The company that owns your local news might also influence federal politics
On Dec. 3, it was announced that Tribune Media would be acquired by Nexstar Media Group for over $4 billion. The resulting company will own over 200 television stations, giving it incredible access to American homes across the country through their local news programing.
Although less overtly political than their cousins on cable, local news stations have come under increased scrutiny after the viral controversy aroused in early 2018 by a “must-run” segment on stations owned by Sinclair Media. In the segment, news anchors read from a script decrying “biased and false news” on social media and other news outlets. The script was passed down from Sinclair’s corporate office in Maryland.
“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’” said the script. “This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”
Many Americans rely on stations owned by companies like Sinclair, Tribune Media and Nexstar Media Group to stay informed on local politics. But, aside from their reporting, these organizations dabble directly in politics and elections more than one might expect.
Nexstar Media Group’s PAC for instance has steadily ramped up its spending on political causes from 2014, with $27,100 spent that year, $95,700 spent in 2016 and $196,500 in 2018. The PAC favors Republicans, but only slightly. (They gave $5,000 to Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) in the 2018 cycle, but also gave $2,500 to Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.))
The PAC gave $10,000 to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the same amount to committees associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in 2018. They also gave $5,000 to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
As the PAC distributed its funds, stations owned by Nexstar were covering politics and political races across the country. One segment, run by Nexstar-owned WATE in Knoxville, Tennessee, focused on an anti-Phil Bredesen ad that was “censored” by Facebook. (Bredeson was Blackburn’s opponent in the 2018 Tennessee Senate race.) A Memphis station owned by Nexstar also ran a version of this story. Another WATE story featured anti-Blackburn protestors demonstrating during a moment of silence for the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting victims at a campaign event.
KTSM, an El Paso, Texas station owned by Nexstar, re-ran an article from the Texas Tribune exploring the effect of “hispanic identity” on the Senatorial race that pitted Beto O’Rourke against Cruz. El Paso is O’Rourke’s hometown.
A July segment in Centex Proud, a Fox-affiliated, Nexstar owned, Waco-area station, covered a Cruz event saying “(Cruz) is excited to see the current economy and business boom – with the lowest unemployment rate for Hispanics and African-Americans in a decade. He says Texas is prospering because of this, and now says it’s time to complete the jobs underway.”
Yourcentralvalley.com, a Nexstar site affiliated with NBC covering Fresno, California, ran a story about Kevin McCarthy’s claims that California Democrats had fallen out of touch with voters. In addition to its station in Fresno, Nexstar owns a station in Bakersfield. Fresno and Bakersfield are a stone’s throw from the 23rd congressional district where McCarthy has his seat.
They also own a station in San Francisco where Nancy Pelosi is the congressperson for the 12th district and where Dianne Feinstein was mayor in the 80s. The San Francisco station, KRON4, has run stories on both Pelosi and Feinstein. Pelosi even gave the station an exclusive interview.
Perry Sook, Nexstar’s CEO, gave $5,000 to the company’s PAC in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 election cycles. Thomas Carter, the CFO, did the same. So did Timothy Busch, the president of the company’s broadcasting subsidy.
The Chief Technology Officer, Brett Jenkins, gave $5,000 to the PAC, but only in 2018. Gregory Raifman, president of Nexstar Digital, gave $2,500 that year. Executive Vice President Elizabeth Ryder gave $2,500 in 2014 and 2016, then beefed up her contribution to $5,000 in 2018.
The company also spent $390,000 lobbying during this period, and employed a former chief council to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and a former deputy staff director for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as lobbyists.
After its merger with Tribune, Nexstar will be the largest owner of local broadcast stations in the U.S. Nexstar and the Illinois-based media company already have political activism in common.
Political spending at Tribune peaked around 2000 when they gave $123,280, the majority of that to Republicans. Their political giving has since plummeted to $13,034 by 2018, all but $500 of which went to Democrats.
In 2008, Tribune gave $11,450 to then-Senator Barack Obama. (Compare that to Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign when they gave him just $1,475.) Using the Wayback Machine to return to October 2008, one can see Tribune’s official endorsement of Obama for president on the WGNTV website. The same banner rotates between the endorsement of Obama, a banner advertising Decision 2008 coverage and links to other stories.
Tribune has another connection to Obama in Edward Lazarus, Tribune’s executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer. Lazarus is a former chief of staff to the chairman of the FCC. The FCC Chairman Lazarus served under, Julius Genachowski, was nominated to the position by Obama in March 2009.
By the 2016 cycle, Tribune was throwing $4,963 behind Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Another $2,000 went to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and $1000 went to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
Between the 2002 and 2018 cycles, Tribune gave generously to Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, climbing from $1,000 in 2002, to $4,000 in 2008, then spiking again to $5,500 in 2012. Upton represents Michigan’s sixth congressional district in the Southeast of the state. WGNTV quoted Upton’s criticisms of the Affordable Care Act and its rollout in 2013.
Before Nexstar sealed the deal to acquire Tribune, Sinclair tried to make the same purchase. Their attempt was scuttled by regulators, but Sinclair already owns a huge swath of local television stations, 191 by their count.
