Sinclair Forcing Local Stations to Parrot Trump’s Anti-Media Talking Points

Latest in Company’s Long History of Injecting Politics and Mandating Coverage and Specific Language in Local News Broadcasts


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, consumer watchdog organization Allied Progress called news that Sinclair Broadcasting Group is forcing local news stations to parrot the anti-media talking points of President Trump an ominous taste of things to come if the company’s proposed merger with Tribune is ultimately approved.

According to a report by CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter, the local news behemoth is requiring its stations to run “scripted” promos that “decry ‘fake stories’ from national news outlets – echoing President Trump’s rhetoric about ‘fake news.’” Furthermore, “The instructions sent to station news directors say that the 60- and 75-second spots should run frequently ‘to create maximum reach and frequency.’”

This is right out of Sinclair’s playbook – force your local news teams to parrot right-wing talking points while claiming to be a beacon of respectable journalism. It’s an ominous taste of things to come if the monopoly-making merger with Tribune is approved,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress.

He continued, “The FCC and Department of Justice must reject the Sinclair/Tribune merger and protect the important ideal that we all benefit when our local news represents a diversity of voices. The rules governing local media ownership are designed to promote, not extinguish this important goal. Allowing one company to own local news stations reaching 73% of U.S. households would be an unwise and unfortunate step in the wrong direction.”

