Film and TV

HBO's John Oliver Rips New Fox31, CW2 Owner Sinclair for Bias and More

On Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver took on the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is about to become one of Denver's more powerful media companies.
On Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver took on the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is about to become one of Denver's more powerful media companies. HBO via YouTube
On Last Week Tonight with John Oliver's July 2 edition, host John Oliver took on Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media firm that's little known around the country but extremely powerful in markets such as Denver, where SBG recently purchased sister stations Fox31 and CW2. In a jeremiad against corporate consolidation in local news that's on view below, Oliver warns that the stealthy way Sinclair forces its hard-right ideology on its affiliates has the potential for turning regional outlets like these two in the Mile High City into arms of a media empire with the potential of becoming a conservative force rivaling Fox News.

According to Oliver, who's previously touched on Colorado matters in reports about marijuana laws and Denver-based kidney dialysis giant DaVita, Sinclair may be "the most influential media company you've never heard of. Not only are they the largest owner of local TV stations in the country, they could soon get even bigger."

True enough. In May, Sinclair purchased 42 outlets owned by Tribune Media, including Fox31 and CW2. The price tag was $3.9 billion, and as Oliver notes, "it is a little disconcerting to find out that something you've only just heard of is throwing around $4 billion."

The buy still must be approved by federal regulators, Oliver acknowledges. But most observers expect a swift rubber-stamping that will create the largest single group of television stations in the nation.

click to enlarge Sinclair executive turned conservative commentator Mark Hyman. - HBO VIA YOUTUBE
Sinclair executive turned conservative commentator Mark Hyman.
HBO via YouTube
Oliver sees that as significant for a number of reasons. First of all, the average number of viewers who regularly tune in to local news outlets in Sinclair's biggest markets averages out to 2.2 million, a number higher than that attracted by any single Fox News program. Moreover, a recent Pew Research Center study cited by Oliver showed that respondents trusted local news more than national news by a 82 percent to 76 percent margin — and that presumably makes broadcasts like those on Fox31 and CW2 more persuasive than is typically acknowledged.

Sinclair is already using such stations to spread a conservative message via commentaries by former executive Mark Hyman, whose subject matter has included attacks on so-called snowflakes and a defense of the Washington Redskins football team for refusing to replace a name that many people view as racist. And recently, Sinclair added to its mix Boris Epshteyn, a former adviser to President Donald Trump whose own invective flies with the right wing.

The opinions of Hyman and Epshteyn will be much more widely heard once the feds bless the Tribune Media pact. After all, Oliver points out, Sinclair designates these packages as "must-run," meaning that affiliates have to include them in newscasts, whether local managers want to do so or not. And while some affiliates, like KOMO in Seattle, have tried to soften the blow of this edict by airing Hyman's screeds during the wee hours of the morning, the messages will still have an outsized impact.

Likewise, Sinclair also mandates that local stations run updates from its "Terrorism Alert Desk," many of which are dubiously sourced; Oliver highlights one story about ISIS chopping victims in half that was never confirmed by any credible news or government agency.

click to enlarge The "Terrorism Alert Desk" feature is among those that Sinclair designates as "must-run." - HBO VIA YOUTUBE
The "Terrorism Alert Desk" feature is among those that Sinclair designates as "must-run."
HBO via YouTube
To sum up the piece, Oliver introduces a public-service announcement that he encourages incoming Sinclair signals to run. In it, comedian and former Sopranos cast member Steve Schirripa, whose appearance and cadence bear at least some similarity to Epshteyn's, gives folks who watch newscasts on Fox31 or CW2 a heads-up.

"The people at this station know that local news should never be about cheap scare-mongering or advancing the political agenda," Schirripa says. "It should only be about weather, sports, I-team investigations and human interest stories featuring cute animals."

He concludes with this: "I'm Steve Schirripa telling you, if this becomes a Sinclair station, good luck with that shit."

Continue to watch the Last Week Tonight report.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts