There’s a new owner and a new approach to the news at WJLA-TV, Washington’s ABC affiliate. Under the direction of its ambitious corporate parent, the station’s news operations have taken a subtle but noticeable turn to the right.
Last week, for example, WJLA viewers woke up to a new face on the morning news: Mark Hyman, a veteran conservative pundit, who offered some criticism of President Obama.
In his video commentary, Hyman railed against the inconsistent enforcement of a ban on travel to Cuba by Americans. Noting that the music stars Jay Z and Beyoncé had “partied up” in Havana last year without penalty, Hyman insinuated that Obama had protected the couple from prosecution. “It occurs to me that Beyoncé and Jay Z are close friends of the president and first lady,” said Hyman, adding sarcastically, “You don’t suppose . . . oh, never mind. He’d never do that.”
Hyman’s critiques — which range from warning about the cost of Obamacare to advocating the abolition of the Transportation Security Administration — will be a regular feature on WJLA, just as they are on dozens of stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the new owner of ABC 7.
The Hunt Valley, Md.-based company in July received federal approval of its $985 million purchase of WJLA, its sister cable news station, NewsChannel 8, and six other stations owned by Allbritton Communications. Arlington, Va.-based Allbritton, which continues to own Politico , had operated WJLA for 40 years.
Since completing the acquisition, Sinclair has moved swiftly to remodel WJLA, by far the largest and most important asset in the company’s rapidly expanding portfolio. The company has spent $2.8 billion over the past three years to buy stations, and now owns or operates 164 of them, making it the largest station operator in the nation.
In addition to adding commentaries from Hyman, an executive at Sinclair, WJLA has begun a partnership with the editorially conservative Washington Times to feature the newspaper’s “Golden Hammer” award on the air each week. The award recognizes “the most egregious examples of government waste, fraud and abuse,” as determined by the Times. The Aug. 28 award, for example, went to state and local governments that give Hollywood filmmakers tax credits to lure movie and TV productions, which WJLA’s report suggested amounted to a government subsidy of scripted sex and violence.
The station has also begun to carry pieces produced by Sinclair’s Washington bureau about national issues and federal programs. These stories have generally been critical of the Obama administration and tend to offer perspectives primarily from conservative think tanks.
On Friday, WJLA’s 6 p.m. newscast aired a piece from Sinclair’s Washington bureau about a new $96 million urban combat facility at Fort A.P. Hill south of Fredericksburg, Va. “Some are questioning whether it was worth the cost as the military shuts down bases across the globe,” anchor Maureen Bunyan said in her introduction. The story included criticism of the new base from the head of a group called the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
Sinclair is controlled by chief executive David D. Smith and his three brothers, the sons of Julian Sinclair Smith, who started the company with a single UHF TV station in Baltimore, WBFF, in 1971. The company flirted with bankruptcy in the early 2000s but has grown rapidly in the past three years, more than doubling its station count through acquisitions.
Over the years, the company and its executives have been consistent financial contributors to Republican candidates. Its stations have also aired a series of news programs that Democrats have found objectionable.
“They have developed a reputation over a long number of years of pushing their stations to air news framed by a conservative worldview,” said Craig Aaron, the president of FreePress, a Washington organization that advocates for greater diversity in media ownership. “They have a way of [presenting] the news so that Republicans will like it a lot better than Democrats. . . . When a company is as big as they are at a local level, it’s a cause for concern.” FreePress challenged one aspect of Sinclair’s acquisition of Allbritton during a federal review, arguing against Sinclair’s request for waivers to a federal regulation that prohibits a company from operating multiple stations in several cities.
Whatever the politics, competitors say Sinclair can run an aggressive news operation. “They see themselves as a very local station,” said Michelle Butt, news director at Baltimore’s WBAL-TV, which competes against Sinclair-owned WBFF. “They really listen to their viewers and customers. They have a very local newsroom, and I love that about them. Competition is good for all of us.”
Sinclair’s takeover has caused some unease in WJLA’s newsroom. Staffers say some of the stories ordered by Sinclair on a “must-run” basis don’t meet the station’s long tradition of non-partisan reporting. Moreover, they suggest that airing criticism of the federal government without rebuttal is bound to play badly in a region that is home to hundreds of thousands of federal workers.
