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Thursday, March 10, 2005 01:19 am

Puppet masters

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COVER ILLUSTRATION BY NICK STEINKAMP

On the surface, nothing in the April 17, 2001, evening-news broadcast on Baltimore’s WBFF-TV was atypical. A reporter from the Fox affiliate covered efforts by environmental groups to clean up the North Branch of the Potomac River in western Maryland. It featured visuals of factory crud in the river, interviews with canoeing enthusiasts, and a shot of the Westvaco Paper Mill, the apparent cause of the river’s contamination.

But there was one oddity: The station devoted its resources — the corporate helicopter, a news crew, valuable air time — to a story 160 miles from its headquarters. So far away, in fact, that locals can’t even tune in to the broadcast. So far away that there’s another major national market, Washington, D.C., in between.

So why did this particular station reach beyond its service area to report on an apparent act of philanthropy? Because this Fox affiliate is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., where such efforts are green-lighted when the station’s corporate owners are personally, financially, or politically affected by the news, according to current and former staffers, many of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

One such staffer says that Sinclair vice president J. Duncan Smith asked reporter Craig Demchak to take on the story. “Duncan comes in and says, ‘Craig, we need this story; it’s affecting my property. We’ve got to slam these people,’” recalls the staffer. “He was told, ‘This is destroying my property; we’ve got to stop it.’ If it had been anybody else’s property, would they be sending the helicopter there to see it? No way in hell.”

In its story on the Westvaco pollution, the Baltimore Sun describes Smith as a “landowner on the Potomac,” and the Allegany County clerk’s office shows at least one Smith property in the area — a 3.65-acre parcel near Rawlings, Md. — owned by Smith’s mother. The newscast didn’t disclose Smith’s alleged connection to the story, nor did it refrain from interviewing a representative of Safe Waterways in Maryland, an advocacy group founded by Smith.

“We did the story because it was a worthwhile story,” says Demchak, denying knowledge of Smith’s property and Sinclair’s relationship to SWIM, a surprising oversight given that the organization counts six Smiths among its 11 trustees — including Sinclair CEO David, vice presidents Frederick and J. Duncan, and mother Carolyn. Repeated calls to J. Duncan Smith’s office and WBFF’s news director were not returned, but Demchak insists that the personal interests of the Smith family had nothing to do with the story.

A newsroom staffer disagrees: “They don’t care about news. They care about moving their agenda, whether it’s clearing up their property in western Maryland or moving their political candidates to the forefront.”

Charges that executives’ interests, and not journalistic considerations, drive the company’s news practices aren’t new for Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of 62 television stations nationwide, including Springfield’s WICS (Channel 20), and an assortment of ventures that trade in everything from cars to television transmitters to computer software. From its thwarted plan to force its stations to pre-empt programming days before the presidential election to air the anti–John Kerry documentary Stolen Honor to its refusal to air the Nightline episode “The Fallen,” in which pictures of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq were shown as host Ted Koppel read their names, the company’s overt political biases have been a lightning rod for media activists.

Through the SinclairAction campaign, some 36,000 e-mails were sent to Sinclair advertisers to protest the planned airing of Stolen Honor. But even as Sinclair drew considerable media attention for its political bias, a more nuanced form slipped under the radar — self-interested reporting on issues of financial import to the company and its executives.

A former producer remembers her first assignment as a Sinclair employee, a three-part series on high-definition television: “I was told who I needed to interview, what questions I needed to ask, and then, when I wrote my script, I had to take my script up to the vice presidents and get my script approved by them.”

One of them, vice president of new technology Nat Ostroff, has “no connection to news, no knowledge of news whatsoever,” the former producer says.

“I’m doing three-minute packages on a subject that no one but them cares about, and I’m interviewing only the people that they want me to interview in order to get the sound bites that they want,” she recalls.

“I told them I had a problem with it, and they said, ‘Just get it done and you won’t have to hear any more about it.’” As with the Nightline and Stolen Honor imperatives, all Sinclair stations were instructed to air the three-part series, whether they carried the network’s centralized-news program, NewsCentral, or not.

HDTV and digital television are issues so high on Sinclair’s priority list that CEO David Smith testified on them before a Senate committee and the Federal Communications Commission. And last month the FCC dealt broadcasters such as Sinclair a blow, denying their request for “multicast must-carry,” a provision that would require cable companies to make available all of a station’s digital offerings to subscribers.

When the congressionally mandated switch from analog to digital television takes place in a few years, broadcasters will be able to use the amount of spectrum that now can carry just one analog channel to broadcast six (and eventually more) channels. But although the potential for ad revenues can expand exponentially, broadcasters such as Sinclair refused to consider increasing their public-service programming, which sealed their fate with the FCC.

In a statement in which he singled out Sinclair, commissioner Jonathan Adelstein explained his no vote:

“[W]ithout some baseline public-interest obligations, I cannot conclude that every broadcaster will treat extra digital program streams with the same sense of responsibility for local service. . . . Recent events seem to validate claims that broadcasters’ news coverage has been increasingly devoid of information to help citizens participate in their democracy, or, worse yet, promoting an ideology or unbalanced political agenda thinly disguised as journalism.”

Refusing to transcribe corporate interests into news is what ultimately got Jon Leiberman, former chief of Sinclair’s Washington bureau, fired.

