Sinclair Broadcast Group executives said they will bring resources and stability to KOMO TV and 19 other television stations they’ll get by acquiring Seattle-based Fisher Communications.
If Sinclair’s past is any indicator, they may also bring their conservative political leanings, even to one of the most liberal cities in the country.
“The track record of Sinclair suggests that Seattle is about to get a Fox News equivalent in a local television channel,” said David Domke, chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Communication.
Sinclair, which is based in the Baltimore suburbs, has seen huge growth over the past two decades as it has bought dozens of small television stations. As executives have made money, they have often given to conservative political causes.
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The company has made that political agenda clear on the air, as well.
Most notoriously, the company ordered its stations to air a documentary critical of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry right before the 2004 election.
For years, Sinclair’s newscasts wrapped up with one-minute editorials hosted by conservative commentator Mark Hyman.
The 2010 and ’12 elections brought other examples of Sinclair’s political activism.
Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the Washington state Republican Party and a longtime radio personality on Fisher station KVI, said a conservative bent could build loyalty among viewers who want their news through a right-leaning lens.
“If they think the numbers tell them that a news station on TV that is a little more slanted to the right would make it more profitable, then they should do that,” he said. “It’s their TV station. We live in a new media world, and TV stations have to innovate to survive.”
Sinclair stations generally report the local news without interference, said Kelly McBride, ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., a state with four Sinclair-owned stations. “Most of what they do seems just fine,” she said.
Even without the Fisher stations, Sinclair is the largest independent TV broadcaster in the country, according to its website.
It doesn’t typically make huge changes right away by laying off staff or replacing management, McBride said.
But she said the company’s reputation could be “unnerving” for viewers.
“As a consumer, you sort of have to be aware all the time and constantly questioning,” she said.
The company’s top executives are the four sons of Sinclair founder Julian Sinclair Smith.
They have contributed thousands to the Republican National Committee and conservative candidates, even forming a political-action group more than a decade ago to donate to the campaigns of former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, among others.
In 2004, two weeks before the presidential election, Sinclair ordered its television stations to air a documentary sharply critical of Democratic candidate John Kerry’s activism during the Vietnam War.
After an uproar, the stations ended up airing just a few minutes of the documentary, “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” as well as excerpts from a pro-Kerry documentary and interviews with veterans.
The same year, Sinclair blocked the broadcast of a “Nightline” episode about soldiers killed in the Iraq war.
“‘Nightline’ is not reporting news; it is doing nothing more than making a political statement,” Sinclair wrote in a letter explaining the decision. It replaced the broadcast with what it said was a more balanced report.
McBride said the problem with “these questionable pieces that Sinclair has broadcast is there’s no disclosure that says, ‘Hey, this reflects a point of view,’ so the audience is left to figure that out on their own.”
In 2010, several Sinclair stations aired an infomercial about President Obama intended to sway voters in midterm elections. The 25-minute piece, funded by a Republican political-action group, said Obama “displays tendencies some would call socialist” and claimed the president had accepted campaign donations from Middle Eastern terrorist organizations.
In 2012, on the Monday before the election, viewers in some swing states found their nightly news or other programs replaced on Sinclair channels by an “election special” produced by Sinclair that was biased against Democrats.
Peter Laufer, a longtime NBC News broadcaster and professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications, said Sinclair isn’t alone in promoting a political viewpoint.
“The trend in our news media nationally is to move from providing a public service … and instead engage in what can easily be identified as political propaganda,” he said.
“Whether one thinks it’s appropriate or not for a company to engage in that kind of activity is open to debate, but what’s critical is that the community that is served by this station is aware.”
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter