POLITICS
12/16/2017 07:00 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2017

Poisoning The Well: The View Of Sinclair Broadcast Group From Flint

The conservative media giant dominates local TV in the troubled city, where people say the press hasn’t raked nearly enough muck.
Rebecca Cook / Reuters

FLINT, Mich. ― On a soggy Monday in late October, “NBC25 News Today,” the local NBC affiliate’s morning program, unfolded as most local news programs do.

There was a heady and rapid-fire mix of sensationalism (a toddler in stable condition after falling from the risers at a local football game), light-hearted banter (“I hate Mondays, I really do!”), urgent local updates (a new list of filed charges related to Flint’s water crisis) and a healthy dosage of other quintessentially local news items (“How six horses are doing this morning, and what you can do to help”).

As far as media markets go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one with a greater need for fair and sober reporting than Flint, Michigan. The city’s march into the 21st century has been set to a drumbeat of setbacks and injustices: the decline of its manufacturing sector, a dysfunctional city government, the poisoning of its water and the subsequent cover-ups by public officials.

But that day at 5 a.m. ― the scheduled start for “NBC25 News Today” ― the station ran, without any introductory graphic or explanation, an interview with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Seated across from Graham was Boris Epshteyn, whom a chyron described as “Chief Political Analyst.”

The 90-second segment, focusing on Graham’s efforts to repeal Obamacare, finished without any concluding remarks from Epshteyn or throwbacks to the show’s hosts. Instead, Graham warned the “Chief Political Analyst” that “if we don’t replace Obamacare, we’re going to have socialism for health care.” Then the screen faded to black and the station cut to its standard intro for “NBC25 News Today,” replete with all the whooshing transition graphics and b-roll one would expect.

It would be natural to assume the Epshteyn interview was aired in error, the result of a slipped elbow in the control room or a shoddily assembled commercial bloc. Surely such a slanted framing of the national debate over health care wouldn’t be deliberately run without any framing from either the interviewer or an accompanying segment?

However, the same awkward transition from Epshteyn to the morning show occurred the next day, and the day after that. Segments that week included a glowing report on President Donald Trump’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic and a trickle-down defense of the Republican tax plan.

Officials at NBC25 declined to comment about the segments’ provenance, but they can be traced to its corporate owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair is the country’s largest owner and operator of local TV stations, owning or co-operating 173 stations nationally. That number could shoot up to 233 if a pending merger with Tribune Media is approved. Sinclair has entered into a number of co-ownership arrangements to work around current regulations governing the monopolization of local media.  

Apart from its unmatched presence in the media industry, what distinguishes Sinclair is its politics. As reported previously and brought into the national spotlight by a must-watch segment on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Sinclair’s executives have long leveraged their holdings to push conservative agendas. The practice stretches back to the 2004 election when the company forced local affiliates to air segments favorable to George W. Bush’s re-election. More recently, the company has ordered its affiliates, including NBC25, to air “must-runs,” a series of segments produced by Sinclair-owned news service Circa.

These must-runs have included Epshteyn’s “Bottom Line with Boris” segments, which stations are now required to air nine times a week. Epshteyn regularly rails against “fake news” and perceived critics of the Trump administration while painting the president and his plans in an unmistakably favorable light.

It’s propaganda, plain and simple: demonstrably favorable coverage of an agenda that parrots the talking points of the agenda’s message crafters.

Besides the Epshteyn segments, Sinclair forces its affiliates to air a number of other regular features, including a daily “Terrorism Watch Desk,” which reports on the day’s news in violent extremism (or half-baked attempts to gin up some).

That this content is distributed from a central authority only adds to the darkly comical notion that messaging practices perfected by the Soviet Department for Agitation and Propaganda are being married to the agenda of white nationalists like Steve Bannon.

In a place like Flint, which has endured a seemingly endless torrent of troubles, the corruption of yet another trustworthy local institution is met with sadness but not much surprise. 

“We don’t have a choice, we have to survive,” said the Rev. Alfred Harris, the head of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, a local coalition of religious leaders advocating for clean water. “This is a predominantly black and economic distressed city, so what options do people have?” 

Thinking of the water crisis in particular, Harris matter-of-factly said, “The citizens were devalued.”

Reminders of Flint’s hardships aren’t difficult to find. There is the staggering number of abandoned houses, most stamped with the letters “CP” ― electric company shorthand for “cut and plugged,” which means the power has been turned off. The concentration of “CP” homes in some particularly blighted neighborhoods has imbued them with a hauntingly apocalyptic feel. There is the brisk trade done by the city’s water distribution centers, where residents queue up to collect free flats of water bottles with the same practiced boredom otherwise witnessed at a Starbucks drive-thru. There is the Walnut Square apartment complex on the city’s west side that advertises its homes with a banner boasting something that would sound utterly unappealing anywhere else: “WE HAVE DETROIT WATER.”

The reminders are far more immediate, however, for the untold number of residents who still don’t drink water from their own faucets because of municipal pipelines that have yet to be replaced, because of corroded piping in their own homes ― or because of an understandable reluctance to believe the powers that be can actually fix anything.

It is into this collective feeling of frustration, anger and disappointment that Sinclair Media has inserted itself. Sinclair has a major presence in Flint, owning or operating the local Fox, NBC and CW affiliates. At a time when many local activists are battling the small-government, laissez-faire agenda of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and the emergency managers he’s appointed since 2011 to oversee the city’s finances, the fact that three of the city’s TV stations are controlled by an aggressively conservative broadcaster is deeply troubling to those activists. 

