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Sinclair Chief Denies Political Agenda

The company's critics say the Smith family has used its stations regularly to advance a conservative ideology.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sinclair on-air news personnel read statements supporting the Bush administration's efforts against terrorism. Last May, Sinclair's eight ABC affiliate stations refused to air a "Nightline" special that named the U.S. war dead, saying it would undermine the war effort. Sinclair dispatched commentator Mark Hyman -- whose one-minute editorials that air on the company's stations typically are conservative -- to Iraq to find uplifting stories, saying the mainstream media were producing only negative coverage of the war. Sinclair's decision to air parts of "Stolen Honor" was widely regarded as more of the same.

Sinclair Broadcast Group chairman and chief executive David D. Smith says he has been inaccurately painted as a Republican activist. (Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.)

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Smith said his critics misread his intentions.

"You want a litmus test? I'm an environmentalist. Stay the hell out of my streams. Does that make a liberal because I like trees and water?" Smith said. "You want another litmus test? I hunt and fish. Leave my guns alone. I've had guns since I was 10 years old. Does that make me a conservative?"

Some broadcasters criticized Sinclair's timing.

"We don't think it's appropriate for a broadcaster who has as many stations as they do to be giving the appearance of being so directly political at such a key political moment," said NBC Universal Inc. Chairman Robert C. Wright in an interview yesterday.

Four of Sinclair's stations are NBC affiliates, but thankfully, Wright said, "We don't depend on them for a great deal of audience."

In the usually collegial world of local broadcast, Sinclair belongs to few trade groups. Smith has given many of his peers the impression that he may as well be making widgets instead of running a business that has special obligations to serve the public interest, an impression Smith does little to dispel.

"I make money by virtue of the fact that I'm in the news business, the paid-programming business, the . . . syndication business," he said. "I'm in a whole lot of businesses all being fed through one pipeline."

Before taking over Sinclair from his father, the founding Julian Sinclair Smith, David Smith operated a company that made television transmitter equipment. It was there he acquired a detailed knowledge of broadcasting's technical side. He continues to be admired for what some have called his visionary plans for the future of digital broadcasting.

During the early days of television's conversion to digital signals, Smith argued that the industry was adopting the wrong digital broadcast standard and advocated a different one. But few listened because his prickly reputation undercut his credibility, said one broadcaster who, like others interviewed, would not be named because he does business with Smith. It turned out that Smith was right and the industry eventually had to fix flaws in the standard it chose, delaying the rollout of digital television.

Sinclair pioneered the "local management agreement" that allows the company to manage more stations than it otherwise would be allowed to own in a particular city. For instance, Sinclair owns Birmingham's WTTO, a WB station, and WABM (UPN) but also runs WDBB (WB). While other broadcasters admire the efficiency of the agreements, they acknowledge that they fuel the anti-consolidation forces.

"I think David is an incredibly bright guy who really has been an innovator," said Jeffrey H. Smulyan, chief executive for Emmis Communications Corp., which owns 16 television and 27 radio stations. "But sometimes it is hard for him to see other points of view and work with others. I wish he would be cognizant of others."

Sinclair is "very controversial in the industry," said Alan Frank, president of The Washington Post Co.'s six-station television group and head of a group of network-affiliated stations (one of which competes with two Sinclair stations in San Antonio). "Other broadcasters are not always aligned with them."

Sinclair's tactics frequently have drawn fire from public interest groups that fear media concentration and abuse of the public airwaves, a criticism that does not trouble Smith.

"They just do what public interest groups do, which is make noise that suits their agenda," Smith said, noting that his acquisitions have received approval from the federal authorities. "If the public interest groups have a problem, it's not with me. It's with the FCC and [the Department of] Justice."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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