A Sinclair-owned news station in Madison, Wisconsin pushed back against the conservative-leaning media company’s directives this week, saying it refused to air a recent “must-run” propaganda segment highlighting “false news” from competitor stations out of a commitment to its viewers.
“WMSN/FOX47 Madison did not air the Sinclair promotional announcement during our 9pm news this weekend,” a spokesperson for Fox 47 Madison said. “Rather, we stayed true to our commitment to provide our Madison area viewers local news, weather and sports of interest to them.”
In response to the Sinclair message aired: "WMSN/FOX47 Madison did not air the Sinclair promotional announcement during our 9pm news this weekend. Rather, we stayed true to our commitment to provide our Madison area viewers local news, weather and sports of interest to them." pic.twitter.com/MdQ568cWrH
— FOX 47 Madison (@fox47madison) April 2, 2018
In response to questions on Twitter, a Fox 47 spokesperson clarified that the station had not run the segment “at any time.”
Fox 47’s comments were in direct response to recent fallout over a script for a “must-run” segment that was sent to all Sinclair-owned stations last month, which claimed “false news” from competing outlets posed a danger to democracy.
“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first,” the script reads, in part. “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 a democracy.”
Sinclair has made a practice of airing similar “must-run” segments on its stations over the years, forcing reporters and anchors to parrot misinformation and White House talking points under the guise of real news. Many segments feature former Trump advisers like Boris Epshtyn and Sebastian Gorka rattling off Trump-friendly statements on topics such as extremism, immigration, and free speech. One recent segment also featured propaganda about the so-called “Deep State,” a collection of un-elected government officials who conservative conspiracy theorists believe are somehow attempting to overthrow the administration from the inside.
In December, White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, also acknowledged that, during the 2016 election, the Trump campaign struck a deal with Sinclair to obtain favorable coverage in exchange for greater access to the campaign. When confronted about the move, Sinclair’s vice president of news, Scott Livingston, told Politico that the company had offered a similar deal to Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, but claimed Clinton had declined the opportunity.
Fox 47 isn’t the only station to be hesitant to run these kinds of canned, propaganda-like segments: on Monday, Fletcher Fischer, business manager and financial secretary of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1228, spoke to The Providence Journal and said that the anchors and journalists at stations like local NBC-affiliate WJAR were unhappy with the mandatory scripts, but were afraid to speak out.
“No one in our bargaining unit is happy with the way Sinclair is forcing these must-runs,” Fischer said. “Every time, they get flooded with emails and calls from viewers who hate it. They are in the same boat that every anchor is with Sinclair: If they complain about something, they are gone.”
In Seattle, KOMO employees have also expressed a reluctance to follow orders from the top. “They’re certainly not happy about it,” one employee told the Post-Intelligencer. “It’s certainly a forced thing.”
Speaking with ThinkProgress this week, an employee at a Sinclair-owned outlet, who asked to remain anonymous, added that the script revelation was hardly surprising to anyone. Given how common such “must-run” segments are at Sinclair member stations, they said, none of the reporters were at all shocked by the most recent developments.
The reluctance to speak out stems largely from the fact that journalists at Sinclair-owned outlets are typically bound by strict contracts and punished if they push back, speak out, or try to leave, according to many current and former employees.
A Sinclair journalist, who has been trying to resist from inside the newsroom — but who doesn’t have a union — explains why it’s so hard for TV anchors to refuse the Sinclair’s editorial edicts. They have contracts that penalize them if they quit. pic.twitter.com/pFGVglxAQU
— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) April 2, 2018
A former Sinclair journalist sent me a screenshot of their contract. “I couldn't leave because of this part of my contract.” pic.twitter.com/ePCnUCbzs0
— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) April 2, 2018
Sinclair responded to the script controversy this week by claiming that its critics were simply upset about its “fair and objective reporting” efforts.
“The critics are now upset about our well-researched journalistic initiative focused on fair and objective reporting,” Livingston said in an internal memo on Monday, published by CNN. “For the record, the stories we are referencing in this campaign are the unsubstantiated ones (i.e. fake/false) like ‘Pope Endorses Trump’ which move quickly across social media and result in an ill-informed public.”
Employees at some Sinclair-owned stations have also reportedly been told not to speak to the media and threatened with “huge implications” if they do.
This is what reporters at KATU news in Portland are dealing with from Sinclair Broadcasting. Note the second-to-last graph. pic.twitter.com/Wuye2vZ3IT
— Samantha Swindler (@editorswindler) April 2, 2018
President Trump weighed in on the Sinclair controversy this week in a series of tweets, criticizing those speaking out against the conservative media company and calling them “Fake News.”
“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,” he wrote on Monday. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
In a follow-up tweet on Tuesday morning, he added, “The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly 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!”