When she interviewed Trump himself a week later, he told her that he’d seen “tremendous reports” and “incredible studies” about its effectiveness. Attkisson didn’t ask for details nor raise any questions about the fatal heart arrhythmias that have been associated with its use.
Whatever the underlying merits, Attkisson’s report and interview were consistent with much of the commentary about the pandemic emanating from her employer, the Sinclair Broadcast Group. In its national opinion programs, Sinclair — the owner of 191 TV stations, one of the largest groups in the country — has stayed largely faithful to Trump’s pronouncements about the virus.
It’s a strain of coverage seen at its most extreme last week when another Sinclair host, Eric Bolling, interviewed a former medical researcher peddling a bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory that Anthony S. Fauci — the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, whom Trump and his allies have frequently sought to undermine — was the mastermind behind a plot to create the coronavirus and export it to China.
Sinclair and Bolling initially defended the segment, which briefly streamed on some of its stations’ websites. It featured an interview with Judy Mikovits, star of a debunked video called “The Plandemic” that was banned by Facebook and YouTube for spreading misinformation. “Did Dr. Fauci create Covid-19?” read an on-screen graphic.
Amid growing outrage, the company pulled it from its broadcast lineup, and Bolling said it would be “reworked.” Sinclair eventually decided to drop it altogether.
Sinclair, based in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley, has repeatedly defended the independence and objectivity of the local news reporting that is carried on its many stations. But its nationally distributed news and commentary programs, produced in Washington, have periodically been embroiled in controversy for their perceived Trump-friendly bias.
Following the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, boasted about an agreement with Sinclair that gave the company’s stations special access. (Sinclair said it offered the same terms to Hillary Clinton’s campaign but was rejected.) In 2017, the company hired former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn as its national political commentator; he has since returned to the Trump campaign.
Several of Sinclair’s hosts and reporters, such as Bolling and journalist James Rosen, were former stars at Fox News. Sinclair also carries a program hosted by former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on its streaming platform, Stirr.
Sinclair attracted unwelcome attention early last year when an eerie compilation video of its many news anchors from across the country reading the same promotional script went viral. Sinclair said it was merely highlighting its commitment to accurate reporting; critics said its reference to “fake news” was an effort to boost Trump’s attacks on the news media.
The pattern has suggested that the company, controlled by the heirs of founder Julian Sinclair Smith, has harnessed its station group as a political vehicle. “Their purpose seems to be to [promote] Donald Trump and far-right opinion,” said Lewis Friedland, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin.
In a statement, Sinclair’s representatives drew a distinction between its local newscasts and the opinion programming it produces.
“It is important to note that [Bolling’s show] ‘America This Week’ is a political talk show that aims to bring together a diverse set of viewpoints and that the views of the guests and the host are their own, and not Sinclair’s,” said Michael Padovano, a company spokesman. “We are always looking for interesting topics and guests, and some guests come with views that are not popular. As it relates to the segment featuring Dr. Mikovits we reviewed it further and determined it to be inappropriate to air.”
In a text exchange this week, Attkisson also defended her work. “As I reported, there are two divergent views of [hydroxychloroquine] that have tended to fall along political lines, and the jury is still out,” she wrote. “This is in contrast to widespread reports that stated or implied the scientific case on hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment or preventive measure had been closed, even as multiple studies on it — including by the government — were actively underway.”
She added: “Ironically, powerful interests are able to successfully direct media attention so that the scrutiny falls on the accurate reporting rather than the many false and misleading reports. . . . The idea that certain interests are working so hard to censor this information should be a red flag that leads all of us to ask why.”
As it turns out, Sinclair’s chief executive, Christopher Ripley, is a hydroxychloroquine enthusiast, who championed the drug in an April email to Sinclair employees.
“On the good news front, there is a growing medical consensus (lack of large-scale tests aside) that hydroxychloroquine plus zinc and azithromycin is an effective treatment for the virus and is believed to materially impact patient outcomes,” Ripley wrote. “These drugs have been around and widely used for decades so their side effects are minimal and well know[n], and production can be scaled quickly. It is my hope that every hospital in the country will make this a standard protocol and dramatically reduce the deaths that may occur in the weeks to come.”
Bolling — who landed an interview with Trump in early July — has echoed the president’s urgency to “reopen” the economy during the pandemic and has amplified Trump’s concerns about the potential for fraud with mail-in balloting, despite scant evidence of it.
During an interview in July with Sam Reed, a former Republican secretary of state in Washington state, Bolling asked, “Tell us about the fraud that could happen.” He later asked, “So do you not see the opportunity for fraud with mail-in voting?” Reed replied that voting by mail “is a very good system,” if the state prepares for it. “We haven’t really had any problems.”
In a tweet in May, Bolling alluded to another conspiracy theory: that billionaire philanthropist George Soros has helped organize protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. He called George Soros the “OG” — a slang term meaning “original gangster” — of “organizing and financing riots, looting and civil unrest” — an unfounded statement with anti-Semitic overtones. Soros, who is Jewish, has been accused without evidence by authoritarian governments around the world with fomenting unrest.
According to tracking by Media Matters, the liberal watchdog group, Bolling has repeatedly raised the discredited notion that the coronavirus was engineered by Chinese scientists as a biological weapon. In late April, he interviewed former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who offered just such a conspiratorial view without challenge from Bolling. During the same program, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), told Bolling he was “concerned” about the bioweapons claim, based on classified briefings.
Bolling initially agreed to an interview for this story, but then declined.
In addition to Trump himself, top administration officials and Trump supporters have been regular guests on Bolling’s program over the past two months. The guest list includes Vice President Pence, senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli and White House officials Peter Navarro and Ja’Ron Smith. Others include Trump campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and Trump loyalists Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has appeared twice.
Sinclair countered that Bolling interviewed several Democratic primary candidates in the early months of the campaign.
“Sinclair is terrific, I have to say,” Trump said during his July interview with Bolling, the second he has granted to Bolling since October.
For some of those who’ve worked for Sinclair, the conservative slant is familiar. Station news managers were used to receiving “must-run” directives from headquarters for Epshteyn’s commentaries; they say they still receive daily news reports that favor Trump’s position or attack his critics.
“Sinclair has always wanted to be Fox News-plus,” said Israel Balderas, a former anchor and reporter for a Sinclair-owned station in Florida and a former segment producer at Fox News. “Well, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck . . .”
Balderas, now a journalism professor, added, “Time and time again, [their] message seems to be, ‘Trump isn’t responsible [for the response to the pandemic] and he’s not to blame.’ They’re in the business of making excuses for him.”