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Sinclair defends itself over uproar after local news anchors read anti ‘false news’ screed

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Sinclair Broadcast Group is defending itself against criticism for a recent on-air promotional message many of its local news anchors were asked to read that warned viewers about “false news” on competing media outlets.

Dozens of stations belonging to the nation’s largest broadcaster have aired video promotions in the last few weeks in which their local on-air news hosts voice concerns about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.” The anchors then go on to say that many media outlets are publishing “fake stories” and pushing agendas.

The promotion looks unique in each market,  but Sinclair’s corporate Hunt Valley, Md.-headquarters scripted and distributed it to its stations. 

Disapproval of the policy ranges from nation to local. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee tweeted Monday his condemnation of the segments. “Local news stations now required by Sinclair Broadcasting to parrot the talking points of the President, moving America one step closer to its own version of state run media. And another freedom is assailed under this Administration.
 

And in Cincinnati, City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld tweeted that he will no longer watch local Channel 12 after seeing the local anchors — and others across the country — reading the same script. “Creepy, cult-ish, and way too propagandistic for my taste,” the Democrat said in tweet Sunday.

This national message from Sinclair comes as regulators are considering whether to approve its nearly $4 billion deal to acquire Tribune Media Co. The acquisition, announced in May 2017, would increase Sinclair’s number of TV stations from 193 to 220 or more — and its reach of U.S. homes to 72%.

Critics of the merger say this national scripted promotion offers a hint at how an even-larger Sinclair could spread conservative-leaning messages across the largest-ever collection of local media outlets.

Awareness about the promotions has grown in the last few days after sports news site Deadspin edited together a video of dozens of local Sinclair stations broadcasts echoing each other. The site posted it on Twitter — it had more than 7 million views midday Monday — and its other social media pages Saturday and saw it replayed on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Sunday. Non-profit progressive news group ThinkProgress also put together its own video and posted it on its YouTube page.

Several news outlets have reported on the promotions and President Trump took some of those to task on Twitter Monday,. “So funny to watch Fake News Networks … criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” he tweeted. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

Sinclair produced the spots to express concern about the spread of such false media reports such as the “Pope Endorses Trump” fake news story, which emerged just before the 2016 presidential election, that can quickly spread across social media, Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s senior vice president of news, told The Baltimore Sun in an email statement. 

“Some other false stories, like the fake ‘Pizzagate’ story (a conspiracy theory that also gained arose prior to the 2016 election), can result in dangerous consequences,” he told the Sun. “We are focused on fact-based reporting. That’s our commitment to our communities. That’s the goal of these announcements: to reiterate our commitment to reporting facts in a pursuit of truth. We consider it our honor and privilege to deliver the news each night. We seek the truth and strive to be fair.”

Last month, anchors told CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter, who broke the story about the planned Sinclair promotion, their concerns in recording the promos. “I felt like a POW recording a message,” one of the anchors told the Reliable Sources host.

In a followup story Monday on CNN.com, Stelter noted how the viral video ignited the issue and quoted another Sinclair journalist, an investigative reporter, who said, “It sickens me the way this company is encroaching upon trusted news brands in rural markets.”

In the Sinclair script, which Stelter obtained and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer posted Friday, local anchors begin the video segment stating their pride in “the quality, balanced journalism that (their station) produces.”

Then, the anchor or anchors expound on how “the sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media,” and that many media outlets are “publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first,” the script says. It goes on to warn that some media pushing “their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’ … This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

Many liberals have called out Sinclair for the same behavior that these promotions decry. The company got some attention in April for hiring Boris Epshteyn, a special assistant to President Trump, as a chief political analyst. His “Bottom Line with Boris” commentary segments, which appear across Sinclair’s network of stations, are often attacked as misinformation that touts a pro-Trump agenda.

Sinclair has been criticized in the past for giving favorable coverage to then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Democrats have also chided FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump-appointed Republican, for supporting TV ownership rule changes that would make it easier for the merger to pass regulatory scrutiny. After their requests, the FCC Inspector General began in investigation into whether Pai has acted inappropriately in assisting Sinclair. 

“Sinclair is now well-known for its history of abusing public trust to air right-wing spin and promote xenophobia on local news shows,” says a statement from liberal media activist group Media Matters for America. The group says it found at least 62 Sinclair stations reaching 29 states and the District of Columbia that have broadcast their own versions of the scripted segment.

The merger, the group says, “will help it spread its conservative propaganda further across the country.”

In July 2017, Oliver blasted the broadcaster’s conservative-leaning practices and its “must-run” video segments made for local stations. After running the Deadspin video on Sunday’s show, the host commented: “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.”

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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