SINCLAIR: INJECTING POLITICS, MANDATING COVERAGE

  • Since 2015, “Sinclair has ordered its stations to run a daily segment from a ‘Terrorism Alert Desk’ with updates on terrorism-related news around the world.” “More recently, Sinclair asked stations to run a short segment in which Scott Livingston, the company’s vice president for news, accused the national news media of publishing ‘fake news stories.'” “Sinclair’s willingness to use its stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda” has drawn concern from “some of its journalists concerned about intrusive direction from headquarters.” [Sydney Ember, “Sinclair Requires TV Stations to Air Segments That Tilt to the Right,” The New York Times, 05/12/07]
  • One Sinclair employee claimed Sinclair devoted corporate resources to a story because it affected Vice President Duncan Smith’s property. An April 17, 2001 broadcast on WBFF-Baltimore “covered efforts by environmental groups to clean up the North Branch of the Potomac River in western Maryland,” so far from WBFF’s Baltimore headquarters (160 miles) that locals couldn’t even tune into the story. The employee said that WBFF’s producer, Craig Demchak, was approached by Sinclair VP J. Duncan Smith, who said, “‘”Craig, we need this story, it’s affecting my property. We’ve got to slam these people.”‘” The staffer added, “‘If it had been anybody else’s property, would they be sending the helicopter there to see it? No way in hell.'” The newscast also featured an interview with “a representative of Safe Waterways in Maryland (SWIM), an advocacy group founded by” Duncan Smith. [Paul Schmelzer, “Sinclair Broadcast: The Puppetmasters,” AlterNet, 02/16/05; Safe Waterways in Maryland, 06/07/04, accessed via archive.org]
  • After his arrest for soliciting a prostitute, Sinclair Chairman David Smith cut an “unusual” plea deal; as part of the agreement, Smith “ordered his newsroom employees to produce a series of reports on a local drug counseling program, which counted toward Smith’s court-ordered community service.” According to a former Sinclair reporter, “‘The judge was outraged. He said, ‘How can employees do community service for their boss?'” [Eric Klinenberg, “Beyond ‘Fair and Balanced,'” Rolling Stone, 02/24/05; Eric Boehlert, “Sleaze and smear at Sinclair,” Salon, 10/22/04]
  • In February 2004, Sinclair sent a news crew to Iraq to report on what it claimed “are the positive, ‘untold stories’ that the ‘liberal media'” didn’t report. Sinclair executive and commentator Mark Hyman and Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman, painted “a picture of a world where the United States – largely through the presence of troops – has improved the lives of millions, in ways large and small.” That April, “Sinclair pulled an edition of ABC News’ Nightline from seven ABC stations because it was devoted to reading the names of troops killed in Iraq,” claiming that the segment “was intended to hurt President Bush” and appeared “‘to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.'” The decision resulted in “a torrent of protest” “from viewers, media watchdog groups,” and Senator John McCain, who called the move “‘deeply offensive.'” [David Folkenflik, “In Iraq, going for the upbeat,” The Baltimore Sun, 02/18/04; David Folkenflik, “Sinclair’s TV program on Kerry is called illegal donation to Bush,” The Baltimore Sun, 10/12/04; Bill Carter, “THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAQ: THE MEDIA; Debate Over ‘Nightline’ Tribute to War Dead Grows, as McCain Weighs In,” The New York Times, 05/01/04]
  • In 2005, Sinclair faced controversy for its plans to air “a documentary attacking Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry’s military record just before the” 2004 presidential election. The documentary alleged “that North Vietnamese captors used Kerry’s statements about atrocities committed by American troops during the conflict as an excuse to torture U.S. prisoners of war.” Sinclair planned to run the program on all its 62 stations, but backed down after Democrats argued that airing the anti-Kerry documentary amounted “to an illegal corporate campaign contribution to President Bush” and there were “calls for an advertiser boycott.” Instead, Sinclair aired excerpts of the documentary during “a program that analysts said was more balanced.” [Paul Farhi, “Under new ownership, WJLA-TV takes a slight turn to the right,” The Washington Post, 09/16/14; David Folkenflik, “Sinclair’s TV program on Kerry is called illegal donation to Bush,” The Baltimore Sun, 10/12/04; William Booth, “Docu-Trauma; For Political Films, the Box Office Is More Bombo Than Boffo,” The Washington Post, 11/02/04; “Federal Elections Commission Finds No Violation By Sinclair; Complaint by the DNC is Dismissed,” PR Newswire US, 07/28/05]
  • Sinclair commentator Mark Hyman—then Sinclair’s vice president of corporate relations—announced “that any network that refused to air the anti-Kerry documentary were ‘acting like Holocaust deniers.’ He also said that even if the documentary was a gift to Bush, the effect was balanced by the existence of suicide bombers in the Middle East, since after all, ‘Every car bomb in Iraq would be considered an in-kind contribution to John Kerry.'” [Wil S. Hylton, “Not Necessarily the News,” GQ, 11/06/05]
  • Sinclair fired its Washington bureau chief, Jon Leiberman, after he spoke out against the anti-John Kerry documentary, calling it “‘biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election.'” Sinclair sued Leiberman for damages a year later, alleging that he had violated his contract by speaking publicly against the company. Sinclair threatened legal action after Leiberman began working at a Baltimore radio station, alleging it violated a noncompete clause in his contract. Sinclair Chairman David Smith also personally “protested a decision by the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication to give Leiberman a special professional citation.” [Nick Madigan, “Sinclair sues ex-employee for damages, pact violation,” The Baltimore Sun, 10/20/05; Nick Madigan, “TV reporter files lawsuit against Sinclair over his dismissal; Leiberman alleged bias in Kerry documentary,” The Baltimore Sun, 12/09/05]
  • Sinclair “produced two infomercials timed to coincide with the 2010 and 2012 elections,” which were criticized as an attempt “to influence political views days before an election.” Less than a week before the 2010 election, Sinclair stations aired Breaking Point: 25 Minutes that Will Change America on stations in a number of swing states. The “vicious 25-minute infomercial” referred to President Obama as a “‘socialist,'” claimed that “the views of Democrats are ‘far too extreme for Americans to accept,'” and “accused President Obama of raising campaign cash from” “the terrorist group Hamas.” The National Republican Trust PAC, which paid for the infomercial, claimed, “This film will change this election and catapult Conservatives into Congress if enough voters see it before Election Day.” [Chuck Tryon, Political TV, New York: Routledge, 2016; “Fox affiliates run infomercial in swing states suggesting Obama funded by Hamas, wants to ‘kill some crackers,'” RawStory, 11/01/10; National Republican Trust PAC, 11/16/13 accessed via archive.org]
  • In late 2013, “after The Seattle Times wrote an editorial criticizing Sinclair’s purchase of KOMO, Sinclair ordered KOMO to do a story critical of the newspaper industry, and of The Seattle Times in particular.” In January 2017, “KOMO journalists were surprised” when the “station’s news director, who normally avoided overtly political stories, instructed his staff to look into an online ad that seemed to be recruiting paid protesters for President Trump’s inauguration.” The ad had been “seized on” by “right-leaning media organizations” “as proof of coordinated efforts by the left to subvert” Trump. Apparently, “the order had come down from Sinclair.” [Sydney Ember, “Sinclair Requires TV Stations to Air Segments That Tilt to the Right,” The New York Times, 05/12/17]
  • After being purchased by Sinclair in 2014, WJLA-TV, Washington’s ABC affiliate, Sinclair began “a partnership with the editorially conservative Washington Times to feature content” from the newspaper. WJLA employees alleged that “some of the stories ordered by Sinclair on a ‘must-run’ basis don’t meet the station’s long tradition of non-partisan reporting.” [Paul Farhi, “Under new ownership, WJLA-TV takes a slight turn to the right,” The Washington Post, 09/16/14]
  • During the 2016 campaign, Sinclair “gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump” and portrayed Hillary Clinton “in an unfavorable light.” Sinclair, whose “internal documents” showed a “strong tilt toward Trump,” scored 11 “‘exclusive'” interviews with Trump during the final three months of the campaign “in critical states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio,” 10 with Mike Pence, and 10 with other Trump surrogates. Two days prior to the Wisconsin primary, “Sinclair managers asked Sinclair-affiliated stations in Green Bay and Madison, Wis., to air extended portions” of a Trump interview. [Paul Farhi, “How a giant TV company helped Trump’s campaign,” The Washington Post, 12/22/16]
  • Sinclair, in the months leading up to the 2016 general election, required its stations to run “news stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton.” Local “stations were required by managers in Washington to make room in their evening newscasts or morning programs for” features such as, “‘Why did Hillary Clinton struggle with disclosing her medical diagnosis?'” and “‘Donald Trump Reflections of 9/11,’ which also included a package in which Ivanka Trump discussed what she would do in a Trump administration.” [Paul Farhi, “How a giant TV company helped Trump’s campaign,” The Washington Post, 12/22/16]

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