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Sinclair attacks CNN with video alleging ‘hypocrisy’ in ‘fake news’ debate

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)

The nation’s largest owner of TV stations has mounted an unusual video attack on CNN for what it calls “dishonesty and hypocrisy” in the cable giant’s coverage of the company’s widely panned news promotions.

Stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group on Tuesday began posting on their websites a corporate-produced video that challenges CNN’s reporting on Sinclair’s controversial promos — a script, echoing President Trump’s criticism of the mainstream news media, that Sinclair distributed to its local stations and required dozens of its TV anchors to deliver.

The new four-minute Sinclair video, titled “Did CNN Attack Sinclair For Doing Exactly What CNN Has Done For Years?” was created last week at Sinclair’s Hunt Valley, Md. headquarters in response to widespread coverage of Sinclair’s “journalistic responsibility” promotional campaign.

After an on-screen image declaring that it is about to present “evidence of a major media company’s dishonesty and hypocrisy,” the video features clips of CNN reporter Brian Stelter in 2016 and 2017 warning about the spread of “fake news” — which the video asserts is all Sinclair intended to do in its promotional campaign last month.

“So in 2016 and 2017, CNN was worried about ‘fake news’ and was warning people about it,” the Sinclair video says. “That concern about biased and fake news sounds a lot like what Sinclair’s anchors talked about.”

It concludes, “Calling out Sinclair for calling out ‘Fake News’ is dishonest and reprehensible.”

Although it attempts to equate its own campaign with CNN’s warning about “fake news,” the video doesn’t mention the shifting definition of the phrase. Around the time of the 2016 presidential election, many media commentators raised concerns about a spate of hoax stories, produced by little-known websites and planted in social media to spread misinformation and stoke fears — claims that Hillary Clinton was on the verge of being indicted, for example, or that the pope had endorsed Trump. It was those hoaxes that Stelter warned about more than a year ago.

But the phrase “fake news” was quickly taken up by Trump as an insult to wield against mainstream journalists, for anything from quickly corrected errors to solidly reported stories he found unflattering.

The video was posted on the websites of Sinclair’s 193 stations nationwide, including WJLA in the Washington area, WBFF in Baltimore and KOMO in Seattle.

It was Sinclair’s strongest response to the media and public drubbing it took last week after Deadspin and ThinkProgress edited together dozens of the company’s anchors reading its promotional copy. For many viewers and critics, the corporate message seemed both like a veiled attack on rival media outlets and an effort to trample the independent traditions of local TV news. The backlash has roiled the company, with some employees expressing criticism and a handful of Democratic political candidates advocating an ad boycott of Sinclair.

Sinclair faces fallout from viewers and Democratic candidates over ‘fake news’ promos

The video has been in the works at Sinclair’s headquarters outside Baltimore for more than a week and was the subject of input and discussion from the company’s executive chairman, David Smith, and senior vice president of news, Scott Livingston, according to people at Sinclair who asked not to be identified to protect their jobs.

The video’s release coincided with a company-wide staff memo on Tuesday from Sinclair chief executive Chris Ripley, who called criticism of the company’s promotional campaign “politically motivated” by “extremists.”

Noting “nasty calls, threats, personal confrontations and trolling on social media” that erupted after the campaign began, Ripley wrote, “As an organization it is important that we do not let extremists on any side of the political fence bully us because they do not like what they hear or see.”

CNN and Stelter declined comment when contacted on Tuesday. But Stelter, in a tweet, fired back: “There’s a huge difference between my coverage and Sinclair’s mandatory promos. No one tells me what to say. But these anchors were told exactly what to say.”

Another journalist, Alex Burns of the New York Times, offered a more stinging criticism on Twitter: “How better to allay concerns that you are turning local TV stations into a pro-Trump machine than . . . a coordinated denunciation of CNN?,” he tweeted.

A Sinclair spokesman, Ron Torossian, issued a statement that read, in part, “One of the more hypocritical and dishonest depictions of Sinclair’s promotional spots has come from CNN, which disparaged Sinclair warnings to viewers about ‘fake news’ depicting them as, ‘echoing Trump’s Talking points’ and ‘taking a page out of ‘Trump’s playbook.’ . . . For CNN to politicize Sinclair’s journalistic commitment promos is hypocritical and shameful.”

He declined to answer questions.