This article originally appeared in GQ and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
CHANCES ARE YOU'VE never heard of Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sure, it might be the largest independent owner of television stations in America, an empire of sixty channels spread across thirty-seven cities with a signal that reaches nearly a quarter of the TV-watching public, but even if you happen to receive that signal and watch it every night, getting your Sinclair news and Sinclair weather and Sinclair commentary from a Sinclair station, chances are you've still never heard of Sinclair and have no idea you're watching it. You won't see the word Sinclair on your screen, and you'll probably just think you're watching ABC or CBS or NBC, whichever network you thought you tuned in. Right there on the screen, you'll see the old familiar logo—a peacock, an eye, the ABC bubble—and the anchors will look the same as ever, and the fact that the station has been purchased by Sinclair will be no more apparent than the fact that twenty or thirty minutes into the program, the real news will suddenly fade to black and Sinclair's news will take over. It may be a glowing interview with a defense contractor or a fiery commentary on the evils of the French, something brief and punchy lasting two or ten or fourteen minutes, then slipping back into the regular news as quietly as it came. Not so much as a blip or a bleep to let you know that what you just witnessed was not the local NBC or CBS broadcast but just a little insert from the guys who own the station. That's the goal at Sinclair: to be seen without being seen.
"Propaganda always works better if it seems not to be propaganda—if it seems to be entertainment, or if it seems to be news," says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of culture and communication at New York University. "These people want to dominate the public sphere, but they don't want us to know that."
Lately, though, this balancing act has been getting harder to sustain. Especially since last year's presidential campaign, the company's efforts to inject partisan spin into its local "news" have become increasingly bold and increasingly obvious. In April 2004, the company forbade all of its ABC stations to air a segment of Nightline in which Ted Koppel read the names of American casualties in Iraq, which Sinclair's management considered "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States." Six months later, Sinclair executives launched a political effort of their own, instructing all their news stations to broadcast a documentary on John Kerry called Stolen Honor, which accused the candidate of treason during the Vietnam War. In the buzz that followed, Sinclair's vice president of corporate relations, Mark Hyman, stoked the fire even further by announcing that any network that refused to air the anti-Kerry documentary were "acting like Holocaust deniers" and that even if the documentary was a gift to Bush, the effect was balanced by the existence of suicide bombers in the Middle East, since after all, "Every car bomb in Iraq would be considered an in-kind contribution to John Kerry." Nearly three months later, the company was back in the hot seat, this time forced to admit that one of its most visible reporters, Armstrong Williams, had not only spent recent years landing exclusive interviews with men like Dick Cheney and Tom DeLay but was also getting paid handsomely by the Bush administration, having struck a deal with the White House to receive $240,000 in exchange for "favorable commentaries." Yes, by the beginning of this year, Sinclair was getting hard to ignore.
And yet ignoring Sinclair is exactly what most of the mainstream media have done. Reporting each controversy as an isolated event, almost every major newspaper and television network has either skipped or skimmed the larger story of Sinclair itself. Many of the most critical questions surrounding the company have yet to be asked, let alone answered. For example, while much has been made of Sinclair's conservative bias, little has been said about whose bias it really is. When critics of Dan Rather or Helen Thomas accuse them of biased reporting, the implication is that they are letting their personal opinions influence the news. At Sinclair, the facts are not so simple. A close look at the four brothers who own Sinclair—David, Duncan, Frederick, and Robert Smith—reveals a much less conservative cast of characters than one might expect. Far from the Bible-thumping, family-values stereotype that Sinclair's critics imagine, the Smiths are a study in contrasts—especially the two principal owners, David and Duncan. Even as they lobby for government deregulation and a return to some idealized notion of 1950s family values, Duncan is a passionate environmentalist working to restore the power of the Environmental Protection Agency, while David got his start not in the conservative family-values business but selling bootleg pornography.
In fact, the closer you examine the values espoused on Sinclair's stations, the harder it is to determine whose values they are. As Sinclair has mushroomed in size and influence over the past few years, developing financial ties to the Republican Party, promoting the GOP agenda in its broadcasts, launching vicious attacks on Democratic candidates who dare to campaign against their Republican allies while profiting from business contracts with the military and loose federal oversight, it has become increasingly difficult to figure out where Sinclair's true ideological bias ends and its business interests begin.
