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What you should know about Sinclair, the conservative local news giant with a growing reach

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Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of the largest number of local news stations around the country, has come under harsh criticism after a video highlighted what some see as an attempt at politicized corporate message control. (Twitter/Deadspin)

Sinclair Broadcast Group is not as well-known a name in television as Fox News’ News Corp. or CNN’s Turner Broadcasting System, but its reach may rival that of a cable juggernaut.

The company is the largest owner of local television stations in the country, with 173 stations in 81 broadcast markets that stretch from coast to coast and just about everywhere in between, at a time when local news outpaces national news outlets both in overall viewership and trust. Some 85 percent of Americans trust local news outlets, higher than the 77 percent for family or friends, according to the Pew Research Center.

But a stunning video that showcased its anchors reading required scripts that seemed to parrot one of President Trump’s favorite themes, has drawn renewed scrutiny to what critics see as the media conglomerate’s years-long efforts to inject conservative-tinged coverage into local markets.

Here are some things you should know about the company and where it operates.

What is Sinclair and why have some people not heard of it before?

Based in suburban Maryland, Sinclair owns and operates local news stations around the country, in cities such as Bakersfield, Calif.; Amarillo, Tex.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Birmingham, Ala., though it does not currently own any stations in New York, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area or Los Angeles.

Many of the stations it runs are affiliates of other national networks, like WKEF, an ABC affiliate in Dayton, Ohio, and KOKH, a Fox affiliate in Oklahoma City, and are therefore more widely known by those associations. Sinclair owns or operates 59 Fox affiliates, 41 ABC affiliates, 30 CBS affiliates, 25 NBC affiliates, nine Univision affiliates, and others, and also has its own network, Comet, according to its website.

Sinclair Broadcast Group’s headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md. (Bloomberg News)

Its stations are clustered in predominantly conservative areas of the country according to an analysis of the company’s markets by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump: The broadcast areas of Sinclair stations voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 19-point margin, on average.

Why is Sinclair in the news now?

Interest in Sinclair picked up recently after reports exposed a seemingly Trump-friendly script the company ordered its anchors around the country to read, lambasting “irresponsible, one-sided,” and “fake” news stories.

The one-minute-long script, which appeared to echo Trump’s efforts to attack the reporting he has disagreed with as “fake news,” brought to the fore longstanding critiques about what many see as the company’s rightward tilt.

The fake stories promo, which was first reported by CNN in March, drew wide attention after Deadspin published a video on Saturday that layered dozens of the company’s anchors around the country reading the script over one another, creating a visceral portrait of corporate message control.

The video has been viewed more than 7.5 million times since it was published on Saturday afternoon. Trump added fuel to the fire by leaping to the network’s defense, writing that “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

“So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” he wrote on Twitter.

At least one Sinclair-owned station in Wisconsin signaled that it resisted the effort: “WMSN/FOX47 Madison did not air the Sinclair promotional announcement during our 9pm news this weekend,” the station said in a Twitter statement. “Rather, we stayed true to our commitment to provide our Madison area viewers local news, weather and sports of interest to them.”

Sinclair’s promo also renewed fears about the effects of greater consolidation in the news media world. The company, which has expanded the number of stations it owns by nearly threefold since 2010, is hoping to add another 42 stations as part of a potential buyout of Tribune Media, for which it needs federal permission.

Why do critics say that Sinclair is biased?

Sinclair has been spotlighted for injecting right-leaning coverage and commentary on national issues into its local broadcasts since well before its “fake stories” advisory became public, making it unique in the world of broadcast television, which is less encumbered by the partisanship that marks cable networks like Fox News and MSNBC.

While other station owners typically use “must-run” segments to push station promotions, Sinclair has used required programming to push conservative-leaning stances into its local broadcasts.

“The must-runs look like they are part of the news,” David Twedell, business manager of a local camera workers’ union in Seattle told The Washington Post. “And they’re clearly not.”

Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump White House official and campaign surrogate who was hired last year as the company’s “chief political analyst,” helms segments that often defend Trump and hammer on other Republican themes.

Epshteyn weighed in on Trump’s much-maligned commission to investigate supposed voter fraud — since disbanded after drawing bipartisan rebukes from many states — by urging states to “do everything within their power to cooperate.” After the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., spun into violence last summer, he defended Trump’s infamous “both sides” news conference, saying that “the president correctly acknowledged that there is hate and violence coming from the left as well.”

Mark Hyman, a former Sinclair executive, also helms a commentary segment which can sound at times like a sounding board for the right.

“Listen up closely snowflake, yes I’m talking to you, you the social justice warrior who whines for trigger warnings and safe spaces,” he said in one widely cited segment about college campuses.“College isn’t a babysitter service.”

The company’s Terrorism Alert Desk produces segments that underscore the menace of terrorism around the globe. HBO comedy host John Oliver lambasted a news brief from the desk about efforts to ban burkinis in France, as part of a critical look at Sinclair last year.

“That is not about terrorism!” Oliver said incredulously. “It’s just about Muslims.”

During the presidential campaign, Sinclair stations around the country gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Donald Trump compared with coverage of Hillary Clinton, according to internal documents viewed by The Washington Post. Some “must-run” segments about Clinton included those about supposed health issues, as well as her handling of the controversial email server.

Politico reported that White House senior adviser and Trump-son-in-law Jared Kushner had told a group of business executives that Trump’s campaign had an agreement with Sinclair to give it access to Trump on the condition that its interviews be broadcast without commentary.

This kind of coverage dates back years. During the Obama presidency, the station group was criticized for running an infomercial from a Republican-aligned PAC that claimed that Obama may have raised campaign funds from the militant group Hamas, as well as a half-hour news segment critical of Obama for the economy and the attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, which ran before 2012 election.

In the midst of John F. Kerry’s challenge to President George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, the station group was widely criticized for planning to run a documentary called “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” that cast a negative light on Kerry’s anti-Vietnam War activities. Though it backed off running the documentary in full, it aired parts of it in the days before the election.

Who is it owned by and what are their political views?

The company is owned by the family of founder Julian Sinclair Smith. According to the New York Times, the company’s chairman, Smith’s son, David Smith, and his brothers have given the majority of their political donations to Republican causes. During the 2016 election cycle, the brothers “donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republican causes, including at least $6,000 from Frederick Smith to a ‘super PAC’ supporting Mr. Trump and $20,000 from David Smith to the National Republican Congressional Committee,” the Times reported.

What are the details of Sinclair’s expansion plans?

The company is currently awaiting federal approval of a proposed $3.9 billion buyout of Tribune Media, which would add 42 more local television stations to its quiver, including those in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Current Federal Communications Commission rules limit single station owners from reaching 39 percent of the national television audience and prohibiting ownership of more than two stations in most TV markets. But the FCC under Republican Chairman Ajit Pai — who met with Sinclair executives in the days before he was named chairman — has been in the midst of a strong push for deregulation.

Pai has stated that he favors loosening ownership standards, and the FCC can offer exceptions and waivers to those rules. If allowed to go through, Sinclair’s stations could reach as much as 70 percent of the households in the country.

Paul Farhi and Todd C. Frankel contributed to this report. 

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