TV station powerhouse Sinclair Broadcast Group raised a few eyebrows in April when it hired Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst. Epshteyn, after all, was a combative TV surrogate for President Trump during the presidential campaign and briefly was a Trump administration press aide, raising an obvious question: How independent would his political analysis be?
The answer, judging from Epshteyn's first few weeks on the job, seems to be not very.
In his initial pieces for Sinclair, the owner of the largest string of TV stations in the nation, Epshteyn has played much the same role he did during the presidential campaign — as a Trump booster and defender. His "Bottom Line With Boris" segments have echoed positions taken by Trump himself, especially the president's distaste for the news media.
His first report asked whether reporters were treating the president fairly; Epshteyn concluded they were not. "From the very start of the Trump presidency, the [White House] press briefings have veered way off course," he said. "They have become much more theater than information gathering, theater in which, frankly, the press has often played the leading role."
A second piece about former FBI director James B. Comey's testimony before Congress also bashed the reporting on Trump. "The media coverage of this administration seems to be a lot of hype and very little substance," Epshteyn said.
A third segment appraised Trump's first 100 days in office enthusiastically. It included an interview clip with Kellyanne Conway, Epshteyn's former White House colleague, in which she said, "Go ask a coal miner or a farmer or a truck driver or someone who works in the health-care profession how they feel about some of the great moves he's made in the first few days, and they will tell you they feel very buoyant."
To which Epshteyn added his own exclamation point: "The American people demand change, and they demand action, and that's exactly what they'll get from this administration going forward."
Epshteyn's segments have added yet another pro-Trump shading to news and commentary offered by Sinclair, a Baltimore-area company with a long history of favoring conservative causes and candidates on its stations' newscasts.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, boasted that Trump officials had struck a deal with Sinclair for interviews with company-owned stations, particularly those in critical swing states. Sinclair has denied the existence of such a deal, but its stations in Ohio, Florida and elsewhere nevertheless scored multiple exclusive interviews with Trump and his surrogates.
The company, which owns 173 stations nationwide, announced its biggest expansion last month — an agreement to buy 42 stations owned by Tribune Media for $3.9 billion. The Tribune purchase would expand Sinclair's access to households in about 70 percent of the nation, including those serving the three largest metropolitan areas, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The deal, which is pending the approval of the Trump administration, has raised concerns about the concentration of station ownership (Sinclair's largest station currently is WJLA, Channel 7, in Washington.)
In light of the Tribune agreement, Epshteyn's hiring by Sinclair suggests a tacit quid pro quo, said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a liberal activist organization that opposes further consolidation. In exchange for Sinclair providing "pro-Trump propaganda," he said, the Trump administration will approve a deal that will expand "a pro-Trump network." Sinclair has strongly denied any such arrangement.
Like Epshteyn, all of Sinclair's nationally-syndicated commentators espouse a conservative perspective on the news. In addition to Epshteyn, the commentators are: Mark Hyman, a company executive who does regular commentaries; Sharyl Attkisson ; and Armstrong Williams, who managed Ben Carson's 2016 presidential campaign.
Epshteyn, a college classmate of Trump's son Eric, is not the first aide to join a news organization fresh from his work on behalf of a political figure. James Carville and Paul Begala were hired by CNN after helping to elect Bill Clinton, and Karl Rove and Dana Perino joined Fox News after working for George W. Bush. More recently, CNN employed former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as an analyst.
The difference, however, is that Lewandowski, et al., have usually been paired with opposing or contrasting voices on the air to provide a range of opinions. Epshteyn appears by himself on his two-minute segments, making him more akin to commentators such as Fox's Sean Hannity or MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
Epshteyn declined an on-the-record interview. He issued a statement that read, in part, "My political affiliations are well known and are widely disclosed. . . . Having had the great opportunity to work in this White House, I take my ability to provide unique insight into the Trump administration very seriously."
Sinclair's top news executive, Senior Vice President Scott Livingston, also issued a statement that noted that Epshteyn's commentary was "part of our continued effort to produce diverse programming for our viewers" and amounted to "a brief addition" to the many hours of local news its stations produce each day.
In fact, Epshteyn's segments take up more than two minutes of a station's typical 30-minute newscast — a considerable chunk of time considering that sports, weather reports and commercials leave only 15 or 16 minutes for news.
What is striking, in any case, is how Epshteyn's point of view tends to dovetail with Sinclair's news coverage.
On the same day that Sinclair distributed to its stations his segment about the alleged bias in reporting the Comey hearing, for example, it also distributed a story from reporter Michelle Macaluso and instructed the stations to air it on a "must-run," or mandatory, basis. Her report suggested the media was "under pressure" because Comey had disputed news accounts saying that the FBI was investigating Trump himself (Trump subsequently confirmed that he is under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller). A question-of-the-day poll sent to stations along with Macaluso's report asked viewers, "Do you trust news stories about politicians which are based on unnamed sources?"
Epshteyn, meanwhile, has gone from commenting on the news to becoming a part of it. In late May, he acknowledged that the House Intelligence Committee had asked him for information as part of its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. His attorney called it "a broad, preliminary request for information."
Epshteyn will not be precluded from talking about the issue on the air, Livingston said. Instead, he said, the company would disclose Epshteyn's involvement in the issue if the topic comes up in his commentary.