The story of Sinclair, then, is not merely about what happens when news and opinion merge. It's about what happens when news and opinion are both subverted, and something else takes over.
BY ANY MEASURE, Sinclair's recent growth has been spectacular. Between 1971 and 1985, the company consisted of just one small station, WBFF in Baltimore, and if the owner, Julian Smith, had any ambitions beyond that station, he kept them to himself. But almost as soon as Smith's four sons assumed control from their aging father, in 1986, they set out to transform the company from an outpost into an empire. The plan was threefold: purchase an unprecedented number of television stations, develop their own programming, and presto, create a network.
What inspired the Smiths to hatch this plan is difficult to determine, especially since the brothers refuse to talk about it. In the course of reporting this story, the Smiths, their executives, and their attorney have declined dozens of opportunities to comment, including repeated efforts by telephone, e-mail, and a visit to their office. But what remains clear even without the company's input is that from the outset of their expansion, the Smith brothers knew they would have to rewrite the rules of the television industry.
For one thing, as early as 1991, the Smiths had decided not to limit which networks they would broadcast. Historically, owners of multiple TV stations have broadcast just one or two networks, like ABC and CBS. This is not so much about brand loyalty as it is about the economy of scale—it's far easier to negotiate terms, manage time slots, and learn the mechanics of one major network rather than the mechanics of all six. But for the Smith brothers, convenience was a luxury they couldn't afford. If they wanted to grow fast, they would have to buy whatever stations were available and broadcast whatever they had bought. A washed-out WB in Paducah? Buy it. A run-down UPN in Nashville? Done. What mattered was not the station or the content but the signal itself. The Smiths were covering ground.
At the same time, they also scrapped another convention of the TV industry: the one that limits owners to one station per city. Actually, this was more than just a convention; it was also a federal regulation. Under guidelines of the FCC at the time, no company could buy more than one commercial station in any given market. Luckily for the Smith brothers, the law didn't say anything about having their mother buy stations for them. Founding a company called Glencairn in 1991, Carolyn Smith set about acquiring the stations that her sons could not, then promptly leasing the broadcast rights to Sinclair under a loophole known as a Local Marketing Agreement. Between 1991 and 1998, Glencairn managed to acquire four stations for Sinclair using the loophole and had five more in the works.
Even for a notoriously business-friendly FCC, this was too egregious to overlook. Launching an investigation in 1998, FCC commissioners discovered a tangled web of illegal alliances between Sinclair and Glencairn. For one thing, 90 percent of Glencairn stock was held by the Smiths' minor children. For another, the remaining 10 percent was held by a former Sinclair employee and Smith-family friend named Eddie Edwards, who was officially listed as the company's president but revealed under questioning that he had no working knowledge of the company's major transactions. Concluding that Glencairn was a shell corporation, the FCC fined both companies $40,000 for the "illegal transfer of control," then immediately gave them a go-ahead to continue exploiting the same loophole—a contradiction that prompted one FCC commissioner to write in disbelief that the verdict "merely points out that lines have been crossed while allowing Sinclair to run over these lines and to continue its multiple-ownership strategy."
Perhaps by coincidence, it was right around this time that the Smith brothers began cultivating friends in politics. As the FCC launched its investigation of Sinclair in 1998, the Smiths launched a series of overtures to local, state, and federal politicians, wooing candidates with campaign contributions and fund-raising parties. If the government was going to investigate them, it was a good idea to invest in the government.
One of the earliest of these gestures went to a Baltimore politician named Carl Stokes. In 1999, Stokes was widely regarded as a favorite to become Baltimore's next mayor. The 49-year-old Democrat had been endorsed by the Baltimore Sun and was leading in opinion polls when he received a call from a friend inviting him to a fund-raiser in his honor. The Smith brothers would be cohosts. After fifteen years in politics, Stokes was not surprised by much, but he was shocked to hear that the Smith brothers wanted to support him. Even as late as 1999, the Smiths had kept such a low profile in their hometown that a veteran politician like Stokes considered them virtually apolitical. "I could only assume they were Democrats," remembers Stokes. "Why else would they support me?"
