Facing a firestorm of criticism, Sinclair Broadcast Group spent last week defending a controversial on-air promotion in which its TV anchors across the country read identical scripts decrying "fake" news.
A video montage produced by website Deadspin, which shows anchors at local news stations warning of biased and false news on social media and in traditional outlets, went viral and sparked a backlash.
Critics say the TV station owner's centralized message, required to be read on air, further reinforces the notion that right-leaning Sinclair wants to consolidate the local news industry and spread politicized "propaganda" through control and ownership of more stations than any other broadcaster.
Opponents of Sinclair's proposed $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media, which would give it control of 233 television stations that reach 72 percent of U.S. households, see the anchor announcements as ominous signs of more to come from the company. They worry about conservative messaging being fed to local communities, especially when the latest echoes phrasing used by President Donald Trump when criticizing mainstream news organizations.
"The Deadspin viral video was a wakeup call, not just for the media industry but for the American people, who may not have known about the dangerous Sinclair-Tribune merger or the behavior of the company," said Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress, a critic of the merger and the company's practice of requiring "must run" segments on its stations. "There is a long history of Sinclair reaching into stations across the country and forcing anchors to report things a certain way. The fact that the American people are finally waking up to this and learning this is a watershed moment in the discussion about this company."
Hunt Valley-based Sinclair struck back against what it called media report attacks, first with a statement from its senior vice president of news, then in a lengthy email exchange between Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith and The New York Times.
The promos, the company said in its statement, came in response to the public's distrust in news and sought to assure viewers of the stations' commitment to accurate reporting. The broadcaster pointed out that a poll released Monday by Monmouth University showed that large swaths of the American public believe that traditional media outlets report "fake" news and that outside sources try to plant fake news in mainstream media.
Sinclair's promos served no political agenda and aimed only to differentiate its news programming from less reliable sources, the company said in its statement.
"We aren't sure of the motivation for the criticism, but find it curious that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media, which result in an ill-informed public with potentially dangerous consequences," said Scott Livingston, Sinclair's senior vice president of news, in a statement. "It is ironic that we would be attacked for messages promoting our journalistic initiative for fair and objective reporting, and for specifically asking the public to hold our newsrooms accountable."
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Smith defended the anchors "must-runs" segments in emails as standard practice in the industry.
The exchange with the Times' media reporter was unusual for Smith, who typically keeps a low public profile. Smith, whose father founded Sinclair as a radio station before moving into television with WBFF Fox45 in 1971, declined further comment Thursday through a spokeswoman.
"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," the Times reported Smith said in an email. "That would be all their news programming and other shows such as late-night talk, which is just late-night political so-called comedy."
In response to the criticism, Smith said in a subsequent email to the Times, "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?"
Trump, whose FCC chairman has been criticized as favoring the Sinclair-Tribune merger, appeared to come to the broadcaster's defense Monday, when he attacked his media enemies in a tweet that praised Sinclair and condemned CNN and NBC News.
"Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke," Trump tweeted.
In the Sinclair script, anchors say they are proud of their quality, balanced journalism but concerned about irresponsible, one-sided news stories.
"The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media," the script says. "More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories, stories that just aren't true, without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy."
It's true that public distrust of the media has increased, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which conduced the poll cited by Sinclair. The poll showed that more than three in four Americans think traditional major TV and newspaper media report "fake news," with nearly a third believing this happens regularly and nearly half believing it happens occasionally. Only a quarter said the term "fake news" applies only to stories where the facts are wrong.
The research also found that the term "fake news" has different meanings to consumers. Some believe it means outside agents trying to plant fabricated stories. Others say it means inaccurate reporting or editorial decisions media organization make in what they choose to cover.
"The public is putting all of that on the same level," Murray said. "What Sinclair tried to do with this dog whistle of disparaging other outlets that are disseminating fake news is to muddy the waters themselves, and that contributes to why we are in the situation we are in today."
He said Sinclair's statement on the face of it appears a benign defense of journalistic principles such as fairness and accuracy. But it could end up backfiring, he said, further feeding the belief that media can't be trusted.
"You have one media source pitting itself against other media sources rather than supporting the integrity of the fourth estate as an institution," Murray said. "They are going to undermine their own credibility as well."
Lucy A. Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, echoed that sentiment Friday when the school announced Friday that its faculty and leadership signed onto a letter to Smith.
"The must-read script interfered with the independence of local newsrooms, threatening to erode public trust in the journalists and news anchors who serve those communities," Dalglish said in a statement.
Some Democratic candidates, including Maryland gubernatorial candidate, Krish Vignarajah, vowed not to air campaign ads on Sinclair-owned stations. Comedian and actor Amy Schumer canceled an interview with WJLA, an ABC affiliate owned by Sinclair, according to reports.
Allied Progress developed and paid to run anti-Sinclair ads on four Sinclair stations, including WBFF in Baltimore, where the ads are scheduled to begin running this weekend.
"Our intention is to run their schedule because we believe that everyone has the right to express their opinion," William Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF, wrote late Thursday in an email to The Sun.
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And the promotional announcement is causing tensions inside many of the newsrooms at Sinclair's TV stations. One morning show producer on its Nebraska outlet resigned over the issue last month. Two anchors at a TV station in Eugene, Ore., refused to read the promotional statement.
Even as Sinclair defended itself, it also lashed back at some critics. On Thursday, the broadcaster informed the National Press Photographers Association that it would rescind a promised $25,000 donation to the group's legal advocacy program, a day after the group criticized Sinclair's coordinated messaging.
The press association said in a statement it was disappointed but would not be deterred from advocacy on behalf of First Amendment and copyright rights.
"We made our statement in the interest of promoting important conversations about journalism ethics, and the work of dedicated and brave journalists across the country and around the world," the group said.
David Zurawik and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.