In the weeks since Sinclair Broadcast Group first came under fire for mandating that its local news anchors narrate eerie anti-media promotional segments, the local TV news giant has proven again and again that it values its right-wing agenda more than the credibility of its employees.
Sinclair’s executives, a public relations firm the company hired, and Sinclair’s chief political analyst have all been working in overdrive to defend the company in nonsensical, combative, and often contradictory ways. Sinclair has also ramped up attacks on other media outlets -- in particular focusing on CNN and its senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter, who initially broke the story about Sinclair's scripted segments.
Sinclair’s attempt to redirect the conversation by homing in on supposed bias from others in media sends two unfortunate messages: (1) In spite of its initial claims, Sinclair’s purposely vague scripted promotional segment was indeed meant to mirror President Donald Trump in attacking the credibility of mainstream press, and (2) Sinclair is completely OK with mortifying its employees, who want to preserve their credibility as apolitical local journalists.
Sinclair employees speak out about the “uncomfortable” segments that were “stealing the credibility” of local news
CNN broke the story about Sinclair’s scripted promos because employees who were embarrassed by the segments spoke out. CNN’s Brian Stelter first reported on Sinclair’s scripted media-bashing segments after anonymous Sinclair employees shared the script in protest. Stelter’s original reporting from early March quoted several anonymous staffers who said the segments made Sinclair employees “uncomfortable” and that they were seen as “manipulative.” One employee told Stelter, “I felt like a POW recording a message.” [CNN, 3/7/18]
Former Sinclair news director told CNN that Sinclair “co-opt[s] the credibility that local anchors have built up in their communities ... to promote a political agenda.” Aaron Weiss, who was the news director at a Midwest station acquired by Sinclair, said on CNN that his “heart broke for the anchors who were forced to” read the promo and that the mandated spots are “the equivalent of a proof-of-life hostage video.” [Media Matters, 4/4/18]
A Sinclair producer resigned in protest of the company’s bias, saying the “must-run” segments made him and his co-workers “uncomfortable.” Justin Simmons, a former news producer at Sinclair-owned KHGI, told Stelter that he resigned on March 26 after Sinclair mandated that stations run the scripted promotional segments. In an opinion piece at The Washington Post, Simmons described an “uncomfortable” work situation for his former colleagues who are bound by contracts with Sinclair. [CNN, 4/4/18; The Washington Post, 4/10/18]
Anonymous Sinclair journalists wrote an op-ed saying they “felt like corporate mouthpieces” and “have lost respect for” their jobs. A group of anonymous Sinclair employees wrote a lengthy piece that was published on Vox explaining that many in their newsroom had opposed the scripted promos as they felt the spots played to their employer’s right-wing bias. The employees described an atmosphere in which they did not feel comfortable fighting back and were constrained by contracts from speaking out freely. [Vox, 4/5/18]
Former Sinclair anchor: “The company is attempting to use its local stations … to advance its political agenda.” [Providence Journal, 4/7/18]
Sinclair ran ads attacking CNN, further damaging the credibility of its employees. On April 10, Sinclair began running video ads on its local TV station websites attacking CNN and Stelter specifically. One employee told reporters the ads made them feel “mortified” and “on the verge of tears.” Another told LA Times reporter Matt Pearce that Sinclair was “using [its] local stations as attack pawns” and “stealing the credibility our news organization has built up in this community over the years.” [Los Angeles Times, 4/10/18]
Professional groups condemn Sinclair's tactics
Chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists said Sinclair’s actions suggest the company “does not understand or does not care about the role of local journalism.” [Society of Professional Journalists, Quill, 4/3/18]
The SAG-AFTRA union that represents thousands of TV journalists issued a statement saying, “We stand with our members and journalists everywhere in challenging corporate directives that call into question the journalistic integrity of the news presented to the public.” [Deadline, 4/4/18]
Board of directors of the National Press Photographers Association (NPAA): “Borrowing the credibility of those [local news] employees for this messaging could be construed as an affront to widely-held journalistic standards.” [National Press Photographers Association, 4/4/18]
Sinclair withdrew its promise to donate $25,000 to NPAA less than 24 hours after the association criticized the scripted promos. [Poynter, 4/6/18]
Leaders at 13 journalism schools signed a letter condemning Sinclair for eroding trust in local news. The letter said, “In making the leap to disparage news media generally — without specifics — Sinclair has diminished trust in the news media overall. Ironically, Sinclair’s use of news personnel to deliver commentary — not identified as such — may further erode what has traditionally been one of the strongest allegiances in the news landscape, the trust that viewers put in their local television stations.” [Poynter, 4/6/18]
Sinclair pushes back -- sometimes by accusing other media of bias
Sinclair VP Scott Livingston defended the scripted segments as an innocuous “corporate news journalistic responsibility promotional campaign.” In a memo to staff, Livingston wrote that media outlets were publishing “misleading, often defamatory stories” about Sinclair and said that the “fake” stories referenced in the scripted segments were the “unsubstantiated ones” that “move quickly across social media.” The memo echoed Livingston's initial defense in March when CNN first reported on the upcoming segments, in which he emphasized that the promos were meant to focus on “social media.” [CNN, 4/2/18, 3/7/18]
