Conservatives rarely tire of driving home their message of the media’s alleged leftward slant, as they deploy this same media’s sympathetic coverage of their argument to make their case. While the conservative bias of Fox and company is no longer news, few were aware of its kissin’ conservative cousin, Sinclair Broadcasting, owner of some 62 stations with a reach of roughly a quarter of American households. Its owners recently created a metaphorical firestorm when they announced that it was forcing its affiliates to pre-empt prime time broadcasting in order to air an anti-Kerry documentary.
Faced with widespread public protest, the beginnings of shareholder revolt, and a worrisome tumble in its stock price, Sinclair soon relented and ran instead a quickly cobbled-together hodgepodge that included part of the documentary as well as discussions with its critics. Much of the credit for their change of heart goes to liberal groups such as Mediamatters.org, which underwrote the costs of a shareholder action, demanding that Sinclair provide equal time to those "with views opposed to the allegations" in the anti-Kerry film. The liberal blogosphere also proved its worth once again, with a call to arms.
The flap over the film has caused a few inside the media to take a closer look at Sinclair, and what it has uncovered is an operation that makes Fox look almost shy about using its media properties to pursue a conservative agenda. While the efforts of Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and John Moody to control the content of Fox’s news have been the subject of considerable controversy—as well as the subject of the successful documentary "Outfoxed"—Sinclair’s bias is, if anything, even more pronounced. In a nightly segment broadcast on all of its local news programs, company spokesman and Vice President Mark Hyman provides "The Point," a one-minute commentary in which he has labeled critics of the Iraq war as "whack-jobs," the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," progressives as the "loony left," and members of Congress who have spoken out against administration policies as "unpatriotic politicians who hate our military," according to Salon’s Eric Boehlert. Borrowing a page from Clear Channel, Sinclair has also eliminated local broadcasts from many markets in favor of its "News Central" program, which airs centralized news programming from corporate headquarters in Baltimore for its regional stations. In other words, they’ve quietly created a national news program in which they disseminate their right-wing propaganda dressed up with local sports and weather segments—all of which was, until recently, under the radar of the mainstream media.
Six months ago, when a special edition of "Nightline" featured Ted Koppel reading the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, Sinclair banned its ABC affiliates from carrying the program, saying, "We do not believe political statements should be disguised as news content." Similarly, in the Oct. 5 edition of Hyman’s "The Point," in which he criticized CBS’s recent "Memogate" scandal, he accused CBS of pushing "their political views in what was supposed to be an honest newscast" and providing "the latest episode in the trend of major news organizations abandoning their pact with the public of providing truthful, unbiased, and balanced news." Again, this statement was apparently meant to be free of irony. So too, the fact that when, in 1996, Sinclair chairman and CEO David Smith found himself arrested during a police sting operation in the company of a prostitute, he was able, as part of a plea agreement reported in Salon, to perform community service by ordering his newsroom employees to produce a series of reports on a local drug counseling program.
Although the company isn’t likely to face any fines or punitive measures from Michael Powell’s monopoly-friendly Federal Communications Commission, according to the Baltimore Sun, "Media analysts said the flap could lead regulators to re-examine rules that govern how many stations a company can own in one market and that deal with the political content of newscasts." Reed Hundt, who led the FCC from 1993 to 1997, told the paper that Sinclair jeopardized a longstanding relationship the federal government had with broadcasters in which they receive free access to public airwaves in exchange for fair and responsible coverage. "Since it’s one universal medium, they’ve been given very special privileges to sustain that universality," Hundt said. "If broadcasters start to behave to the degree the way Sinclair is uniquely behaving, the whole industry will find that they’ll be on the short end of the political stick." FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps told the Washington Post that Sinclair’s actions were "proof positive of media consolidation run amok when one owner can use the public airwaves to blanket the country with its political ideology." (Neither did the station do its reputation any good when it fired Jon Leiberman, its Washington bureau chief, for publicly opposing its decision to air the anti-Kerry film. He termed it "biased political propaganda.")
Imagine for a moment if Mark Hyman’s nightly "The Point" commentary were devoted to tearing down and mocking conservative politicians and causes. Conservative talk radio hosts and the Sunday morning talkfests would light up in righteous indignation over yet another example of the media’s left-wing bias – yet Hyman’s O’Reilly-like ranting requires a national scandal even to inspire any attention on the part of the mainstream media. Just one more nail in the coffin of the "so-called liberal media."
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.