Sinclair, the country’s largest operator of local television stations, has for a long time managed to largely escape the level of scrutiny and debate directed toward national networks, such as CNN and Fox. But this week, attention turned quickly toward the group when Deadspin compiled a video of anchors in local stations across the country eerily, robotically reading the same exact script about media bias and, as they see it, the problem of fake news.
The editorial, which all of its almost 200 stations were required to air, was presented as the independent opinions of the anchors who read them, rather than that of the larger Sinclair group. (Polls have shown people trust their local news more than national news.) In language that echoed the attacks on media credibility by President Trump, the script bemoaned how “unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think,” and warned, “this is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”
In fact, this language so closely reflected Trump’s opinions that the president tweeted in defense of the network on Tuesday morning:
This is not the first time Sinclair has made news for its conservative editorializing. In 2004, in the days before the presidential election, all stations were required to run an hourlong program attacking John Kerry’s Vietnam record. The station also raised eyebrows in 2016 when Jared Kushner said the Trump campaign struck a deal with Sinclair to offer better access to Trump in exchange for Sinclair broadcasting interviews without commentary. Sinclair contends this was journalistically ethical, as it offered the same deal to the Clinton campaign, which rejected the offer.
And it continues to require its affiliates to run decidedly pro-Trump segments by former Trump administration official Boris Epshteyn. Some anchors and reporters have complained about these editorial mandates, but employees work under a strict contract that penalizes them for voicing their opinions or quitting. At least one station, WMSN/FOX47 Madison, risked repercussions and refused to air the segment, stating, “we stayed true to our commitment to provide our Madison area viewers local news, weather and sports of interest to them.”
In an internal memo obtained by CNN on Monday, Sinclair Senior Vice President of News Scott Livingston blasted the coverage of the editorial (“Do you ever notice that a story written about Sinclair from a west coast publication will include a lot of the same talking points—often the same wording—as a story written a week earlier on the East Coast?”) and defended the segment’s language:
I know many of you and your stations are now in the media spotlight after the launch of our corporate news journalistic responsibility promotional campaign. There is a lot of noise out there about our company right now, and what is lacking in that analysis is something we constantly preach; context and perspective.
The critics are now upset about our well-researched journalistic initiative focused on fair and objective reporting. For the record, the stories we are referencing in this campaign are the unsubstantiated ones (i.e. fake/false) like “Pope Endorses Trump” which move quickly across social media and result in an ill-informed public. Some other false stories, like the false “Pizzagate” story, can result in dangerous consequences. We are focused on fact-based reporting. That’s our commitment to our communities. That’s the goal of these announcements: to reiterate our commitment to reporting facts in a pursuit of truth.
But a report by New York magazine immediately undermined the claim the focus was on only unsubstantiated stories. The New York story, published Tuesday, included comments made in November by David Smith, the executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group. When New York approached Smith asking for an interview, he responded directly with his opinion about certain types of journalism:
“Appreciate the interest in your wanting to do a story but we don’t talk to the print media as a general principal (sic) as we find them to be so devoid of reality and serving no real purpose. Have a great holiday,” Smith said in response.
Later, he added, “Again my experience has consistently been that even with an interview it’s of no consequence in terms of spin, facts or distortion, political bent etc. The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility. see ya.”
“I must tell that in all the 45 plus years I have been in the media business I have never seen a single article about us that is reflective of reality especially in today’s world with the shameful political environment and generally complete lack of integrity. Facts and truth have been lost for a long time and likely to never return,” Smith said.
According to New York, when they then asked Smith—again, the chairman of the largest operator of local television stations—for an off-the-record meeting, he said, “I have also learned that there is no such thing as off the record. Bye.”
As April Glaser wrote in Slate, it’s unlikely the outcry over Sinclair’s editorial policies will make a difference. And Sinclair is currently working on a bid to acquire Tribune Media, which requires federal approval. If successful, Sinclair will have access to 215 stations—more than 72 percent of the national television audience in the country.
Update, April 3 at 11:48 a.m.: This post has been updated with news of the Madison station’s refusal to air the segment.