Sinclair steps into spotlight

Media

May 12, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Now we know one sure-fire way to make headlines across the globe: Pick a fight with Ted Koppel.

Sinclair Broadcast Group did just that two weeks ago, and the Baltimore County-based company is still basking in national - and even international - coverage. Newspapers throughout the country wrote about the flap. Papers and news services in Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom did, too. A lot of the coverage was negative, but at least it was coverage.

All for Sinclair's decision to pull one installment of ABC News' Nightline, in which Koppel read aloud the names of more than 700 U.S. service members who died in Iraq. Sinclair declared the show to be a blatant political act - a move to undermine support for President Bush and the war, the company said - and pulled the show from its seven ABC affiliates.

"Unfortunately, lost in the background of `Koppelgate' are our brave troops who are fighting to preserve what we are practicing at home: open debate in a free society," Mark Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate affairs and chief editorialist, told viewers during a commentary last week. "Standing on principle can sometimes be a lonely endeavor. But what value are our principles if we don't live up to them? Adhering to principle only when it is popular or convenient is meaningless."

However lonely executives there really feel, the decision did a lot to cement Sinclair's brand as a local alternative to the mainstream national media. The company owns, controls, or runs the business operations of 62 television stations, more than any other company in the country. Thirty-nine Sinclair stations run the fast-paced Newscentral, which is put together in the corporate studios and which combines reports compiled from various Sinclair stations with quick-cuts of national stories. In the Baltimore market, Newscentral runs at 11 p.m. on WBFF-TV, a Fox affiliate that is Sinclair's flagship station.

Particularly when compared with WBFF's more tempered 10 p.m. news program, the centralized newscasts have a decided edge, driven home through the three main franchise elements: "Get This!"; "Truth, Lies & Red Tape" and Hyman's editorials, called "The Point." Recent features on "Get This!" and "Truth, Lies & Red Tape" have focused on the dangers of hybrid cars, a South Dakota city councilman who is having a sex-change operation, and the controversy over whether Sen. John F. Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, said he discarded his military ribbons or his medals in protesting the Vietnam War.

The newscast's Web site, newscentral.tv, promises "the news items that deserve public attention that you probably won't see anywhere else," asking viewers if they're "tired of the outrageous political boondoggles? Fed up with wasteful government spending or politically correct rules, regulation and other news stories that just don't make sense?"

The past two weeks - with Hyman taking aim at Koppel for serving "anti-war" aims and Sinclair CEO David D. Smith declaring his support for President Bush and the invasion of Iraq in response to criticism from Arizona Sen. John S. McCain - have made the company's conservative outlook even more explicit. The incident became a national coming-out party for Sinclair.

"They're kind of a Triple-A Fox News - and that's not derogatory," said Robert Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent who is now chairman of the journalism department at Boston University. "Their orientation is clear."

Smith and his family members, who still hold a controlling share in the publicly traded company, have locally been known to hew to a certain set of conservative beliefs - skeptical of government regulation and taxation and support of gun rights mixed with support for water quality conservation, as evidenced by a not-for-profit run from Sinclair's corporate headquarters.

And they've dabbled in political spheres, too. Aside from the occasional contribution to Democratic candidates, the Smith brothers - primarily Frederick G. Smith, a Sinclair vice president and director - have contributed more than $200,000 to Republican Party causes in the past four years. They have also financially backed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in one instance drawing fire for heavily discounting helicopter trips from a firm owned by Sinclair vice president and director J. Duncan Smith during the 2002 gubernatorial race.

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