is bracketed by more than one set of Sinclair-owned stations.
This list includes crucial seats targeted by Democrats across the Midwest, where the party has suffered huge losses in recent years. More important, this study only focuses on “toss-up” congressional House races. When you expand to look at Senate races, gubernatorial elections, and the overlooked but extremely important state and local elections, Sinclair can run a Legion of Boom-level defense for Republicans to stem any major Democratic forays into the heartland.
More important, these aren’t all nobody races, either. Texas’ 23rd District is the home of incumbent Will Hurd, one of the few African-American Republicans in Congress, and he sits on the House oversight committee. So for both symbolic and policy reasons, Sinclair may be inclined to run friendly editorials in his backyard. The question is, with the map this slanted, what should Democrats do about it?
Direct attacks on Sinclair are fine, but they tend to backfire. First, Sinclair Broadcasting has demonstrated an Instagram level of petty, and any attempts to highlight the company’s conservative biases result in its running even more editorials screaming about liberal hysteria and “fake news.”
Further, politically speaking, you can’t just go to war with local news outlets. Yes, Sinclair is being run by a “Make America great again,” Muslim-attacking, allegedly prostitute-loving old Republican (in this instance I’m actually not referring to Trump), but the men and women who work for him aren’t mindless media henchmen. They are still regular human beings who have established good reputations with local elected officials, done good stories and are hoping to just get through the next right-wing editorial so that they can go back to their Emmy Award-winning series about the local petting zoo for kids with lice.
The best way to stop Sinclair from attacking the Democratic wave is to simply starve the company out. Refuse to run any commercials on Sinclair stations, refuse to do any interviews with Sinclair station reporters and refuse to go to debates running on Sinclair stations.
Democratic candidates from Kentucky to New York have pledged not to run commercials on Sinclair-run stations. Even everyone’s favorite pumpkin-spice-latte-loving pseudo-feminist comedian Amy Schumer refused to do an interview on Washington, D.C.’s ABC affiliate WJLA-TV when she found out that it was a Sinclair-owned station.
Yes, Sinclair is a huge national conglomerate, but most local television stations are run like mom-and-pop shops. They depend on seasonal advertising dollars, the NFL, summer concerts and election seasons to keep their budgets in the black. If Democrats stop throwing cash at Sinclair stations, that’s like canceling Christmas on mainstream USA. Except this time it’s to save democracy. No matter what Sinclair says nationally, local stations will complain and demand more editorial control if it’s beginning to affect their bottom line.
Would boycotting Sinclair stations suddenly guarantee that Democrats take the House this fall? Of course not; there are still gerrymandered districts, state-sponsored voter suppression, Russian bots, and Sinclair in almost 40 percent of local markets, pumping out pro-Trump “news” every day, to contend with. It’s going to be a fight. However, hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue going to rival stations would convince enough local news directors to push back against their corporate masters.
Yes, Sinclair will still promote must-runs about Muslim terror and commentators who advocate sexually assaulting high school activists. However, eventually, with enough campaign pressure and enough dollars lost, those stories will be returned to the 2 a.m. time slot, right between infomercials for the Slap Chop and the Fridge-Locker, where decent people will never have to see them before Election Day.
Written with the assistance of Charles Tucker, a graduate student at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication.