How Boris Epshteyn and Sinclair bring Trump propaganda to local news.

How One of Trump’s Leading Propagandists Took Over the Local News

How One of Trump’s Leading Propagandists Took Over the Local News

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July 21 2017 5:54 AM

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How Sinclair Broadcast Group and Boris Epshteyn took administration propaganda from the Oval Office to the local news.

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Boris Epshteyn/YouTube

The face of Boris Epshteyn, chief political analyst for the behemoth Sinclair Broadcast Group, is glowing like an oversized egg about to hatch the world’s most affable chicken. “Let’s take a look at the White House press briefing,” he suggests genially, the corners of his mouth lifting. “What it is, what it represents, and how it serves the American people.”

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

Thereupon Epshteyn accepts his own invitation and launches into a capsule summary of the ritual, which began “way back in 1929,” during the administration of Herbert Hoover. The briefing, he laments, has devolved “into a circus and a distraction,” “a theater in which the press, frankly, plays a leading role.” A clip shows mayhem: reporters braying Sean Spicer’s name and not letting him get a word in edgewise. “The American people absolutely deserve access to the White House,” Epshteyn remarks piously, “and they should continue to pose their questions.” However, with President Donald Trump phasing out televised briefings, such question-answering “can—and seemingly will—be done in a manner much more conducive to delivering actual information to the American public.”

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Nowhere in the segment does Epshteyn explain how canceling on-camera press conferences will improve the flow of facts from the Oval Office to the populace. In the meantime, spouting off on TV seems to suit Epshteyn just fine. The former special assistant to President Trump hosts the 90-to-120-second program “Bottom Line With Boris,” which as of last week has been scheduled to run eight or nine times a week on Sinclair’s 173 local TV stations in 81 markets. As the Baltimore Sun points out, Epshteyn will dispense cheerful propaganda on the local news for roughly 13½ minutes each day—nearly a quarter-hour of Trump-friendly agitprop, disseminated to more than 2.2 million U.S. households by a right-leaning company worth close to $40 billion.

Until a few months ago, Epshteyn was on the White House payroll. In addition to his special assistant position—which, per Politico, entailed “oversee[ing] White House officials who appear on television to speak on behalf of the administration”—he also served as communications director for the Trump inaugural committee and senior adviser to the campaign. There, the surrogate for America’s bully-in-chief developed a reputation for bellicosity. As the Daily Beast recounted, he’d pleaded guilty to assault in 2014. The House Intelligence Committee also wants to question Epshteyn, who was born in the then–Soviet Union in 1982, about his ties to the Kremlin. In March, not long after the Jewish staffer had crafted the notorious Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that omitted any mention of Judaism, he left the Trump administration amid reports that everyone at every cable news network hated him. A month later, Sinclair scooped him up as a pundit. Now he’s Trumpism’s chummiest salesperson, an everyman touting a #MAGA fantasy.

Highlights of Epshtyen’s “Bottom Line” include a lecture on the brilliance of America First trade policies and a paean to how much safer we all feel now that soft-on-terror Barack Obama is out of our lives. The former investment banker has also steered viewers’ attention toward 2017’s roaring economy, the perils of voter fraud (which he implies cost the president a popular vote victory), and the woeful irresolve of GOP senators to pass their new health care bill. Epshteyn frequently sprinkles in “reports” of dubious provenance and alludes to unnamed “critics” and “opponents” who espouse conveniently self-defeating arguments. “And that’s the bottom line,” he declares with a smirk at the end of many of these bits, having solved another of our nation’s problems in two minutes or less.

That refrain, a Pavlovian chime, announces Epshteyn’s honesty. It tries to tame the exhausting and depressing political surround, a hubbub of collusion and interference and corruption. When James Comey testified in June, the eponymous “bottom line” was that the former FBI director had discredited the mainstream media’s inaccurate reporting and defended the president’s honor. On July 4 it was that, despite their divisions, Americans are bound together by the crusade for freedom. Perhaps TV audiences crave a simple, positive, irrefutable message about where their country is headed. Epshteyn serves up this wish as naked assertion, in attractive lighting, on a platter painted red, white, and blue.

