Sinclair Pulls the Plug on Anti-Fauci Propaganda — This Time

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. is one of the largest television station operators in the country, with 191 stations in 89 markets broadcasting to 629 channels. For the most part, the company operates in small, conservative metropolitan locations. Most viewers aren’t likely to be aware of the Sinclair brand, because the thousands of hours of programming it produces each week air on channels affiliated with such household names as ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Telemundo and Univision.

So when Sinclair got set to broadcast a hit piece over the weekend suggesting that Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of its viewers might have believed they were hearing the truth — instead of, say, irresponsible and dangerous propaganda.

Fortunately, Media Matters for America, a nonprofit, progressive center that monitors news organizations for what it describes as “conservative misinformation,” and CNN, the cable network, late last week published critiques of the upcoming show that sparked a backlash on social media and forced Sinclair to reconsider.

It did so grudgingly. “We hear your feedback regarding a segment on this week’s ‘America This Week,’” Sinclair noted in a tweet Saturday morning. Yet the company still seemed ready to plow ahead. “We’re a supporter of free speech and a marketplace of ideas and viewpoints, even if incredibly controversial,” it added in another tweet. By Saturday afternoon, however, the company pulled back: “After further review, we have decided to delay this episode’s airing,” it announced. “We will spend the coming days bringing together other viewpoints and provide additional context. All stations have been notified not to air this and will instead be re-airing last week’s episode in its place.”

The episode reportedly was broadcast on at least one station, in Charleston, West Virginia, and was apparently posted to dozens of other local news sites before being taken down without explanation or correction. The episode featured an interview with Judy Mikovits, a controversial former medical researcher who also played a central role in the discredited video “Plandemic.” That 26-minute video went to great lengths to promote the idea that Fauci and elite globalists such as Bill Gates had pounced on the coronavirus pandemic to consolidate their power and increase their fortunes. “Plandemic” caused a sensation among far-right conspiracy theorists before major social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter banned it for promoting misleading medical content and other disinformation.

The host of Sinclair’s Fauci smear, Eric Bolling, told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that he wasn’t aware of “Plandemic” and that he “certainly didn’t endorse” Mikovits’s “theory” about Fauci. During Bolling’s segment with Mikovits, an on-screen graphic asks, “DID DR. FAUCI CREATE COVID-19?”

Sinclair itself followed a similar route as it tried to distance itself from the controversy: “At no juncture are we aligning with or endorsing the viewpoints of Dr. Mikovitz … or endorsing the “Plandemic” documentary,” the company tweeted.

There’s an easier way for Sinclair to show its sincerity when it says it doesn’t endorse the views of reckless fanatics: Don’t treat them as if they’re credible. There’s a difference between featuring vigorous, diverse debates over the facts and giving a platform to hysterical and tawdry conspiracy theories. That’s not about left versus right, it’s about objective reality versus fantasy. And if Sinclair were serious about not peddling misleading information on its airwaves, it would be more responsible about the possible fallout for people like Fauci, who is a lifelong public servant. Fauci recently said that he, his wife and his daughters have received “serious threats” because of advice he’s given for combating the coronavirus.

It will be interesting to see if Sinclair drops the Fauci segment or airs a slightly more palatable version. I suspect Sinclair doesn’t actually care very much, given its long history of promoting conservative and libertarian agendas and talking points near and dear to the heart of the company’s chairman, David Smith. Smith has been a strong, vocal backer of President Donald Trump. In an interview with the Guardian two years ago, Smith said he once told Trump in a meeting at Trump Tower that Sinclair was “here to deliver your message. Period.” Trump has reciprocated the affection. “So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” Trump once tweeted. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

Under Trump the Federal Communications Commission has loosened a number of regulations in a way that made it easier for Sinclair to broaden its empire. (The one exception was the FCC’s decision to scrap Sinclair’s attempted takeover of the Tribune Media Co.) Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, bragged in 2016 that the Trump campaign agreed to give Sinclair better access in exchange for favorable coverage. (Sinclair has said it never made that deal.) Boris Epshteyn, a Trump spokesman turned Sinclair political commentator, is now back as an operative in Trump’s presidential campaign. Members of Trump’s administration have publicly disparaged Fauci of late, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before Sinclair jumped on the bandwagon.

Sinclair exercises a heavy hand over the “must-run” editorial programming it requires its stations to carry — a practice memorialized in a devastating 2018 Deadspin video showing Sinclair anchors on various networks all repeating the same talking points from a script. Although Sinclair has insisted during multiple past controversies that it’s dedicated to promoting a “marketplace of ideas” (the same language it invoked to defend the Fauci program), time and again it has aired sensationalisticpartisan programming as “news” or refused to air programs that contradicted the network’s political leanings.

Sinclair, which had revenue of $4.2 billion in 2019, certainly has become muscular and influential enough to merit greater scrutiny. The Justice Department last year launched an investigation of the company’s operating arrangements in markets where it has a dominant presence. Earlier this year, the FCC fined Sinclair $48 million, the largest penalty it has ever imposed on a company, for a number of problematic practices — including Sinclair’s attempt to deceive regulators during the Tribune Media talks, and for airing sponsored content more than 1,400 times as if it were news and failing to properly identify it to viewers.

Sinclair’s influence matters especially now that local TV news is filling the void left by the decimation of traditional local newspaper reporting across the country. The demise of local newspapers is carefully examined in an important new book, “Ghosting the News,” by the Washington Post’s media critic, Margaret Sullivan.

“The cost to democracy is great. It takes a toll on civic engagement — even on citizens’ ability to have a common sense of reality and facts, the very basis of self-governance,” Sullivan writes. “When local news fails, the foundations of democracy weaken. The public, which depends on accurate, factual information in order to make good decisions, suffers. The consequences may not always be obvious, but they are insidious.”

Americans still broadly trust local news reporting at a time when other media outlets are suspect. In a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 61% of respondents said they were paying close attention to coronavirus news, and 46% relied on local news for credible information about the pandemic. While Sullivan’s book focuses on newspapers, one of the important questions she asks is whether TV operators have the public-mindedness and integrity to carry the mantle of local news journalism forward particularly in an era when facts and objective reality are under assault.

Sinclair hasn’t offered much proof that it’s up to the challenge.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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