“You can’t run a TV station in Washington by telling government workers that they’re a bunch of criminals and crooks,” said one of the station’s journalists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he risked being fired if identified. “You can’t be the anti-
government channel in Washington. They’re going to lose the trust they built up with people over years and years. We’ve told people, ‘We’re just like you,’ not, ‘We’re looking out for the tea party.’ ”
Sinclair executives declined multiple requests for comment. A WJLA spokesperson, Abby Fenton, replied to an interview request via e-mail last week: “Everybody is really busy right now. Would love to find a time in the future but now is not the time.”
As this story was being reported last week, Sinclair sent a memo to station employees directing them not to discuss the station’s operations with outsiders.
As it has done elsewhere, Sinclair has moved swiftly to replace WJLA’s longtime management team. Bill Lord, the general manager, was dismissed two weeks ago. Doug Culver, vice president of news at WJLA and NewsChannel 8, was fired Thursday, followed on Friday by the dismissal of Dan Patrick, the managing editor.
Newsroom employees say they were alarmed last month by comments made by David Smith in an introductory staff meeting. According to several employees, Smith repeatedly said the station’s newsroom would “work for” its advertising-sales department. The statement surprised and disappointed some employees, who said newsroom decisions had been independent of advertising concerns under Allbritton’s management. (Allbritton’s former chief operating officer, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., was named publisher of The Washington Post earlier this month.)
The apparent blending of news and advertising has been evident in some parts of the station’s newscasts. WJLA’s morning news has aired footage from Myrtle Beach, S.C., and its anchors have mentioned a tourism promotion in conjunction with the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The tourism organization has been running a similar promotion with other Sinclair-owned stations.
On Sept. 5, another advertiser-friendly news story noted that Belfort Furniture — a longtime station sponsor — had designed a furniture showcase at the Ronald Reagan Building in Northwest Washington. The showcase, anchor Alison Starling told viewers, aimed “to show consumers that furniture can be comfortable and environmentally friendly.”
In the past, Sinclair hasn’t shied from using its TV stations to deliver clear political messages. This has most clearly come in election seasons, with stations being used to attack Democratic candidates or to boost Republicans:
●On the eve of the 2012 election between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, for example, Sinclair stations in several battlegrounds states aired a corporate-produced half-hour news “special” that criticized Obama’s handling of the economy, his signature health-care law and the administration’s management of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Romney’s record received less scrutiny.
●In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission fined Sinclair $36,000 for broadcasting two public-affairs shows, “America’s Black Forum” and “Election Countdown” in 2004 on nine of its stations without disclosing that host Armstrong Williams had been paid by an affiliate of the Education Department to make favorable comments about the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” policy. Sinclair said it had no knowledge of the arrangement, but the FCC said the programs violated rules against “payola punditry.”
●In 2004, Sinclair generated controversy when it considered airing a documentary attacking Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry’s military record just before the election. After complaints from Democrats and calls for an advertiser boycott, Sinclair backed down and ran a program that analysts said was more balanced. The company nevertheless fired its Washington bureau chief after he publicly said that plans to air the anti-Kerry film were “indefensible.”
Most of Sinclair’s many stations are in smaller markets, such as Kalamazoo-Grand Rapids, Mich., and Cedar Rapids-Waterloo, Iowa. But it also operates stations in some larger cities, such as Minneapolis, Seattle and Baltimore.
The Allbritton deal gave Sinclair its first foothold in one of the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas. WJLA and NewsChannel 8 also rank among the largest local TV news operations in the country, with some 350 employees.
With their prominence in the nation’s capital, the stations could become the basis for an even more ambitious strategy. Smith said last year that he intended to use NewsChannel 8 and WJLA as a platform for a national news network that would involve the company’s necklace of stations.
“Over time, we’re going to build a local-national channel that will compete with every national news channel, and we’re going to get paid for it,” he told financial analysts. He added, “WJLA is a full-blown news operation with infrastructure in place connecting them to breaking news events at all branches of federal government. It will allow us to transmit live events to all our stations. We can be the first on the air, giving us competitive advantage and unlimited access to important news content.”
As a much smaller company, Sinclair tried launching a similar network in 2003 but shut down its “NewsCentral” operation after three years due to high costs.
Despite the big plans, some media observers remain skeptical.
“I’d be nervous if I were working at WJLA right now,” said Charles Lewis , the founder of the investigative Center for Public Integrity in Washington and a communications professor at American University. “They are stuck with an idiosyncratic owner with its own political views and agenda. It’s a nightmarish scenario for journalists.”