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As far as propaganda goes, this is pure, industrial-strength stuff. Despite his patina of historical scholarship (Herbert Hoover!), he’s made wild accusations—“Barack Obama may have won in 2008 in North Carolina due to illegal voting,” Epshteyn said during the 2016 campaign—that are entirely unsupported by the factual record. In a staggering feat of patriotic misdirection, he reminds us that “fair and free elections are absolutely key to our democracy” while championing voter suppression and claiming that states “should do everything within their power to comply” with Trump’s appalling commission on “election integrity.”

In a riff on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver compared the “Bottom Line” host with another Sinclair talking head, conservative blowhard Mark Hyman. (Oliver also memorably described Epshteyn as “a rejected extra from the Sopranos in a JCPenney’s tie whose voice sounds like Sylvester Stallone with a mouthful of bees.”) But Hyman—known for flaying millennial “snowflakes” for caring about racism—is abrasive and adversarial. Despite his truculent past, Epshteyn affects a reasonable tone. “Bottom Line With Boris” is a news nugget designed to fit in amiably alongside the local traffic and weather. Its host—once the jerk who dismissed Khizr Khan as a Democratic Party prop—now scans as artless, a little oafish, congenitally straight-shooting, inherently trustworthy. He has neither Anderson Cooper’s supple erudition nor Rachel Maddow’s wit and verve nor Sean Hannity’s magnetic rage. He’s a regular guy telling regular stories about how Trump is great and the rest of the media—present company excepted—can’t handle the truth.

Sinclair, which purchased the Chicago-based Tribune Media Company (the deal is still pending Federal Communications Commission approval) in May, is a largely Southern outfit seeking access to profitable markets in New York City, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Dallas, and Philadelphia. While the company’s vice president of news told the Baltimore Sun that “local news is the heart of Sinclair,” it is infamous for issuing “must-run,” conservative-tinged programming to its far-flung daughter stations. In 2016, the corporate giant reportedly struck a deal with then-candidate Trump to obtain exclusive access to the Republican contender. “In exchange,” reported Politico, “Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary.”

Now, instead of undiluted Trump, viewers of Sinclair stations get a daily dose of pro–White House talking points delivered by an ex-administration official. On June 28, in his earnest and corny fashion, Epshteyn went after CNN. “This week”—insert apologetic grin—“the news is back in the news,” he said. Epshteyn went on to note that three journalists had resigned from the company after Breitbart exposed the flaws in a story about Trump deputies with alleged ties to a Russian investment fund. He also cited a CNN producer who “admitted that the network’s constant coverage of the Trump-Russia narrative is much more about hype and ratings than fact and substance.” After taking a swipe at the network’s digital presence—“the website is supposed to be delivering news, however, it is dominated by opinion-based headlines and articles with more commentary than impartial fact”—Epshteyn unveiled his bottom line: “CNN, along with other cable news networks, is struggling to stick to the facts and be impartial in covering politics in general and the president specifically.”

Several websites of Sinclair-affiliated TV stations soon published the segment’s transcript, under the somewhat ironic title: “Opinion: CNN Struggles With Impartiality.” The problem here isn’t that Epshteyn is expressing his right-wing views. (Or it isn’t merely that, though the particular set of “facts” he presented about CNN were cherry-picked to support a predetermined thesis.) The issue is that Epshteyn’s commentaries—amplified by a rich and sprawling pro-Trump enterprise—are colonizing even the virgin corners of the local news landscape. Sinclair has the power to saturate the country in POTUS-friendly voices and opinions. That’s the kind of move that, it stands to reason, might help a media conglomerate that’s awaiting an important ruling from Trump’s FCC. Hark! Another bottom line.

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