Sinclair Broadcast Group is battling back against mounting criticism of its company-wide directive for news anchors at its stations to warn viewers about the prevalence of unsubstantiated news reports spread via social media.
Sinclair earlier this year initiated a policy of having anchors at its 170-plus TV stations around the country read the same warning about bias in news and false reports being “extremely dangerous to our democracy.” That has drawn fire from critics who say Sinclair is using its broad reach in local news to buttress President Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on mainstream news outlets that have published tough reports on his administration, his personal life, and his family.
Sinclair maintains that the warnings from anchors are designed to warn viewers about the scourge of made-up news stories and partisan-skewed information that spreads via social media. The influence of fake news has been a hot topic in political and cultural circles and is a key component of investigations in Washington about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Sinclair’s efforts have received new scrutiny in the past few days after the website Deadspin assembled a short video showing anchors at dozens of Sinclair stations reciting the same fake news warning word for word. The Sinclair script does not mention President Trump by name. The Deadspin video generated heat on social media during the weekend, prompting retweets with critical commentary from TV personalities such as Jimmy Kimmel.
In a statement Monday, Sinclair insisted that the anchor promotional effort was motivated by polls showing deep distrust among the public of mainstream news coverage.
“The promos served no political agenda, and represented nothing more than an effort to differentiate our award-winning news programming from other, less reliable sources of information,” Sinclair stated.
Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s senior VP of news, reiterated that the message is meant to reinforce the traditional objectivity of local TV news. The promotional scripts invite viewers to contact the station if they feel its reporting betrays any political bias or with other concerns.
“We aren’t sure of the motivation for the criticism, but find it curious that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media, which result in an ill-informed public with potentially dangerous consequences,” Livingston said in a statement provided by Sinclair. “It is ironic that we would be attacked for messages promoting our journalistic initiative for fair and objective reporting, and for specifically asking the public to hold our newsrooms accountable. Our local stations keep our audiences’ trust by staying focused on fact-based reporting and clearly identifying commentary.”
The criticism of Sinclair also comes as the FCC is nearing its final decision on the company’s pending $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media. That deal will extend Baltimore-based Sinclair’s reach into the nation’s largest TV markets for the first time. The FCC at present is seen as being friendly to Sinclair and its policy agenda, which jibes with the anti-regulation thrust of the Trump administration and the laissez faire approach to policing the airwaves favored by FCC chairman Ajit Pai.
Anchors at some Sinclair stations have complained about having to read the fake news promo scripts. Employees at Tribune Media stations are on edge about changes that may come in the newsroom when Sinclair takes over. On Monday, Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate WMSN-TV in Madison, Wis., went so far as to send a tweet declaring that it decided against including the fake news promo in its regular 9 p.m. newscast.
Sinclair’s history of supporting conservative causes and its tradition of delivering must-run commentary segments that typically lean right-of-center has also fueled suspicion about a larger agenda behind the fake news promos. Reports that Sinclair has instructed station managers to direct viewer comments to the company’s corporate headquarters rather than the local station management has only heightened the backlash to the fake news campaign.
Sinclair’s effort to distance its promos from any association with President Trump’s political agenda was undermined by the fact that the president sent a tweet praising Sinclair and once again bashing CNN and other “fake news networks.”
Politics aside, the fake news promo campaign also rankles Sinclair critics because it is another example of the company’s centralized approach to programming its stations, which reach a broad swath of the nation. That reach will grow to more than 70% of U.S. TV households if the Tribune deal is completed. Opponents of the deal say it will be a blow to the tradition of TV stations being heavily locally oriented in programming and management.
Sinclair and other sizable station owners say the vast expansion of the local and national media landscape has forced broadcasters to seek economies of scale to remain competitive with much larger media and tech giants. But critics maintain that 200-plus stations under one company’s control is too much concentration.
“The monopoly-making Sinclair/Tribune merger would allow one company to own local news stations reaching 73 percent of U.S. households. That’s an awfully big rubber-stamp for Trump’s agenda,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of the media watchdog org Allied Progress. “This merger would concentrate far too much power with a single company that has already indicated it hopes to own every local station in America. This deal must be rejected by the DOJ and FCC to protect the diversity of voices that local journalism needs to survive and thrive.”
POPULAR VIDEO ON VARIETY