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Sinclair’s recipe for TV news: Crime, homelessness, illegal drugs

Every year, local television news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting conduct short surveys among viewers to help guide the year’s coverage.

A key question in each poll, according to David Smith, the company’s executive chairman: “What are you most afraid of?”

The answers are evident in Sinclair’s programming. Crime, homelessness, illegal drug use, failing schools and other societal ills have long been core elements of local TV news coverage. But on Sinclair’s growing nationwide roster of stations, the editorial focus reflects Smith’s conservative views and plays on its audience’s fears that America’s cities are falling apart, according to media observers, Smith associates, and current and former staffers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company matters.

Smith, an enthusiastic supporter of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump who has built Sinclair into one of the largest television station operators in the country, purchased the Baltimore Sun last month. In a private meeting with the Sun’s journalists, he urged them to emulate coverage at the local Sinclair station, Fox45, which in 2021 produced a documentary titled simply “Baltimore Is Dying.”

Sinclair’s local network of 185 stations across the country makes it an influential player in shaping the views of millions of Americans, especially at a time when local newspapers are rapidly being gutted — or closed altogether.

As Sinclair increasingly fills the void, it offers its viewers a perspective that aligns with Trump’s oft-stated opinion that America’s cities, especially those run by Democratic politicians, are dangerous and dysfunctional.

“Sinclair stations deliver messages that appeal to older, White, suburban audiences, and they play up crime stories in a way that is disproportionate to their statistical presence,” said Anne Nelson, a journalist and author of “Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.” “All of it is fearmongering and feeds into a racialized view of cities.”

Nelson, who has spent decades studying conservative media and political propaganda, said that local TV news reports traditionally cover local crime stories, but Sinclair’s programming does it “more than usual, and with a particular message.” She said that the lack of local papers has changed the role of local TV news.

“When you remove those papers, which would historically feed local radio and TV news programs, you’re left with Sinclair and the internet,” Nelson said.

Smith, in his meeting with Sun employees, credited the broadcaster’s success to its audience surveys and editorial approach, according to a recording of the gathering obtained by The Washington Post.

“If I’ve learned anything,” Smith told the assembled staffers of his experience running Fox45, “is despite the fact that people might say it’s a crazy, right-wing, looney-tunes [station] … they’re only interested in, ‘What’s going on in my schools? Why is crime so bad? And who in government is doing what they shouldn’t be doing?’”

Smith did not respond to requests for an interview. A spokeswoman for Sinclair said that the company’s stations “are committed to accountability reporting, exposing issues within the community, and seeking answers and solutions for viewers.” She added, “Our aim is to help create safer communities, improve public education and the overall quality of life, which are universal, nonpartisan concerns.”

Sinclair’s large network of local stations tend to cover societal problems in similar ways, experts say. A 2019 study by researchers at Stanford and Emory universities showed that a Sinclair acquisition of local stations resulted in “substantial increases in coverage of national politics at the expense of local politics” and “a significant rightward shift in the ideological slant of coverage.”

Research demonstrates that local news reports enjoy a greater level of trust than national outlets. That allows Sinclair to capitalize on that trust, experts say, even as it some of its coverage delivers a particular worldview.

In Seattle, a local Sinclair station devotes a special section on its website to “Crisis in the Classroom,” focusing on dysfunction in city schools, and “Project Seattle,” which zeroes in on homelessness. The homepage is often heavy on crime stories.

The station’s focus on urban problems in Seattle gained national attention when the Sinclair station produced an hour-long documentary in 2019 titled “Seattle Is Dying,” which described how “the appeal of the city is giving way to rampant crime, homelessness and disgrace.” The Seattle Times, the main local newspaper, published a rebuttal after the documentary aired, pointing out that Seattle’s crime rates had declined significantly since the 1980s and 1990s.

In Baltimore, a majority-Black city where Democrats have long dominated local politics, the local Sinclair station features “Project Baltimore,” a regular segment that focuses on the failings of the public school system.

A recent dispatch from Project Baltimore noted that “Baltimore is a tough city. Nearly a quarter of its residents live in poverty. The murder rate is one of the highest in the nation. And schools are not immune to the city’s failures.”

While none of that is false, Fox45’s reporting can leave out context, said Liz Bowie, a former Sun education reporter who is now covering the same topic at the Baltimore Banner, a not-for-profit newsroom that launched in 2022 and hired much of its staff from the Sun.

“Many of their education stories lack context, and therefore the public gets a very different impression of the school system in Baltimore,” said Bowie, who wrote about education for the Sun for more than 20 years.

A Sinclair spokeswoman pointed out that Project Baltimore has won dozens of awards, including nearly 30 regional Emmy Awards, seven regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and nine Associated Press Awards.

“We’ve been at it for seven years and we are very proud of our work,” Chris Papst, the lead reporter for Project Baltimore, wrote in an email. Sinclair’s spokeswoman noted that Sinclair’s stations in Baltimore and Seattle are at the top of the ratings in their respective markets, a sign that the coverage is resonating with viewers.