Arriving at the fund-raiser, Stokes expected a few thousand dollars in contributions, but as he mingled with guests at the tony Woodholm Country Club, the money began to pour in. "People were coming up to me, handing me huge checks," he says. "It must have been thirty to forty thousand dollars. It was the most money I had gotten up to that point."
Ultimately, the investment didn't pay off—Stokes lost the race—but the Smith brothers had whetted their appetite for political access. By the time Stokes stepped aside, they had already focused their attention higher up the food chain, on a sitting U.S. congressman: Robert Ehrlich Jr. from Baltimore County. This time, it would pay off.
An early prototype of the compassionate conservative, Ehrlich was young, almost ridiculously handsome, and an up-and-comer. The Smiths got to work. Hosting elaborate parties at Duncan's estate in Baltimore County, they wooed Ehrlich with contributions and favors and invited his congressional colleagues to hop the train from Washington and join the party.
"I remember one of the parties for Ehrlich," says a former Sinclair executive who has known the Smith brothers since the 1980s. "Duncan's place was set up like Tara. All these politicians had come up from Washington for it. Tom DeLay was there. It was the most elaborate presentation you could imagine. They wanted to meet the right people, and they knew how to do it."
It didn't take long for the Smiths to see results. In 1998, Sinclair had filed a request with the FCC to purchase fifteen new stations, some located in cities where the company already owned stations, but FCC commissioner Michael Powell had been reluctant to approve the deal. Yet when the Smiths brought in their friend Ehrlich, everything changed. Ehrlich fired off a series of letters to Powell, mincing no words. He reminded Powell that he was a member of the House committee that oversees the FCC and its budget, questioned whether Powell had been influenced by liberals like Jesse Jackson, and threatened that if the Sinclair request was not approved soon, he would "not hesitate to call for a congressional investigation." By the end of the year, fourteen of the fifteen purchases were approved.
Now it was Sinclair's turn to repay the favor, and Ehrlich gave the Smiths just the opportunity. In the spring of 2002, the congressman announced that he would run for the Maryland governorship, an uphill battle in which he would need all the help he could get. Running against an incumbent lieutenant governor who was also a member of the Kennedy family, in a state that had not elected a Republican governor in thirty-six years, Ehrlich would have to campaign far outside his Baltimore County base. Fortunately for him, Sinclair controlled the airwaves. Instructing local reporters in their Baltimore station to dig up dirt on Ehrlich's rival, Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Smiths launched an almost cartoonish frontal assault on Townsend. "We were putting out five stories a week on her," says former Sinclair reporter Jon Leiberman. "All of our resources were used to go after her. David became convinced that she fell off a horse as a child and had brain damage. I don't know where he came up with that. He's a nut. He sits in his office and thinks of these things. We may have actually gone after her medical records."
The Smiths also lent Ehrlich a helicopter, free of charge, to fly around the state—a contribution that was not recorded on Ehrlich's campaign-finance reports but which would have exceeded the legal limits by more than 200 percent if it had been reported correctly. Luckily for Ehrlich, when the helicopter deal was exposed, he had already won the election by a 4 percent margin and was on his way to the governor's office, where he would quickly get to work on the next insider deal with Sinclair. This time, Sinclair agreed to produce a series of TV commercials that featured the new governor popping up in people's homes to help with household chores; in return, the governor agreed to pay Sinclair $60,000 from the state budget. It was a textbook example of quid pro quo, in which the governor would use taxpayer dollars to pay off a political ally in exchange for campaign commercials. Like the helicopter, the whole thing could be done off the campaign-finance books. Only this time, it was legal.
