Sinclair Broadcast Group Chairman David D. Smith gave an interview to the Guardian on Tuesday and, folks, let’s just say it doesn’t exactly allay fears about his conservative agenda or his company’s slow takeover of the increasingly deregulated local TV market.
Smith met with Donald Trump during a White House visit last year, he told the Guardian’s Jon Swaine, pitching a chip for phones and TVs that would allow companies like Sinclair to beam content straight into devices through a technology known as Next Gen TV. Sinclair, which owns or operates nearly 200 TV stations, just so happens to be a developer of said tech. But Smith told The Guardian that his visit to the White House was not financially motivated:
As well as entertainment, the chip allows mobile devices to receive messages from an upgraded government public warning system, through which authorities can send video statements and multimedia even when telephone lines are down.
“The public interest aspect is enormous in terms of the lives it will save,” said Smith. The chips would, he said, allow authorities to target any individual cellphone, all phones in a specific zipcode, or other select recipient lists.
An advanced emergency alert system seems like a great idea to help locate missing kids or share flood warnings. But a company that beams rightwing commentary into local TV stations may not be an ideal choice for partnering with a propaganda-loving Republican administration on technology to target mobile phones.
Allow me to recap some relevant history: Sinclair is awaiting federal approval on a deal to buy Tribune Media that would help it reach nearly 75 percent of American households. The company not only has a well-documented history of forcing its local stations to air national commentary that’s friendly to Republicans, but it’s more recently used its network as a platform for former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn, said nice things about our dear leader, and required local anchors to share uniform “journalistic responsibility messages” that mimic Trump’s anti-media screeds. Journalists at local stations have attempted to warn the public of Sinclair’s rightwing influence in recent weeks, just as Sinclair brass have claimed that the controversy is overblown.
Smith’s response to all this? “I don’t know what I would change,” he told the Guardian, “because everything that we’ve done is absolutely unassailable under any circumstances.”
The view fits within Smith’s pattern of saying the quiet part out loud. He bashed print media “as devoid of reality and serving no real purpose” in an emailed rant to New York magazine last year. The way he described a 2016 deal for access to then-candidate Trump in his Guardian interview likewise seemed to give the game away (emphasis mine):
“I asked [Trump], ‘Would you like us to embed with you during your campaign?’,” said Smith. “And he brought a bunch of people in the room, and he said, ‘Well, whatever’. And I said: ‘We are here to deliver your message. Period.’”
Smith denied that this amounted to Sinclair acting as a mouthpiece for Trump. He said it meant only that Trump could be interviewed by Sinclair whenever he chose.
By Smith’s own telling, Sinclair’s much-criticized gambit—including news anchors parroting anti-media talking points—is simply a business strategy. And it’s a well-tested one. Michael Socolow, a media historian and University of Maine professor, wrote in a blog post on The Conversation last week that Sinclair appears to be mimicking many of its predecessors in tailoring its news content to target specific segments of the political advertising market—in this case, the pro-Trump crowd leading up to the midterms. It’s a big pot of cash for local TV stations.
“This economic interest closely aligns with Sinclair’s current political and regulatory imperatives,” Socolow wrote. “It makes the propagating of biased news content even more effective from Sinclair’s perspective.”
So maybe Sinclair is pursuing a financial project that happens to be political. Or perhaps it’s a political project that happens to be lucrative. When local journalists are losing control over the news you get, it’s a distinction without a difference.