The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Sinclair’s sound-alike anchors draw criticism for ‘fake news’ promos, Trump praises broadcaster

Tim Burke had a simple idea: Take clips of dozens of TV news anchors all spouting the same lines and mash them up into one video. The idea, he said, was to expose how one company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, had turned its many local newscasts into a national megaphone for its corporate views.

So Burke, the video director at Deadspin, pieced together video of anchors at 45 Sinclair-owned stations across the United States, all reading from a script that the ­Maryland-based company recently distributed to its stations about the perils of “fake news” and how it is “extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

The result was a massively viral video that sparked broad mainstream media attention, incited an angry tweet from President Trump, and prompted a national conversation about the perils of enabling companies such as Sinclair to control an ever-larger number of TV stations.

In the wake of the video — in which the anchors drone on with Trump-friendly rhetoric about “fake news” in mainstream reporting — Trump on Monday offered support for Sinclair, the nation’s largest owner of local TV stations.

Responding to news reports that featured Burke’s work and a similar video montage by ThinkProgress, he tweeted, “So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased. Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

Sinclair, based outside Baltimore, began airing the promotional campaign last week during newscasts on its stations. It ordered anchors at its stations to appear in the one-minute spots and to read the same words written for them by Sinclair executives.

“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” reads the script. “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories . . . stories that just aren’t true, without checking the facts first.

“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

Sinclair, which owns 173 TV stations and is seeking to buy 42 more, has a long history of supporting conservative political candidates and courting criticism by using the newscasts of its many stations to boost them. As it has expanded, it has introduced conservative commentators to its local newscasts, including regular segments featuring its chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign official.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, its stations in key swing states landed numerous exclusive interviews with Trump and his surrogates, and the company produced a number of news reports that were favorable to Trump or were critical of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Before a video that showcased news anchors reading a required script went viral, Sinclair Broadcast Group was not a well-known name. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Sinclair’s new “fake news” spots — which it refers to as its “Journalistic Responsibility Campaign” — have caused unease among some of the company’s journalists, who regard it as an attack on colleagues within their chosen profession and an instance of corporate pandering to the Trump administration. “Disgusted,” is how one newsroom employee at WJLA, Sinclair’s flagship station in Washington, summed up the internal reaction on Monday.

The spots attracted relatively little controversy when they first aired last week. But they began to gain attention, first on social media, after the website ThinkProgress assembled a video of anchors reading the script on Friday. The reaction grew to a roar after Burke produced his more elaborate version of the same idea and posted it Saturday afternoon on Deadspin.

Among others, John Oliver skewered Sinclair’s campaign during his HBO program, “Last Week Tonight,” on Sunday. “Yeah, nothing says we value independent media like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult,” Oliver quipped.

Another late-night comic, Jimmy Kimmel, tweeted a link to the Deadspin video and commented, “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy” — an ironic echo of a line from Sinclair’s promotional script and one that Burke repeated in his video.

MSNBC and CNN also aired reports featuring Burke’s video, which apparently triggered Trump’s tweet.

The controversy comes at a critical time for Sinclair. The company is awaiting federal approval for its proposed $3.9 billion buyout of Tribune Media, a deal that would add Tribune’s 42 TV stations to Sinclair’s portfolio, including those in big cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. If completed, the merger would give Sinclair direct access to about 70 percent of the TV households in the nation, by far the most by one company.

The deal requires the blessing of the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, both of which are dominated by Trump loyalists.

Opponents of the deal say it would give Sinclair too much power over local broadcast markets, fears that were given new prominence by the company’s mandate to its local anchors.

“I’m not against Sinclair and I’m not against President Trump, but I’m against this merger because it opens the barnyard door” to further consolidation by big broadcast companies such as CBS or NBC, said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, which operates a conservative news site and cable TV channel. “If the FCC allows this, there’s nothing to stop [other companies] from getting bigger and editorializing on their local newscasts.”

In a memo to Sinclair employees on Monday, Scott Livingston, the company’s vice president of news, shot back that the company’s critics were “upset about our well-researched journalistic initiative focused on fair and objective reporting.” He emphasized that the campaign was aimed at unsubstantiated claims, such as the notorious “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that inspired a shooting at a Washington pizza restaurant; or the one about the pope supposedly endorsing Trump’s candidacy — a ginned-up hoax that spread like wildfire on Facebook in 2016.

However, the campaign itself didn’t offer such specific examples to viewers. And Livingston, in his memo, didn’t mention stories such as the discredited theory that a Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich was murdered as payback for leaking politically embarrassing DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Sinclair’s WJLA pursued the Rich story avidly; it reported last year that an amateur investigative group funded by a GOP lobbyist found that it was likely a “hired killer” had murdered Rich. Police maintain Rich was killed in a botched robbery.

Sinclair aired an almost identical campaign against “fake news” last year. Those promotions featured Livingston, the Sinclair news executive, who criticized “the troubling trend of irresponsible and one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”

Although some Sinclair journalists privately grumbled about a corporate edict requiring them to air the Livingston spots on their stations, the campaign attracted little attention at the time. The new version, however, uses local anchors who are familiar to viewers and may have greater cachet and credibility.

On Monday, one Wisconsin television station said it did not air the Sinclair message during its 9 p.m. news over the weekend. “Rather, we stayed true to our commitment to provide our Madison area viewers local news, weather and sports of interest to them,” WMSN/Fox 47 tweeted.