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

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)

First Sinclair Broadcast Group got lacerated by the public and other news organizations for its controversial promotional campaign. Now some political candidates are joining in.

The company is facing calls by Democrats to withdraw campaign ads from Sinclair-owned TV stations in response to the promotions, in which Sinclair ordered its journalists to read from a corporate script about “fake news.”

Maryland businessman David Trone, a congressional candidate from Montgomery County, was the latest to pledge not to run commercials on the four Sinclair stations in the Baltimore and Washington areas. Thus far, only two others have made that pledge, but it could signal the start of a larger national boycott by Democratic politicians.

Sinclair, based near Baltimore, required TV anchors at its stations around the country to appear in the promotional spots, with each reading from an identical script written by company executives. While the script wasn’t explicitly political, it echoed language used by President Trump in disparaging the news media.

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

A video compilation of dozens of anchors all reading the same copy went viral this week, igniting criticism of Sinclair, which owns 193 TV stations, the largest chain in the country. Viewers called and emailed the stations to criticize what they saw as a Trump-friendly corporate message that trampled on the independent traditions of local TV news.

Sinclair executives have expressed befuddlement about the backlash, emphasizing in public statements and memos to staff that the campaign was merely aimed at outrageous unsubstantiated claims that have circulated on social media, such as the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory or bogus reports about the pope endorsing Trump.

But a sense that the promo was a veiled attack on media rivals was bolstered by Sinclair contributor Boris Epshteyn — the former Trump campaign official whose political analyses are distributed to Sinclair stations on a “must-run” basis — when he addressed the controversy on-air late Wednesday.

“As you see, my segments are very clearly marked as commentary,” Epshteyn said. “The same cannot be said for cable and broadcast news hosts who inject their opinions and bias into news coverage all the time without drawing any lines between them.”

Trone, a wealthy entrepreneur who founded the Total Wine & More retail stores, vowed to bypass Sinclair-owned stations in his bid to win an open seat in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District. “After he learned that Sinclair stations were using the airwaves to advance the Trump agenda, David made a decision to place his campaign ads elsewhere,” said Trone’s spokesman, Alex Koren.

Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah made a similar move, vowing “not to advertise on any of Sinclair’s local affiliates, unless the company stops using local airwaves as propaganda machines or local affiliates refuse to be complicit in Sinclair’s political agenda,” in a statement published by the Baltimore Sun.

Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, who is running for a congressional seat, also said she will withdraw her campaign ads from a local Sinclair-owned station. Sinclair’s promotional campaign, she said, “eerily mimics the propaganda efforts that authoritarian regimes often use to control the media in their own country.”

Although Trone spent more than $10 million in a losing bid for Congress in 2016 and has spent $1.5 million of his own money on his current campaign, the candidates’ boycott seems more of a symbolic loss to the company than a financial one. Sinclair had revenue of $2.7 billion and profit of $576 million in 2017, so losing a few advertising buys won’t make much of a dent in its bottom line.

However, Sinclair is likely to face continued public-relations fallout. Both Vignarajah and McGrath called on Democratic candidates around the country to avoid placing ads on Sinclair stations. Their statements suggest Democrats are eager to paint Sinclair as a conservative operation beholden to Trump, undermining the company’s claim that its local newscasts are nonpartisan.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) on Wednesday asked Sinclair to provide information about its “must-run” news stories distributed to stations for mandatory inclusion on their newscasts. “The requirement that local news anchors deliver a scripted promotional message on-air is inconsistent” with the company’s assertions that it does not dictate what its local journalists say, he wrote to the company’s executive chairman, David Smith.

A company spokeswoman had no comment Wednesday about Durbin’s request or the candidate boycott.

In the days since the video of sound-alike anchors swept the Internet and dominated news reports, some viewers have been unsparing in their criticism.

“The fact that your faux-journalists, to a person, have not stood up to Sinclair Broadcasting’s Pravda-like tactics, I am never going to read or watch a thing you produce,” emailed one Las Vegas-area viewer to Sinclair-owned KSNV-TV. “The video revealed that the ‘local’ news isn’t always so local.”

Another KSNV viewer wrote that the station appeared to be “a political arm of state news capable of selling the integrity of its anchors.”

Despite Sinclair’s protests that there was no political intent in its promos, Trump fanned the flames by siding vehemently with the company in a tweet Tuesday morning: “The Fake News Networks, those that have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The ‘Fakers’ at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!”

Journalists at Sinclair-owned KATU in Portland, Ore., said reporters and crews from the station were “verbally attacked” on Tuesday as they reported stories from the field. “It is just a matter of time before it gets worse,” said one Sinclair employee, who like others interviewed asked not to be named out of concern for his job. “It’s certainly something to keep an eye on.”

In an earlier statement, Sinclair said the promos “were responding to the public’s distrust in news generally . . . and represented nothing more than an effort to differentiate our award-winning news programming from other, less reliable sources of information.” Which is not how many viewers and some of Sinclair’s own journalists saw it.

“It seems they are indifferent to shame or ridicule and wear it as a badge of honor,” said a journalist at WJLA, Sinclair’s Washington, D.C., station, who also received angry emails from viewers about the promos. “It’s the Trump/Roy Cohn model — never admit you are wrong or even hint at doubt.”

In Nebraska, a producer at a Sinclair-owned station resigned to protest what he called the company’s “obvious bias,” according to CNN. Another Sinclair journalist said some of the viewer criticism, which has included threats to boycott advertisers or stop watching, is unfair since the anchors “were required to read the scripts verbatim.”

The WJLA journalist said morale at the station was already poor, but “I guess we keep hoping something will change — that the place we were proud to be a part of will return. . . . All our work is blown away with s--- like this.”