Over four days in early August, Donald Trump gave interviews to four TV stations in Ohio, Florida and Maine, and to the Washington bureau of a national TV chain.
The interviews were a coup for the stations, which eagerly promoted their “one-on-one” encounters with the GOP nominee. They were also an effective way for Trump to target voting blocs in key states, particularly since he had begun limiting his national media exposure largely to friendly interviewers on Fox News.
The most striking thing about the interviews, however, may be that one company was behind all of them: Sinclair Broadcast Group. The Maryland-based company is the nation’s largest owner of TV stations, with 173 in 81 cities nationwide, including those that interviewed Trump in August. The Washington bureau was Sinclair’s, too; it provided its interview with Trump to Sinclair’s many stations for their newscasts.
Sinclair, which has drawn criticism for favoring conservative candidates before, says it had no special arrangement with Trump’s campaign and that it didn’t favor him at the expense of his main rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton. It also said it offered equal time to Clinton and solicited interviews with her throughout the campaign, but her managers responded less enthusiastically than Trump. A Sinclair spokeswoman says the company reached out to the Clinton camp roughly 30 times over the course of the campaign but never secured a sit-down with the candidate.
Those statements appear to be at odds with comments made last week by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a key adviser. In a speech to business executives in New York, Kushner said Trump’s campaign struck a deal with Sinclair to provide access and coverage, according to an account of the address by Politico. Kushner reportedly said that Sinclair’s stations, particularly in swing states such as Ohio and Florida, reached a far greater audience in their local area than a national network like CNN could. “It’s math,” he said.
Sinclair’s vice president of news, Scott Livingston, said no such deal existed. In an interview Wednesday, he said Sinclair’s reporting merely reflected the candidates’ differing approaches to the news media.
“President-elect Trump did substantially more television interviews than Secretary Clinton during every period of the campaign,” he said. “If you were to count the number of appearances, I’d wager that Mr. Trump or a Trump campaign official or surrogate appeared on nearly every network and broadcast company more than a Clinton counterpart.”
While Trump dominated TV airtime during the primaries, the coverage was somewhat more balanced during the last months of the campaign. Between Labor Day and Election Day, Trump attracted 308 minutes of reporting on the evening news broadcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC, compared with 194 for Clinton, according to the Tyndall Report, which has tracked the nightly newscasts since 1987. Not all of this attention was favorable: According to the conservative Media Research Center, the broadcast networks devoted 103 minutes to coverage and discussion of a 2005 recording of Trump bragging about assaulting women in the three days after the tape surfaced.
A review of Sinclair’s reporting and internal documents shows a strong tilt toward Trump. Sinclair gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign while often casting Clinton in an unfavorable light. For example:
●Sinclair-owned stations and its Washington bureau scored 15 “exclusive” interviews with Trump over the past year, including 11 during the final three months of the campaign in critical states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. They did 10 more with Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, from August through October, as well as 10 with Trump surrogates, primarily Ben Carson. Sinclair stations aired five such interviews with Clinton running mate Tim Kaine and two with Chelsea Clinton but none with Clinton or another top surrogate.
●During one of the Carson interviews, Sinclair managers provided questions for local- station reporters to ask, such as “Dr. Carson, you toured Detroit, your home town, with Donald Trump Saturday. What will Donald Trump offer the African American community better than Hillary Clinton can?” And: “He has talked a lot about job creation. What will he do specifically to help employment among African Americans?”
Livingston said the company often suggests questions of “national importance” to its local reporters so that the responses can be shared with other Sinclair stations. “Suggesting national angles is not coaching,” he said. “Nothing is off-limits for our reporters.”
●Three of Trump’s 15 interviews over the past year were with a new Sinclair-owned public- affairs program called “Full Measure,” including one on its debut last year. The program, hosted by reporter Sharyl Attkisson, is carried on Sinclair-owned stations across the country.
●Sinclair managers asked Sinclair-affiliated stations in Green Bay and Madison, Wis ., to air extended portions of “Full Measure’s” interview with Trump on their local newscasts on April 3, two days before the Wisconsin Republican primary.