In the span of barely five years, the Smiths had undergone a radical transformation. They had gone from a scattered collection of broadcast towers to the nation's largest independent owner of television stations. They had gone from a tentative, failed attempt to woo a Democrat in city government to a successful symbiosis with the state's top Republican. Partly because of their relationship with Ehrlich, they had enjoyed an unprecedented expansion, in defiance of FCC laws. And along the way, they had developed close ties to Ehrlich's friends in Congress, embarking on a campaign giveaway that would exceed $2.3 million by the middle of last year, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The only thing left was to keep the system going, to keep their political patrons in power and profit from their policies. For that, they had the public airwaves.
EVEN FOR A company that was known for rewriting the rules, Sinclair's decision to launch a news division in 2002 was a radical innovation. Traditionally, local TV stations do not produce national news. Each station may develop its own local broadcast, covering sports, weather, and politics, but for national and international events, most stations rely on their network affiliate, which provides the cachet of big-name anchors and programs like World News Tonight at a fraction of what it costs to produce those shows.
But by the spring of 2002, Sinclair had become so large that the economic models no longer applied. With five dozen stations spread from coast to coast, the cost of producing national news could be substantially defrayed. Perhaps more important, by producing their own national news the Smiths could control what was on the air. Having converted the first floor of their office building into a newsroom, in 2002 the Smith brothers announced that they would begin distributing news and editorial programs to their stations. Broadcasting those programs would not be optional.
To many reporters and producers at Sinclair stations, this was nothing short of bizarre. For one thing, it meant that stations under the rubric of ABC, NBC, and CBS would all broadcast identical segments. For another, they would have no control over those segments and would not be able to enforce quality standards. It was like an owner of Wendy's, McDonald's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants announcing that, in addition to the usual menu, all three franchises would begin selling the owner's homemade meat loaf. As the Sinclair news and commentary items started airing in the fall of 2002, tension began to mount between Sinclair and its local stations. Long accustomed to creating their own broadcasts, many local producers and reporters were especially troubled by the two-minute segment called "The Point," which they were forced to broadcast every night, seven days a week.
Written and delivered by Sinclair VP Mark Hyman, "The Point" was clearly an opinion segment, railing against the horrors of liberalism, lamenting the rise of agnostics, Muslims, and Buddhists ("Do they need a death-cage matchup?"), announcing the little-known fact that "embryonic cells originate from a fetus," and predicting that "terrorist leaders would dearly love to see President Bush replaced with Senator Kerry." Lacking any journalistic experience whatsoever, Hyman hailed from a background in military intelligence and weapons inspection and was known to drop references to "the Agency" into casual conversation. But when producers at several of Sinclair's stations asked for permission to label his segments as commentary, they were rebuffed. They were also forced to send tapes of their broadcasts to Sinclair's headquarters as proof that the segments had run.
Over time Hyman's segments even began to take the shape of news segments, with an introductory graphic and score, sit-down interviews, and pan shots of Hyman delivering his monologue while strolling through various far-flung military bases.
"I was required to put a Hyman editorial on my show every night," says one local producer, who no longer works for Sinclair. "I would cringe every time I did it. It was an abuse of the public airwaves. Everyone on the air was trying to distance themselves from it. They would say things like 'Coming up, sports! But first…Mark Hyman and "The Point." ' At one point, we tried to put the word editorial in the tease, but that quickly went away. They saw it and took it out."
As Sinclair's political agenda began to filter into its local news, the company was also filtering job candidates through a political litmus test that may have crossed the boundary of the law. According to one former Sinclair employee, the Smiths made no secret of their screening process. "The first question I was asked was 'What do you think of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?' " recalls the employee, who was also asked whether Jesse Jackson is a uniter or a divider and which three people in the world he'd most like to shut up. According to freelance journalist Terrie Snyder, a longtime fixture of Baltimore's television community, this intrusive line of questioning wasn't entirely new. When Snyder applied for a job in the mid-'90s, the Smith brothers attended her interview, peppering her with personal questions. "David and Duncan came in," says Snyder. "They started asking me about my politics—what my position on abortion was. David Smith himself asked me that question. I said, 'I don't think my politics belong in the newsroom.' He asked me again. So I told him, 'I refuse to say "pro-choice" or "pro-life." I am pro-abortion.' He asked me about my opinion on the death penalty. I told him I have concerns about the death penalty. He asked me about every hot-button issue. After the interview, David told [Sinclair executive] Joe DeFeo that I was the most interesting person he had interviewed but there was no way he would hire me because I was too liberal."