In 2018, Sinclair made national headlines when it directed dozens of its local anchors to read a script that warned viewers that “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’” The statement appeared to echo Trump’s critique of the media and implied that Sinclair was trustworthy in a way that other sources were not.

The network also employed Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump adviser, as its chief political analyst and directed its stations to air Epshteyn’s interview with Trump and his related commentary, according to former employees and internal memos. Sinclair dropped Epshteyn as a political analyst at the end of 2019, saying that the company wanted to focus on local investigative projects.

Aaron Weiss worked as a news director for Sinclair in Sioux City, Iowa, in 2013 and 2014. He remembered Sinclair’s main offices in Maryland delivering video segments that he and his fellow news directors referred to as “must-run” pieces.

“Some of them were biased and from a conservative viewpoint, but many of them were just bad,” Weiss said in an interview. “The orders from corporate were just that you must run these; the anchors must read them exactly as written. So that’s when the warning bells started to go off.”

He specifically recalled that “they were running this absurd ‘terror alert desk’ just stoking fear that the terrorists are out to get you.” Weiss said that, after less than a year with Sinclair, “I just couldn’t look myself in the mirror and had to go find another job.” He now works for a nonpartisan environmental conservation nonprofit in Denver.

Israel Balderas worked for Sinclair’s WPEC CBS 12 station in West Palm Beach, Fla., from 2013 to 2016. He said he was asked to interview Trump, then the 2016 Republican nominee, for a segment that was to run at the top of the evening news on Sinclair stations around the country.

“The central news desk gave me the questions I should ask him, and I thought, ‘These are softball questions,” Balderas said in an interview. “One of the questions was: ‘Why do you think the media is so hostile to you?’”

Balderas told his supervisors that he wasn’t going to ask questions that weren’t his own but would take their suggestions under consideration. As a result, he said, he lost the assignment. “If you followed the script, your stories got prime placement, and if you didn’t, there was certainly retribution.”

Balderas is now a journalism professor at Elon University in North Carolina, where he said he teaches his students the dangers of companies like Sinclair buying local outlets.

A representative for Sinclair said that the accounts of Weiss and Balderas are “not relevant to today as the news landscape and our audience’s appetite has evolved over time. The former employees, both of whom left the company several years ago, have no insight into the practices of today’s newsrooms.”

Smith, 73, announced in mid-January his acquisition of the Sun, Maryland’s largest daily newspaper, from Alden Global Capital, an investment firm with a reputation for buying local newspapers and slashing staff.

The announcement surprised most of Smith’s colleagues at Sinclair, according to three people at the company who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss Smith. He purchased it and associated properties with his own funds and with a minority investment from conservative commentator Armstrong Williams.

When Smith addressed the Sun’s staff, he told them, “I haven’t read the newspaper in 40 years. Literally have not read the newspaper,” except for “maybe four times since I started working on trying to buy this place,” according to the recording. Nevertheless, he declared that the publication overlooked stories that readers crave about crime and government dysfunction.

Smith inherited Sinclair from his father, Julian Smith, who started operating his first local TV station in 1971. The younger Smith and his brothers eventually purchased their parents’ controlling shares in the company and used acquisitions to grow it into a national player.

Raised in the Bolton Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, the younger Smith attended City College high school. In the spring of his junior year, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spurred violent riots in the city. Army and National Guard troops quelled the violence, and the episode left an impression on Smith, according to two associates who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Smith’s background. He has spent much of his adult life living in rural areas around Baltimore.

Smith isn’t a major donor to national political campaigns. Records show that he last made campaign contributions in 2018, when he donated to a few Democrats along with a mostly Republican slate.

But tax forms show that his family’s foundation contributed to conservative advocacy groups, including more than half a million dollars to Project Veritas, a right-wing organization known for undercover sting operations. The foundation also contributed $121,000 in 2018 to Moms for America, an activist group that says it “empowers moms to raise patriots and promote liberty” and has pushed to remove books it finds controversial from public schools.

Smith is also a major force in Baltimore politics, where he has funded ballot measures to impose term limits on city officials and to shrink the size of the City Council.

Smith has been quietly funding at least two lawsuits that have been covered extensively by Sinclair’s local station with no disclosure of the connection. The first accuses Baltimore City Public Schools of defrauding taxpayers, and the second targeted a 2020 Baltimore mayoral candidate for accruing pension service time from a different job while working for the Baltimore police department.

Both of Smith’s funding arrangements were secret until the Baltimore Banner reported the stories after the Sun acquisition became public. A Sinclair spokeswoman said that Smith wasn’t involved in any of the reporting or editorial decisions, that the local station was unaware of Smith’s funding, and that it would include a disclosure statement in future coverage.

Smith’s involvement in local initiatives shows that “he really cares about the issues and is invested in the city,” Williams, Smith’s partner in the Sun deal, said in an interview.

But some former Sun journalists noted that Smith’s acquisition of the publication was ironic given how adversarial he was when he was the subject of its stories.

“These guys were more likely to threaten you when you called than talk to you,” said David Zurawik, a longtime media critic at the Sun who is now a professor at Goucher College. “It’s a Fox News wannabe. That’s their model, a political tool rather than a journalistic platform.”

Laura Wagner and Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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