WLUK-TV in Green Bay, for example, aired 18½ minutes of the interview over its two-hour evening newscast, according to the station’s logs. During the same broadcast, it also included segments on Republican rivals Ted Cruz (which ran 5 minutes 45 seconds) and John Kasich (7 minutes 38 seconds), and Democrat Bernie Sanders (4½ minutes). The station, and Sinclair, asked Clinton to appear but were turned down, Livingston said.
● Mark Hyman — a Sinclair executive and conservative commentator who appears on Sinclair stations — regularly criticized Clinton or highlighted positions favorable to Trump in his on-air commentaries. “Most Americans know very little about the leaked Clinton emails,” he said in one, which aired on Oct. 27. “Major news organizations buried the most damaging. So we’re sharing some with you.”
●In January, Sinclair began producing a public-affairs talk show called “The Right Side Forum” hosted by Armstrong Williams, Ben Carson’s business manager and the de facto head of Carson’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. Williams is a longtime business partner of Sinclair; in 2013, he acquired TV stations from Sinclair when the company reached federal limits on station ownership.
●News stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton were distributed to Sinclair stations on a “must-run” basis — that is, the stations were required by managers in Washington to make room in their evening newscasts or morning programs for them.
A “must-run” email from Washington managers to stations on Sept. 13 read this way: “DESCRIPTION: Why did Hillary Clinton struggle with disclosing her medical diagnosis? She has been repeatedly faced with previous questions of trust. Can a president lead with so many questions of transparency and trust?”
Another, from Sept. 8: “DESCRIPTION: Hillary Clinton showed up to talk about the responsibilities of being a leader at the commander-in-chief forum and the first question she took from the audience was about the email/server debacle. Clinton has repeatedly admitted it was a mistake, but 18 months since the first story broke and she’s still in the mode of damage control.”
An October “must-run” story was a report about conservative activist James O’Keefe’s “sting” video in which two Democratic-affiliated contractors who were surreptitiously recorded discussed disrupting Republican events and mused about a voter-fraud scheme. Another, on Sept. 9, was titled “Donald Trump Reflections of 9/11,” which also included a package in which Ivanka Trump discussed what she would do in a Trump administration. In early September, it pushed “Women for Trump,” a feature about Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara and another woman who was campaigning for him.
There were no equivalent “must-run” stories examining Trump’s refusal to release his medical or tax records or about questions surrounding his charitable foundation. In addition, Sinclair offered no stories about Clinton’s views about 9/11, about what role Chelsea Clinton might play in her mother’s administration or about Bill Clinton’s campaign role.
However, Livingston countered that Sinclair produced “must-run” stories on the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy, and one focusing on how the Trump campaign was off course in early August. “We are proud of the unbiased, thorough and essential coverage we provided our viewers,” he said.
A Clinton spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Sinclair, which is based in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley, was founded by Julian Sinclair Smith in 1971. His four sons are now the company’s majority shareholders.
From a base of three TV stations, the company began a rapid expansion following passage of the deregulatory Communications Act of 1996. Among its many deals since then was the acquisition in 2013 of stations owned by Allbritton Communications of Arlington for $985 million (The Washington Post’s publisher, Frederick Ryan, was president of Allbritton at the time). The Allbritton stations included ABC affiliate WJLA, Channel 7, of Arlington and local cable network NewsChannel 8.
The company drew criticism from Democrats on the eve of the 2012 election when Sinclair stations in several battleground states aired a corporate-produced half-hour news “special” that faulted President Obama for his handling of the economy, his signature health-care law and the administration’s management of the terrorist attack on a U.S. installation in Benghazi, Libya.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, Sinclair planned to air a controversial documentary that highlighted Democratic nominee John Kerry’s antiwar activism during the Vietnam War. Under intense criticism, it aired only short excerpts of the film.
The company’s managers have been particularly close to Carson, who practiced medicine in Baltimore for many years. Sinclair featured him repeatedly as an expert source in televised “town hall” meetings before he declared his candidacy in early 2015.
Its stations also aired his hour-long autobiographical promotional film, called “A Breath of Fresh Air, A New Prescription for America,” just before Carson’s official announcement. The Carson infomercial was produced by a company run by Armstrong Williams, which paid Sinclair an undisclosed fee for the airtime.