Fox News cut its ties with famed surgeon and conservative political commentator Ben Carson in November, when it appeared that Carson would soon declare his candidacy for president. But the still undeclared Carson continues to have a TV home thanks to another conservative media company, Sinclair Broadcast Group.
On Monday, Carson was a panelist on a televised “town hall” about race relations. The one-hour discussion program was produced by Arlington, Va.-based WJLA, the largest of Sinclair’s chain of TV stations, and aired on NewsChannel 8, the regional cable news channel. But the program’s reach was much wider than the Washington area: Sinclair streamed or broadcast the program on stations it owns in 78 markets, giving Carson a national presence.
Carson appeared on another Sinclair-produced town hall in October, this one about the national response to the Ebola outbreak. The program was produced by WJLA and also carried across the country on Sinclair stations.
The two appearances bookended Carson’s splashiest TV appearance to date — an hour-long autobiographical promotional film that aired in early November and touched off speculation that Carson would soon declare his candidacy. The program, called “A Breath of Fresh Air, A New Prescription for America,” was also carried by Sinclair’s stations. WJLA even ran a commercial announcing Carson’s infomercial, in effect airing an ad promoting a program-length ad.
Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s vice president of news, said that Carson was invited to be on the two panels because he “offers a unique, fresh perspective on the issues. He has always been on panels with multiple viewpoints. Our goal is to offer a wide range of views.”
Carson, a favorite among some tea party activists, is politically in step with Sinclair’s chief executive, David D. Smith, and Smith’s extended family, which controls Sinclair, the largest owner of TV stations in the nation. The Smith family has been a major contributor to Republican candidates. Democrats have charged that the company has used its stations to boost Republican candidates at the expense of Democrats.
Carson retired as the world-renowned head of pediatric surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 2013. Sinclair is headquartered in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley.
Although he has made no formal declaration, Carson has begun adding staff in Iowa, the first state in the Republican nominating contest next year, an indication that he is moving closer to announcing a campaign.
The Carson infomercial was produced by a company run by conservative media personality Armstrong Williams, which paid Sinclair an undisclosed fee for the airtime. Williams is Carson’s business manager.
Williams and Sinclair, meanwhile, are longtime business partners. In December, Sinclair completed the sale of three TV stations in South Carolina and Alabama to a company owned by Williams. He purchased two other stations from Sinclair in 2013 and has produced and hosted public-affairs discussion programs that have aired on Sinclair’s stations for nearly two decades.
Williams, too, has appeared in Sinclair’s nationally distributed town halls, most recently in early December, in another discussion about race relations in the wake of the shooting of a young African American man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Before the racial relations and Ebola town hall broadcasts, Carson appeared on two other panels hosted by Sinclair stations.
WBFF in Baltimore produced one in April 2013 about “the proper role of government.” At another in Florida hosted by Williams in April, Carson tore into liberals and their attempt to “divide and control” people. “If you are pro-life, then [they label you] anti-woman,” he said. “If you’re pro-traditional marriage, then you’re homophobic. If you’re a white person and you say something against a progressive black person, you’re a racist.” He blamed “neo-Marxist literature” for fomenting class warfare and “the destruction of the family.”
Carson and Williams did not respond to requests for comment.
Since taking over WJLA and other stations owned by Allbritton Communications of Arlington in August, Sinclair has gradually added conservative features to the station’s newscasts, such as commentary by Sinclair executive Mark Hyman and a weekly segment produced in conjunction with the editorially conservative Washington Times. It has also replaced most of the station’s top managers and news executives.
The company has been on an extraordinary growth binge in recent years. Over the past three years, it has announced or closed acquisitions that have nearly tripled its TV station holdings. It now owns or manages 162 stations.
It has also drawn criticism from Democrats about news programs that were critical of Democrats but went easier on Republicans.
Sinclair stations in several battleground states aired a corporate-produced half-hour news “special” on the eve of the 2012 election 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 the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Republican candidate Mitt Romney was not similarly criticized.
The company considered airing a documentary attacking Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry’s military record just before the election in 2004, but it backed off after complaints from Democrats and calls for an advertiser boycott.