As the war in Iraq dragged on and American casualties continued to rise, Hyman's editorials became more and more vitriolic, charging that Peter Jennings "appears to favor terrorists over America," labeling candidate Kerry "a gun-decking sea lawyer," and reminding his viewers to "remember to spend your money on California wines and Wisconsin Cheddar instead of on the French imports."
For his part, David Smith began to spend time in the news offices, leaving his suite on the fifth floor to lurk around the newsroom, where he hung a poster-sized photograph of his girlfriend's eye in a gesture that many employees considered more absurd than ominous, and spending his afternoons hunched over their desks, whispering changes to their work.
"I was told on at least one occasion, 'Don't do Iraq unless it's good news,' " says a producer—an instruction that Jon Leiberman recalls coming down from David Smith. "David came to the newsroom every day," says Leiberman, a two-time Bush voter who was fired last October when he spoke against the company's partisan airing of the anti-Kerry documentary. "I went into a meeting with David Smith about a month and a half before I left. David said, 'Your stories need to look more like Mark's editorials.' "
Never mind that Smith's own behavior had almost nothing in common with Hyman's moralistic segments. According to several sources close to Smith, the principal owner of Sinclair has never been the paragon of personal virtue that his stations preach and his political allies champion. Having launched his career selling pornographic videos in Baltimore's red-light district during the 1970s, Smith has apparently spent the past thirty years refining that passion. After he was caught by police in 1996 getting a blow job from a prostitute while driving a company Mercedes, his sexual adventures became a matter of public record, but according to his friends, that incident only begins to tell the story.
"That was the time he got caught," says one. "He's a whoremonger. A real whoremonger. He loves the titty bars. The only people he likes go to the titty bars with him. Those are the only people he trusts. He also goes out to Vegas all the time. He goes to the high-end titty bars. He's always getting the private upstairs rooms, champagne, the works."
But Smith's personal life isn't the only area in which his public posture seems at odds with his personal reality. Equally suspicious is his enthusiasm for the Iraq war. As he instructs his reporters to find positive stories about the war, he is reaping profits directly from the military behind the scenes. After launching an investment wing of the company called Sinclair Ventures, in 2003 he took an ownership position in a company named Jadoo Power Systems, which then scored a contract with the United States Special Operations Command. While Hyman was praising the selfless sacrifice of the troops, Smith was cashing in on war profits.
But the more you sort through the business of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the more you discover that things aren't what they seem. There's the interview with George W. Bush sent to Sinclair's local stations in 2000 with "instructions to replace the interviewer's voice with a local anchor," according to a former producer. There's the "local" weather report being produced at the company's corporate headquarters, where weathermen describe the bountiful blue skies "here in Las Vegas" from a production studio over 2,000 miles away—sometimes even when it's raining. "There have been some hilarious mistakes," says another former producer. "Tornadoes blow through local areas and Sinclair is using reports from the National Weather Service talking about the sunshine."
Whether minor or major, political or personal, the litany of deceptions at Sinclair do serve a common purpose. They may be designed to cut costs (like the weather forecasts), or to protect Republican allies by attacking Democratic rivals, or to promote a war and reap the profits, but what binds Sinclair's business strategy together is the company's commitment to the bottom line. Just as the company was willing to violate FCC regulations to exercise illegal control of TV stations, and just as the Smith brothers were willing to spend illegal amounts of money on their political patrons in exchange for political favors, they have also been willing to cast aside their own convictions in the interest of profit, championing moral values from the back rooms of topless bars and railing against political corruption while setting new standards for it—giving more than 95 percent of their political donations to the Republican Party, then basking in the rewards of loose oversight and unfettered access to elected officials. As a result, the story of Sinclair is not merely about the rise of bias in the news, because bias is a product of idealism. The story of Sinclair is also about the limits of that idealism, about what happens when bias succumbs to business interests and greed masquerades as principle.