As the election heads into its final stretch, Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest operator of television stations in the United States, is amplifying Trump's misinformation about mail-in voting.
Sinclair owns and operates dozens of affiliates of NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX. In some areas that may determine the next election, Sinclair controls multiple local news stations. In Columbus, Ohio, Sinclair controls the local ABC and FOX stations. In Pensacola, Florida, Sinclair controls the local ABC and NBC stations. In San Antonio, Texas, Sinclair controls the local NBC and FOX stations. According to its latest disclosures to the SEC, Sinclair produces "approximately 2,550 hours of news per week at 129 stations in 81 markets." In total, Sinclair reaches "thirty-nine percent of American viewers."
The Executive Chairman of Sinclair is David D. Smith, "a conservative whose views combine a suspicion of government, an aversion to political correctness, and strong libertarian leanings." Smith is an "ardent supporter of Donald Trump" and "not been shy about using his stations to advance his political ideology."
After Trump secured the Republican nomination in 2016, Smith met with Trump at Trump Tower. "We are here to deliver your message. Period," Smith told Trump. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, later struck a deal that gave Sinclair unprecedented access to Trump on the condition that Sinclair stations "broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary."
In recent days, Smith's company assisted Trump by amplifying wild claims about absentee voting. But the message is often laundered through trusted local outlets affiliated with respected brands like NBC, CBS, and ABC.
For example, last Friday, Franklin County, Ohio discovered that it had sent 50,000 voters the wrong absentee ballot. The election board immediately "started the process of printing and mailing replacement ballots to every voter who received the wrong ballot." And voters should receive their replacement ballot early this week. Further, "stringent tracking measures are in place to guarantee that a voter can only cast one vote."
These kinds of clerical errors occur in every election. But Trump seized on the news as proof that the entire election is "out of control" and "rigged."
Trump's claim is absolutely baseless. But Trump's message was uncritically amplified on Twitter by dozens of Sinclair affiliates.
A local Ohio station not owned by Sinclair, WKNB Youngstown, had a much different headline: "Why Trump’s claim of a rigged Franklin County, Ohio election doesn’t add up." The piece explains that every Ohio absentee ballot "includes an 'identification envelope' with a unique barcode," which is associated with a social security number or similar record, making it nearly impossible for a voter to cast two ballots. The story also notes that "no evidence of widespread mail-in ballot fraud in the United States."
Sinclair's treatment of the absentee ballot issue in Ohio is not an isolated incident.
Case study: WSET Lynchburg
Most people who tune into Fox News know what they are getting: A right-wing outlet that carries water for Trump. But what about viewers of WSET, the ABC affiliate in Lynchburg, Virginia? They might not be expecting pro-Trump propaganda, but that's what they get.
WSET's Twitter account repeatedly pushes Trump's misinformation about voting. It's often presented under the guise of "just asking questions." For example, in promoting the story about the Ohio ballot mix-up, the station tweeted: "Nearly 50,000 voters received wrong ballots in Ohio! Does [sic] you feel safe mailing in your ballot?"
How did a tweet from a local station in Lynchburg get more than 15,000 retweets? It was retweeted by Trump. He answered the question "No."
Other questions asked by WSET on Twitter include:
President @realDonaldTrump says that mail-in voting will lead to 'the most corrupt election' -- do you agree or disagree?
Do you feel comfortable voting by mail?
DO YOU AGREE? This morning, President Trump suggested delaying the 2020 presidential election, citing concerns over mail-in voting.
President @realDonaldTrump tweeted about mail-in ballots this morning. Do you agree with his sentiment? ("Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED election in our nation's history.")
DEMANDING INVESTIGATION! Do you think the U.S. Attorney General should investigate the recent absentee ballot changes?
With the coronavirus creating a surge in mail-in balloting and postal delays reported across the country, the number of rejected ballots in November is projected to be significantly higher. Do you plan to vote absentee this year?
THOUGHTS? President @realDonaldTrump says he can take executive action to stop mass mail in voting.
Just to be clear, Trump cannot stop states from using mail-in voting with an executive order.
Sinclair's national operation
Stations owned by Sinclair broadcast a combination of locally-produced content and segments centrally produced by Sinclair and distributed nationally. Those nationally produced segments have included misinformation about mail-in voting.
In June, a segment featuring Sinclair Broadcast Group national correspondent Kristine Frazao amplified Trump's false claims and "failed to give viewers accurate information about mail-in voting."
The segment included one Trump statement from May in which he said, “When you do all mail-in voting, ballots, you’re asking for fraud. People steal them out of mailboxes. People print them and then they sign them, and they give them in." Frazao followed the statement by showing a tweet in which Trump wrote that “millions of mail-in ballots will be printed by foreign countries and others. ...It will be the scandal of our times.”
The segment also included the Heritage Foundation's Hans von Spakovsky, who claimed mail-in ballots are “susceptible to being stolen, forged, [or] altered.” Frazao included no experts to discuss the reliability of mail-in voting or Trump's claims. The segment aired "on at least 37 Sinclair-owned or -operated stations in 34 states."
On July 11, former Fox News personality Eric Bolling, who hosts a show syndicated across the Sinclair network, "repeatedly pushed a former Washington secretary of state to validate his claims that fraud is rampant in mail-in voting." Bolling's prompts included, “Tell us about the fraud that could happen,” and, “Do you not see the opportunity for fraud with mail-in voting?” That program "aired in full or in part on at least 49 Sinclair-owned or -operated stations in 38 states."