The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sinclair is fighting back but only hurting itself

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 Broadcast Group Chairman David D. Smith is defending his company against media criticism of on-air promos in which local news anchors at Sinclair stations across the country were required to warn viewers about “fake stories” in the national media.

The scrutiny comes as Sinclair seeks regulatory approval for a $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media, a deal that could extend its reach to 72 percent of U.S. households and make its content all the more influential. President Trump signaled his support for the right-leaning media company this week, tweeting, “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.”

But as Smith stood up for Sinclair in an email interview with the New York Times, he hurt his cause with flimsy arguments. Here are some key excerpts from the Times piece — and some reasons they are unhelpful to Sinclair:

Mr. Smith defended the anchors’ segments, known as “must-runs,” and likened them to the late-night shows that networks air on their local affiliates.

“Not that you would print it, but do you understand that every local TV station is required to ‘must run’ from its network their content, and they don’t own me,” he wrote on Tuesday. “That would be all their news programming and other shows such as late-night talk, which is just late-night political so-called comedy.”

Inviting a comparison between Sinclair's news segments and political satire is probably not the best idea.
But the main problem is that Smith is sidestepping the real issue, which is the substance of the promos, not the corporate mandate to run them. Had Sinclair merely directed local stations to tout their own trustworthiness, the company would not have drawn national scrutiny. Instead, Sinclair ordered stations to produce promos that seemed aimed at undermining public confidence in the rest of the media.
Some of Sinclair's own journalists have voiced discomfort with the promos. Most have requested anonymity when speaking with other news outlets, but two anchors at an Oregon station told a local newspaper that they refused to participate.
“I don’t believe in hurting other journalists,” KVAL morning anchor Lauren Lapka told the Register-Guard of Eugene.
A producer at a Nebraska station resigned in protest.
“This is almost forcing local news anchors to lie to their viewers,” Justin Simmons told CNN.

He also said the promotional segments “were tested by a well-recognized research firm in this industry.”

So, the promos are effective marketing tools, according to Smith, but that does not make them journalistically sound. This is a point that makes Sinclair appear more invested in public relations than reporting.

Asked about the widespread criticism prompted by the Deadspin compilation [a video montage of the anchors' statements], Mr. Smith expressed disbelief.

“You cant be serious!” he wrote. “Do you understand that as a practical matter every word that comes out of the mouths of network news people is scripted and approved by someone?”

First, this is false. Journalists at national networks often ad-lib live reports.
Second, reports that are scripted are generally approved by other journalists. That's not to say executive interference never happens anywhere outside Sinclair. But Smith is suggesting that a network anchor reading a script she wrote with her producer is the same as a local anchor reading a script authored by a national office and “tested by a well-recognized research firm.” It's not.

Mr. Smith, whose father, Julian Sinclair Smith, founded Sinclair in 1971, called the notion that the company used must-runs to push right-leaning views “nonsense.”

This is a brazen denial of the obvious. Sinclair's must-run segments often feature the company's chief political analyst, who happens to be Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign aide who defends most of what the president does.
In one such segment, on Wednesday, Epshteyn noted that his appearances “are very clearly marked as commentary.” Epshteyn is right; his conservative, pro-Trump commentary is labeled, which makes Smith's remark to the Times truly baffling.

Mr. Smith did not answer a question about his relationship with Mr. Trump and said he did not “engage in Twitter, Facebook or other such activities and have not read anything the president has said.”

Smith is stretching the bounds of plausible deniability. He might not operate a Twitter account, but does anyone believe the man who chairs the nation's largest operator of local TV stations is unaware of what the president has said about the company?