For Claire McClinton, a retired labor organizer and lifelong Flint resident, opposing Sinclair’s assault on the free press is just the latest in a long line of battles. Now she fights as part of the Flint Democracy Defense League, which is currently focused on the city’s water issues and the role of the emergency managers.

“It’s dangerous and it’s very disturbing,” said McClinton of Sinclair’s twisting of the news.

Injustice has been a backdrop to McClinton’s life. The second of seven children, she was the first of her siblings born outside Mississippi, after her family fled the oppressions of Jim Crow as part of a widespread northward exodus of African-Americans known as the Great Migration. 

McClinton hasn’t closed her eyes to injustice, whether battling on behalf of General Motors assembly line workers, like her parents, or her community’s economically dispossessed residents. But she has been particularly dispirited by the water crisis, tracing its origins in part to those governor-appointed emergency managers.

“Whatever level of trust you had then, it nosedived,” McClinton recalled. “When you could imagine that your government would abandon you.”

She sees a sad symmetry in her life, bookended by her parents’ flight from oppression decades ago and now her disenfranchisement in a city ruled by officials without any meaningful democratic check. A democratically elected leader, McClinton contends, might have heeded public concern about the city’s temporary switch to water from the Flint River, a decision that prompted the entire crisis. And though she has been encouraged by some of the local networks’ reporting, McClinton remains disappointed that the press hasn’t focused more on the role of the emergency managers in perpetuating the problem.

“We’re being consumed with this water issue,” she said. “When you turn off the 6 o’clock news, you still have to get up and get yourself a case of water.”

The local news broadcast occupies a curious place in the American psyche. On the one hand, it’s where cool goes to die: the frumpy attire, the lobotomized banter about holiday shopping, the field reports from local dog fashion shows, the chyrons that are a notch more stylized than the ones you see on infomercials for closet organizers. On the other hand, the local news is as central to our communities as high school sports and zoning boards ― regular subjects of the local news.

The very stodginess of local news makes its editorial corruption particularly insidious. So much of what we associate with it ― the nudge-nudge joshing between longtime anchors, the b-roll of parks opening for the summer, the holiday food and toy drives ― occupies that same segment of our minds as other uncool-yet-beloved totems of our lives like dad jeans and your town’s July 4th parade. Even during somber reports about murder sprees and salmonella outbreaks at church buffets, we the viewers are still lulled by feelings of trust and comfort.

Polluting such an earnest institution somehow seems even more pernicious than anything Fox News is doing ― it’s like finding out that “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was funded by the CIA. When you learn that the dopey, windbreaker-clad correspondent interviewing a giraffe that likes to wear hats is an unwitting pawn in a nefarious plot to indoctrinate the masses, it hurts.

Despite Epshteyn’s less-than-polished persona ― John Oliver described him as “a rejected extra from ‘The Sopranos’ in a JCPenney tie whose voice sounds like Sylvester Stallone’s with a mouthful of bees” ― the production values for his “Bottom Line With Boris” segments do mirror those of most local news outlets. And many of the segments produced by Circa, Sinclair’s in-house national news outlet, display a fair degree of finesse ― a piece on President Trump’s attempt to scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran whose only expert interviewee came from a conservative think tank, for example.

If there is any consolation ― and as cold comfort goes, this is downright frigid ―  it’s that Sinclair’s philosophy hasn’t totally overwhelmed its affiliates, or at least not NBC25. In addition to cramming its must-run “Bottom Line With Boris” segments into as remote a corner of its programming schedule as it can, it hasn’t shied away from running content that runs contrary to Sinclair’s far-right philosophy. The same day that NBC25 aired Epshteyn’s interview with Sen. Graham, it also had a story on its morning program detailing how changes to Obamacare could adversely affect the region.

An even colder comfort is that many Flint residents view the news with a high degree of skepticism ― whether it originates from Sinclair or elsewhere. Journalists were so late to the story of the polluted water supply, and still don’t report enough on the role of the emergency managers, that many here say faith in the media’s ability to address their woes is deeply broken.  

“You can’t rebuild trust without people start telling the truth, and there hasn’t been any truth telling that has happened,” said Nayyirah Shariff, an organizer with the Flint Democracy Defense League. She recalled trying to pitch stories about the tainted water supply, only to have her proposals rebuffed by news outlets unconvinced by her sense of urgency.

Flint residents possess highly refined BS-detectors, calibrated by decades of mistreatment by the powers that be. Shariff is no different.

The week Shariff spoke with HuffPost might have been a joyous one for most people. Lifetime Television was debuting an original movie based on the water crisis, with singer-songwriter-poet Jill Scott portraying Shariif. Shariff said it was an exciting experience, including speaking with Scott. However, she still felt conflicted: There she was being feted and spotlighted for her work while people in Flint were still suffering the effects of broken and poisoned infrastructure.

“It’s a nice story, but for me the story that is more compelling are the continued abuses by the state, up to today,” said Shariff.  

“I want truth, but I also want accountability,” she continued, turning her attention to Sinclair and the media writ large. “There needs to be a piece of accounting and people need to be held to account, and I’ve given up hope that the media will be the ones to do that because they haven’t done more.” 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the name of John Oliver’s HBO program, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

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