News & Politics

Biden Won. Why Do Sinclair TV Stations Keep Calling Him “Projected President-Elect”?

The conservative-owned local-TV giant's stations keep using language that doesn't quite acknowledge the election results.

Joe Biden in 2019. Photograph by Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

On November 7, the Associated Press declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential race. More than a month later, though, on the websites and social-media feeds of the 190 TV stations operated by conservative-owned local-broadcasting giant Sinclair Broadcast Group, the term “President-elect Joe Biden” was often preceded by a politically charged adjective that suggests the matter isn’t quite settled: He’s “projected President-Elect.”

The formulation soft-pedals Biden’s clear victory and would appear designed to mollify supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump, who continues to claim without evidence that he won the election. However, Sinclair, which provides national content to its stations via a team based in Washington, says that while it once embraced the phrase, any use now is simply a mistake: “From November 7th through November 9th we used the phrase ‘projected President-elect Biden,'” the company tells Washingtonian through a spokesperson. “Beginning November 9th, all newsrooms were instructed to use the phrase ‘President-elect Biden.’ Any instances where this did not occur were done simply in error.”

Indeed, while it’s impossible to review all Sinclair’s broadcast stories, clips provided by the spokesperson show reporters and anchors describing Biden as President-elect, like in this report and in this story. Sinclair also uses the phrase “President-elect” about Biden in a November 25 segment, which nonetheless gives generous airtime to Trump’s false statements about voter fraud and quotes “seasoned Republican poll-workers” who testified about supposed ballot irregularities without mentioning that such allegations have been swiftly disposed by judges nationwide when Trump and his allies have presented them in court.

Sinclair is based in Hunt Valley, Maryland, and has developed a reputation for jamming its leadership’s conservative views through the not-exactly-perfect delivery system of local television—a medium perhaps better suited for informing people about weather, traffic, and local crime than for covering the US’s frenzied national politics. Still, news from Washington filters down to local lives in many ways, and conservatives at Sinclair have made great use of the company’s commanding footprint in local TV news over the last few decades, like airing a dodgy documentary, ordering “must-run” commentaries, and, in one instance, directing local anchors to read a script denouncing “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”

Sinclair said last year that it would end the must-run commentaries and focus on investigative journalism instead. It continues, however, to provide a friendly megaphone to Trump-adjacent figures like Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani via Eric Bolling’s political talk show America This Week and to cover conservative cultural obsessions like “cancel culture” and transgender athletes on Sharyl Attkisson’s Sunday morning talker Full Measure

So if the pattern of calling Biden “projected President-elect” is an error, it’s one that tracked with the company’s record as it spread through the Sinclair ecosystem.

Here in the DC area, Sinclair owns ABC affiliate WJLA, where locally focused stories like the Nationals inviting Biden to throw out a first pitch use the phrase “President-elect.” Indeed, I couldn’t find anyone at the station aware of any marching orders regarding Biden from Hunt Valley regarding Biden. And yet the phrase “projected President-elect” has managed to worm its way into WJLA’s coverage long past November 9.

The Associated Press refers to Biden as the US President-elect. Sinclair often inserts the word “projected” when it runs AP copy. For instance, WJLA’s version of a November 15 story leads with the words “Projected president-elect Joe Biden.” The original does not. AP “has a general rule against changing the editorial meaning of AP content,” spokesperson Patrick Maks tells Washingtonian.

The same pattern repeated throughout November: On the 22nd (WJLA; AP); on the 24th (WJLA; AP); on the 29th (WJLA; AP).  It persists as recently as Monday (WJLA; AP).

The weird phrase was not limited to WJLA. Uses appeared at lots of Sinclair stations after November 9, like WBFF in Baltimore:

KRXI in Reno, Nevada:

WOLF-TV in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania:

As it happens, Sinclair’s early reluctance to embrace the term “President-elect” was not an issue in 2016. WJLA’s first tweet calling Trump “President-Elect” came at 7:05 AM on November 9, not quite five hours after AP called the race.

WJLA went on to refer to Trump as simply “President-elect” dozens of times afterward, as did other Sinclair stations. The phrase “projected President-elect” does not appear to have entered the broadcaster’s vocabulary until 2020.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.