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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Sinclair's Growth Matched by Criticism

October 24, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen and Walter F. Roche Jr. | Times Staff Writers

For a glimpse at the Sinclair Broadcast Group's particular place in the American media landscape, consider the firm's quest several years ago to add a new group of TV stations to its growing empire. The Federal Communications Commission had some problems with the deal -- a sensitive transaction because it involved the still largely banned practice of owning more than one station in a given market. In this case, not only was Sinclair getting the stations for a "small fraction of their value," but the commission found that the company, operating under an agreement merely to manage the stations, had instead effectively taken control of the outlets before the purchase.

The agency fined the company $40,000 for violating FCC rules.

Then it let Sinclair buy the stations anyway.

One commissioner, Michael J. Copps, was disturbed enough to write a strongly worded dissent to the 2001 opinion. "What makes Sinclair's practices disquieting ... are its maneuvers to acquire interests in multiple stations in seeming contravention -- if not violation -- of commission rules," he wrote. "With each transaction over the years, Sinclair has stretched the limits of the commission's local television ownership rules."

Under President and Chief Executive David D. Smith, the conservative-leaning, publicity-shy Sinclair has grown from its modest beginnings by pushing the limits of government regulations. The company has drawn notice for aggressively expanding its control over multiple outlets in a single market, sometimes in ways its critics call underhanded, although the FCC generally has gone along.

In the last two years, Sinclair has started to take advantage of its reach with controversial programming decisions such as centralized newscasts intercut with right-skewing commentary, and banning its seven ABC affiliates from showing Ted Koppel's roll call of military dead in Iraq, deeming it an overly political edition of "Nightline."

But its most recent move -- a plan to air a film attacking Sen. John F. Kerry days before the Nov. 2 election -- catapulted it into the midst of a hotly contested presidential race. Though Sinclair, under pressure from advertisers, shareholders, viewers and Democrats, changed course and ended up offering what was generally regarded as a balanced report on 40 stations Friday night, the flap brought widespread attention to the firm and its practices.

Not lost on the company or its critics is the fact that Sinclair, like most other major media companies, will need the continued goodwill of government overseers to reach its future goals. "This administration has significantly loosened the media consolidation rules and Sinclair, having benefited from this, is now returning the favor," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, who heads the Media Access Project, a longtime company critic.

Sinclair now owns or controls 62 TV stations, including affiliates of Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as WB and UPN. It operates outside the nation's biggest media markets -- the largest of the 39 cities where it has a presence is Tampa, Fla., ranked 13th in the nation, and its smallest is Peoria, No. 117.

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Located 16 miles from downtown Baltimore in Cockeysville, in an area made fragrant by a spice plant, Sinclair's brick-and-black-glass five-story headquarters stands out on the horizon, the Sinclair name in two-foot-high letters atop the building. A few feet away sits the local headquarters of the Bush-Cheney campaign, to which Sinclair's owners and executives have contributed. This election cycle, Sinclair executives have given nearly $68,000, 97% of it to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which documents campaign contributions. In other years they have given more, as in the 2000 campaigns, when they donated nearly $178,000, 98% of it to Republicans.

During Maryland's last gubernatorial election in 2002, a company formed by J. Duncan Smith, a Sinclair officer and David Smith's brother, provided free executive helicopter services to the Republican candidate and eventual winner, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Ehrlich, it turned out, was one of three congressmen who a year earlier had prodded the FCC to move more quickly on requests by Sinclair for approval to purchase a group of television stations. After the matter was made public, Ehrlich's campaign committee, to satisfy campaign laws, eventually paid $34,300 for eight trips on the luxury helicopter owned by Whirlwind Aviation. Sinclair representatives did not return repeated calls seeking comment for this article, and a Times reporter on Thursday was denied entrance to the headquarters building after he requested an interview with David Smith.

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