Meanwhile, Sinclair chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn repeatedly attacked CNN’s Brian Stelter on Twitter. While Sinclair leadership was defending the scripted segments as innocuous and focused on social media -- rather than an echo of Trump’s anti-press attitude -- the company’s chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, who formerly worked as an aide to Trump, was repeatedly attacking CNN and its media reporter Brian Stelter with language that echoed Trump’s. In a series of tweets from late March through April 10, Epshteyn accused CNN and Stelter of “bias” against Trump, talked about CNN’s ratings and “unwatchable programming,” and used the hashtag #UnreliableSources, a reference to Stelter’s CNN program, Reliable Sources. [Twitter, accessed 4/13/18]
In a “must-run” segment, Epshteyn attacked unnamed “cable and broadcast news hosts who inject their opinions and bias into news coverage all the time.” In an April 4 “must-run,” Epshteyn defended his “clearly marked” commentary segments and shifted focus to attacking other media, saying, “In terms of my analysis playing during your local news, as you see, my segments are very clearly marked as commentary. 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.” [Media Matters, 4/4/18]
Amid criticism, Sinclair Chairman David Smith stayed defiant, said that print media as a whole is “so left wing as to be meaningless dribble” and has “just no credibility.” In emails to New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi, Smith said print media as a whole is leftist and has “no credibility” and, in Nuzzi’s words, “said he dislikes and fundamentally distrusts the print media.” In subsequent emails to The New York Times, Smith remained defensive and at one point replied dismissively to the Times’ questions about ethics, writing, “You cant (sic) be serious!” [New York magazine, 4/3/18; The New York Times, 4/4/18]
Sinclair allowed a progressive group to run ads on some of its stations opposing Sinclair’s expansion -- but included its own defense before and after the airing. Consumer watchdog group Allied Progress bought ad time on four Sinclair stations to run a 30-second spot criticizing the media company’s pending acquisition of Tribune Media stations. Sinclair allowed the ad to run, but sandwiched it between disclaimers calling the ad “misleading” and dismissing the watchdog’s concerns as “liberal bias” and “hysteria.” [CNN, 4/8/18]
Sinclair began running a new round of anti-media ads on its station websites attacking CNN specifically. On April 10, Sinclair began running video ads on its local TV station websites attacking CNN and Stelter specifically. The ads showed clips of Stelter discussing fake news, attempting to suggest CNN was being dishonest in its reporting on the Sinclair scripted segments. One anonymous Sinclair employee told the Los Angeles Times they felt the company was not being honest about its intentions, saying that the company’s defense that the original scripted segments were only targeting social media didn’t wash because “we're STILL using our local news sites to attack CNN. People aren't stupid. People know what's going on here." [Los Angeles Times, 4/10/18; YouTube, accessed 4/13/18]
In another internal memo, Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley called the widespread criticisms of the scripted segments “politically motivated attacks.” As reported by Politico, Ripley’s memo apologized to employees that they had to “field nasty calls, threats, personal confrontations and trolling on social media,” yet characterized those criticizing Sinclair as “extremists” launching “politically motivated attacks.” (The memo did not acknowledge that the initial criticism of the scripted segments came from Sinclair employees themselves.) [Politico, 4/10/18]
Sinclair mounts a defensive PR strategy that has numerous Trump connections
Trump tweeted in Sinclair’s defense, calling CNN and other media outlets “Fake News,” and Sinclair’s Epshteyn thanked him. Trump tweeted on April 2 and April 3 in defense of Sinclair and disparaged other outlets, calling CNN, NBC, ABC, and CBS “Fakers.” Sinclair’s chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, embraced the attacks, thanking his former boss. [Twitter, 4/2/18, 4/3/18, 4/2/18]
Sinclair hired Trump-connected press relations firm 5W. On April 9, a PR and marketing communications publication reported that Sinclair had retained 5W Public Relations, which is led by Ronn Torossian. Torossian reportedly did crisis work for The Eric Trump Foundation in 2017 and has represented former Trump Organization adviser Felix Sater. 5W currently lists Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow’s group the American Center for Law and Justice as a client. According to public tax filings, the center paid 5W nearly $250,000 in 2016 for public relations services. [O’Dwyer’s, 4/9/18, 6/23/17; Business Insider, 11/1/17; 5WPR.com, accessed 4/13/18; Guidestar, accessed 4/13/18]
Sinclair’s PR firm wrote a Daily Caller op-ed (without disclosure) defending Sinclair. On April 9, right-wing website The Daily Caller published an op-ed titled “Stand with Sinclair Broadcasting” that was authored by Torossian. The op-ed defended Sinclair’s scripted promos and attempted to redirect the conversation to the Epshteyn must-runs. It did not disclose that Torossian’s firm was hired by Sinclair and simply identified Torossian as a “public relations executive.” [The Daily Caller, 4/9/18]
As criticism continued, Sinclair Chairman Smith gave an interview to The Guardian in which he added new fuel to ongoing investigations into an unethical relationship between Sinclair and Trump. In an interview published on April 10, Smith told The Guardian he had met with Trump at the White House in 2017 to discuss what the paper described as, “a potentially lucrative new product.” He also said he had met with Trump during the 2016 election and told him, “We are here to deliver your message.” [The Guardian, 4/10/18]
Eric Hananoki contributed research to this post.