When Sinclair Broadcasting Group announced it was purchasing Tribune Media last week, tongues started wagging that they may be angling to put up some sort of Fox News rival.
The local news behemoth will now own more than 200 stations, cable channel WGN and stakes in other cable channels. The company is known for pushing “must run” packages often with right-leaning bents onto their local affiliates, and the group’s owners have long support Republicans, including President Donald Trump. They also recently hired former White House staffer Boris Epshteyn as a political analyst.
Chatter has been running rampant among media insiders that Sinclair might try and lure Fox News anchor Sean Hannity and his ousted colleague Bill O’Reilly to join the network. The New York Daily News reported on Friday that “O’Reilly is also being pursued by executives at Sinclair.”
A Sinclair spokesperson categorically denied such talks were taking place, saying “we are not speaking to Hannity, not speaking to O’Reilly, [and] there is no intention of hiring any of them.”
But a source with direct knowledge of conversations said that there is intense interest on behalf of Sinclair to recruit the two anchors, saying “the public posture is very different from the private posture” and that Sinclair “is very interested down the line in pursuing being a possible competitor” to Fox.
Sinclair would have some big hurdles to overcome if they were to try set up a viable competitor in the conservative news space, including the fact that their soon-to-be acquired cable channel WGN is contractually listed as an entertainment channel with cable carriers, not news. But if the network were to pursue both Hannity and O’Reilly, they might have receptive and available audiences.
Hannity has a clause in his contract which would allow him to leave the network with 60 days of notification. O’Reilly may not have had a non-compete clause in his contract, according to one source with knowledge of the contract and other reports, though USA Today reported he had a six-month non-compete clause. An O’Reilly spokesperson declined to comment on O’Reilly’s contract and did not respond to a request for comment about talks with Sinclair. Fox did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hannity, a Fox insider said, is still upset over the departure of Fox News co-president Bill Shine, who left the company as it dealt with multiple sexual harassment allegations, some of which suggested that Shine helped cover up such allegations against O’Reilly and former Fox chief Roger Ailes.
Before Shine was fired, Hannity made his opinion known publicly, tweeting just days before Shine’s ouster that someone “high up” at Fox was trying to get an “innocent person fired.” Hannity is said to still be in a state of shock and believes that Shine, who was brought to Fox by Hannity, served as his producer and was very close personally to him, was a “scapegoat for the sins of others,” the insider said.
O’Reilly, for his part, said on Friday he’s going to expose those who are behind his ousting and that from now on when he’s attacked, he’ll likely just take legal action.
Speaking to fellow Fox News alumnus Glenn Beck on his eponymous radio show, O’Reilly said that his ouster at Fox under swirling allegations of sexual harassment and settlements to keep the accusers quiet was “grossly dishonest.”
Since leaving Fox, O’Reilly has turned his attention to his website, where he airs a daily podcast which he has said he hopes to expand into a full fledged news program.