“For the most part, stories were dictated. . . . I felt like I was part of a propaganda arm,” says Leiberman. “I’d asked out of my contract three different times for ethical reasons, saying that we were doing agenda-driven news and that wasn’t the type of journalist I was.” He says that beyond the hard-right tilt of VP Mark Hyman’s nightly commentaries on The Point, which are carried on dozens of Sinclair stations, a better gauge of the company’s biases would come from an analysis of the stories Sinclair chooses to cover.

“If you go through the newscasts — you don’t even have to do it with a fine-tooth comb — you’ll see how far to one end of the political spectrum they are,” Leiberman says. “More so, if you look at the stories they’re choosing to enterprise, stories that they’re putting together and shooting the interviews out of D.C. and Hunt Valley [Md., headquarters of Sinclair]. Those are about 100 percent to one side of the political spectrum.”

Company priorities were evident, he says, in the fact that he and a crew were sent to New York to interview Stolen Honor author John O’Neil the day before the book’s release — resulting in three broadcast stories — yet Sinclair didn’t mention abuses at Abu Ghraib until two weeks after the story broke elsewhere.

According to Leiberman, in the eight months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, roughly out of every 10 news stories reported by Sinclair’s Washington, D.C., bureau had a pro–George W. Bush or anti-Kerry spin — a ratio that parallels the proportion of anti-Kerry commentaries made by Hyman over 12 days in September (10 of 12) and the percentage of the $2.3 million in campaign contributions made by Sinclair employees to Republicans over the last eight years (90 percent), as reported by the Center for Public Integrity.

Management’s conservative values became clear after Sept. 11, 2001, when it required its anchors to read statements of support for Bush, telling viewers that “We stand 100 percent behind the President in his vow that terrorism must be stopped.” (The company even launched a Web site, supportournation.com, in conjunction with the on-air proclamations.)

But it wasn’t until Maryland’s 2002 gubernatorial elections that Leiberman realized just how far to the right his bosses were. It was another time when J. Duncan Smith’s helicopter — and ethics — made headlines.

The sole director of Whirlwind Aviation, Smith provided then-candidate (and now governor) Republican Robert Ehrlich with a luxurious Eurocopter Dauphin to use for campaign trips and a postelection family vacation. Only after prodding by the Baltimore Sun did Whirlwind turn over documents indicating that the campaign was billed $1,000 an hour for what normally would rent for $2,500 an hour. More than half of the $13,750 cost was deemed an “in kind” campaign contribution — one that wasn’t initially reported and therefore apparently violated campaign-finance laws.

Why this generosity toward Ehrlich? In 2001, Ehrlich wrote a letter urging the FCC to act on Sinclair’s request to purchase TV stations. Christopher Hanson, of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, told the Sun, “If you’re an entity that owns a news outlet that is supposed to provide fair and balanced coverage of the campaign, and yet at the same time are providing aid to one of the candidates in the campaign, that puts them in a severe position of conflict.”

Meanwhile, Sinclair’s news arm, led by Hyman, took to lashing out at Ehrlich’s opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In his commentaries Hyman called it a “scandal,” for example, that an agency under Townsend’s purview had failed to track certain gun purchases. Sinclair’s WBFF-TV did its part by becoming the only media outlet to report that Townsend’s staffers were the subject of a federal investigation into the misuse of government anti-crime grants — allegations that were never substantiated.

The former producer says another such “news story” was planned by David Smith. At a dinner party he reportedly heard “that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was thrown from a horse and that she might have some mental disability as a result . . . . They assigned a producer to it who tried his darnedest to put a story together because he was being rided [sic] on it and couldn’t get anyone to confirm that she was thrown from a horse. It never ran because it was never confirmed.”

To current employees, such efforts are just more evidence of the lengths to which management will go to punish those they oppose. Employees know, says one source, “that speaking to the media is grounds for dismissal,” and others who have left the company are now facing legal threats. Some employees believe that e-mails and phone calls are monitored at the corporate offices, and former employees are often told by friends on the inside to call only on cell phones.

Leiberman attributes Sinclair’s agenda-driven news to, among other factors, a belief by David Smith and others that “the media has been so liberal that they’re doing the right thing by trying to balance the tables,” but another former producer offers a more comprehensive view: “David Smith has very strong political beliefs, and he felt that if he could use his media influences — I mean, he owns 60-something stations — why not use it? And at the same time he’d be making money because commercial time sells better with news than it does with something like King of the Hill. ‘Hey, I can make money, save money, and get out my political views.’”

If only such logic were successful. Dubbed one of the “worst managers of 2004” by BusinessWeek, Smith can boast some less-than-stellar numbers: Since his company’s stock tanked by 17 percent in the 11 days following the Stolen Honor controversy, the share values remain 35 percent below the price one year ago. And after seeing record-breaking political-advertising expenditures last year, the company anticipates a 2 percent drop in revenue in the first quarter of this year, despite a boost from its airing of the Super Bowl on some stations.

But as Hyman suggested in a recent Rolling Stone story about the company, maybe it’s not entirely about the money: “People who’d never heard of us before suddenly knew who we were. We’re on the map.”

Being known may be a mixed blessing for the company, says David Bennahum, senior fellow with Media Matters for America. “At a time when the television industry recorded strong earnings from political advertising — 2004 logged more political-advertising revenue than at any other time in history — Sinclair’s earnings were lackluster, [with the company] underperforming less well-positioned rivals,” he says.

“What other reason, apart from mismanagement, can explain these dismal revenue numbers? Advertisers, the stock market, and the public all punished Sinclair for placing a partisan political agenda ahead of all other interests.”

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