After flirting with bankruptcy in 2009, Sinclair was saved in part thanks to Citizens United and the ensuing influx of political ad spending. Their giving has increased dramatically since 2010 when they contributed just $8,100 to political causes. In 2014, they contributed $263,587 and in 2016 they contributed $429,504 before dipping back down to $186,648 in 2018. In each of those cycles since 2010, they gave at least two-thirds of the money to Republicans.
Sinclair is based out of Maryland and owns twelve Baltimore-area television stations. They have given generously to Maryland politicians over the years, including Rep. Andy Harris, Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Nancy Jacobs, a Republican state Senator who lost a race for Maryland’s second congressional district in 2012.
In 2014, Sinclair gave Mikulski $25,000. They gave another $17,600 to John Boehner and $7,900 to Paul Ryan.
In a 2015 article on the announcement that then-Senator Mikulski would receive the presidential medal of freedom, the Fox45 site included a transcript of Mikulski’s full reaction from the floor of the Senate. Mikulski also gave the Fox station an interview on receiving the medal.
South Dakota Senator John Thune received the biggest haul from Sinclair in 2016 (over $30,000). Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen (Md.) meanwhile received $9,100.
Van Hollen gave Fox45 (the first ever Sinclair station) an exclusive interview on gun control and government spending during the same election cycle. In the days before the 2016 election, Van Hollen appeared on a Fox 45 news segment called “Your Voice” where he talked about the ease of early voting and pitched his plans to accelerate job growth in Maryland.
“Good luck on Tuesday!” the host said as he concluded the interview.
“Thanks,” Van Hollen said. “Everyone get out to vote!”
Van Hollen appeared on another Your Voice segment in April 2018. Later that summer, Fox45 covered Van Hollen’s visit to a Texas border patrol processing center.
Sinclair’s top three recipients for 2018 were Republican Senators Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), all of whom received $15,000 or more. They also gave $5,700 to Rep. Greg Gianforte, who became well known nationally after physically assaulting a reporter. Blackburn got $5,700 and Arizona Senate candidate Joe Arpaio got $2,000. Both Blackburn and Arpaio have received lavish praise from President Trump.
Sinclair’s name recognition spiked after a Deadspin compilation synchronizing the “biased news” must-run segment went viral, but Sinclair has been distributing corporate speech through local news stations for years. Segments like “News Central” and the “Terrorism Alert Desk” have been aired as must-runs at Sinclair-owned stations. Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump staffer, has a recurring editorial segment. Sinclair was even accused of trying to influence the 2004 election by airing a documentary (Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal) that accused John Kerry of fabricating parts of his military service.
In the 2000s, Sinclair had a similar a must-run segment called The Point, hosted by a Sinclair lobbyist and ex-Navy intelligence officer. The host would criticize other media outlets for their coverage of then-President Bush, once going so far as to say that “terrorist leaders would dearly love to see President Bush replaced with Senator (John) Kerry.”
Sinclair-affiliated PACs and individuals supported Donald Trump for president in 2016 with $3,804. According to the Washington Post, Sinclair stations ran fifteen exclusive interviews with Trump and did none with Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps the most explicitly pro-Trump company in local television is Minnesota-based Hubbard Broadcasting. Hubbard’s CEO, Stanley Hubbard, is on the advisory board for a pro-Trump Super PAC.
“We ended up with one guy standing. His name is Trump. And I’m a team player,” said Hubbard, who was initially skeptical of the President, in an interview with NPR. “Our country is very important. We got to get rid of all these regulations, give the little guy a chance to get ahead and stop all this government interference in our lives.”
Hubbard Broadcasting gave $350,000 to Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch-network Super PAC, in the 2016 election cycle. Of that sum, $200,000 came from the company itself, $150,000 from individuals within the company. In 2014, the Hubbard Broadcasting gave the Super PAC $450,000, $300,000 from the company and $150,000 from individuals.
Hubbard Broadcasting’s political contributions peaked in 2016 when they gave over $1 million to Republicans. That year they gave $18,500 to Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and $16,300 to Ted Cruz.
In 2018, their top four recipients were all Minnesota politicians: Republican Senate candidate Karin Housley, Rep. Erik Paulsen, Emmer and Rep. Jason Lewis. Each of the candidates received tens of thousands from Hubbard.
ABC 5, a Hubbard-owned station, reported on 2009 Facebook comments made by Housley in which she likened Michelle Obama to a chimpanzee. The article includes a quote from a political scientist who says, though the statement is distasteful, they “don’t think it shows she’s a virulent racist…”
On the other hand, ABC 5 gave a “D-” to an ad run by Paulsen that attempted to tie his opponent to a sexual assault. The grade was part of a segment called “Truth Test” in which political ads are rated on their factual accuracy.
Hubbard Broadcasting owns the radio station that ran the Jason Lewis Show before Lewis became a congressman. Lewis infamously used the platform to vent his frustrations with modern gender politics.
“It used to be that women were held to a little bit of a higher standard,” Lewis said on the show according to CNN. “We required modesty from women. Now, are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can’t call her a slut?”
Both Lewis and Paulsen lost their seats in 2018.
Since Americans have a significantly greater level of trust in their local news stations than they do in national news outlets or in web-only publications, this level of political activity from media companies is especially significant.
In most cases it is difficult to say whether these companies’ political activities cross-pollinate with their journalism and business dealings, but future controversies akin to the Sinclair must-run scandal could continue to increase the visibility of the companies behind these local stations and erode Americans’ faith in yet another source of news.
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