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Media Giant Sinclair, Under Fire for Forcing Anchors to Read Trumpian Screed, Is Rapidly Expanding

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While Sinclair Broadcast Group is not a household name, it is one of the most powerful TV companies in the nation. It owns 173 local TV stations across the country, including affiliates of all the major networks. And it’s attempting to grow even larger by purchasing Tribune Media—a $3.9 billion deal currently under regulatory review. Sinclair has been widely criticized for its close ties to the White House. But Sinclair is facing new scrutiny after it ordered news anchors at scores of its affiliate stations to recite nearly identical “must-read” commentaries warning of the dangers of “fake news” in language that echoes President Trump’s rhetoric. The commentaries reached millions of viewers last month and drew widespread attention after the website Deadspin published a video over the weekend showing side-by-side comparisons of the broadcasts from 45 Sinclair-owned stations. We speak to Andy Kroll, senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show looking at Sinclair Broadcast Group. While it’s not a household name, Sinclair is one of the most powerful TV companies in the nation. It owns 173 local TV stations across the country, including affiliates of all the major networks. And it’s attempting to grow even larger by purchasing Tribune Media—a $3.9 billion deal currently under regulatory review.

Sinclair has been widely criticized for its close ties to the White House. It’s chairman and former CEO, David Smith, is active in Republican politics and supported Donald Trump’s campaign. The network’s chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, served as a senior adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign. During the 2016 campaign, Sinclair reportedly struck a deal with the Trump campaign to give it better media coverage.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sinclair is coming under new criticism after it ordered news anchors at scores of its affiliate stations around the country to recite nearly identical “must-read” commentaries warning of the dangers of “fake news” in language that echoed President Trump’s rhetoric. The commentaries reached millions of viewers last month and drew widespread attention after the website Deadspin published a video over the weekend showing side-by-side comparisons of the broadcasts from 45 Sinclair-owned stations.

JESSICA HEADLEY: Hi. I’m Fox San Antonio’s Jessica Headley.

RYAN WOLF: And I’m Ryan Wolf.

RYAN WOLF, DEBORA KNAPP: Our greatest responsibility is to serve our—

NATALIE HURST: Treasure Valley communities.

PATRICIA MAESE: The El Paso-Las Cruces communities.

JENEÉ RYAN: Eastern Iowa communities.

DAVE BONDY: Mid-Michigan communities.

NICOLE HICKL: We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that CBS 4 News produces.

DAN JOSEPH: But—

SINCLAIR NEWS ANCHORS: We are concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.

RACHELLE MURCIA: Plaguing our country.

DAVE GONZALES: 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 without checking facts first.

SINCLAIR NEWS ANCHORS: 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 simply 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. And this is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

RYAN WOLF: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

DEBORA KNAPP: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

CHRIS MAY: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

AUTRIA GODFREY: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

ROB BRAUN: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

LIZ BISHOP: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

NORMA HOLLAND: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

MELISSA CARLSON: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

PATRICIA MAESE: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

JENEÉ RYAN: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

MARK KOELBEL: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

FRAENDY CLERVAUD: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

STACEY SKRYSAK: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

FRANK COLETTA: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

TREY PAUL: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: After that video of clips from Sinclair Broadcast Group went viral, President Trump publicly defended the network. The president has tweeted about Sinclair twice over the past two days. This morning, Trump tweeted, quote, “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!” Sinclair has defended its decision to force dozens of anchors to read the same script. The company has described it as, quote, “corporate news journalistic responsibility promotional campaign.”

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us in Washington, D.C., is Andy Kroll, senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine, where he has written extensively about Sinclair Broadcast Group. His latest piece is headlined “Trump Tweets That Sinclair 'Is Far Superior to CNN.'” In December, Andy Kroll wrote a long piece headlined “Ready for Trump TV? Inside Sinclair Broadcasting’s Plot to Take Over Your Local News.”

So, Andy Kroll, why don’t you start off by talking about the significance of this commentary that local reporters, you know, people in their communities who are well known across the country, whose stations were often independently owned, now altogether under Sinclair Broadcasting, being forced to read this commentary, what this means, and what’s happening with Sinclair right now?

ANDY KROLL: Absolutely. And as you saw in that video, the script, the way in which this language is identically read, and the way that these anchors were forced by the management of Sinclair Broadcast Group to read these scripts word for word, is chilling. It’s creepy. These videos have been described by some people as “hostage videos,” if you look at the anchors in these clips.

The important thing to understand about Sinclair is that it is not like Fox News in how it is organized. Fox News, obviously, you know, notorious for its conservative bent and support for this president, is a channel on your cable box. You know where it is. If you want to watch Fox News, you change the channel, and you go there, and 24/7 you get Fox News. Sinclair is an entirely different creature. Sinclair is not—the name Sinclair does not appear on the channels that we’re talking about. When someone in El Paso or someone in Fresno, California, or someone in Kalamazoo, Michigan, turns on a Sinclair channel, a Sinclair affiliate in their hometown, they don’t see the name Sinclair Broadcast Group. They don’t see SBG. They see the four letters and the familiar faces of their local news.

And so, this message about false stories that we heard in this anchor clip that you played, the message about members of the media trying to control, quote, “exactly what you think,” referring to the viewer, which alone is incredibly chilling language, these kinds of message are essentially laundered through local anchors, whose job it is to build up trust with their audiences, who are familiar, friendly faces. And that’s what makes this ploy by Sinclair so chilling, so terrifying, is that this is not coming from some obscure corporate executive that we don’t know—though Sinclair has done that, as well. It’s coming through the anchors, and they are the ones being used as foot soldiers, as one person put it, in support of a corporate agenda by Sinclair Broadcast Group.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Andy, when we hear President Trump talking about Sinclair’s being for superior to CNN, clearly many people may have criticisms of CNN, but one thing that that network does do is it provides its own original reporting. As you were saying, many of these Sinclair local stations, usually they could be affiliates of one of the other networks—ABC, CBS or NBC—but they do their local news, obviously. But didn’t Sinclair pioneer this whole idea of regional broadcasts—local broadcasts, where, basically, you could be getting your local news in X town, but it could be being produced a hundred miles away by another regional Sinclair operation that’s basically mass-producing, quote, “local news”?

ANDY KROLL: That’s right. Sinclair, with this corporate model that it has, is known in the broadcast business, really, for being ruthless about cutting costs, ruthless about consolidation, in finding ways to eliminate staff, to, obviously, bring in more revenue and more profits and increase its stock price. And so, what we have seen with Sinclair in recent years is an effort to outsource parts of the local television production and delivery process to try to save money.

We’ve seen this, in fact, in the Midwest region. In Toledo and in a part of Pennsylvania, we saw the anchors for those local—supposedly local television stations, owned by Sinclair, actually that process be outsourced to South Bend, Indiana, and so that you had two anchors working out of South Bend, Indiana, who were appearing on a local Ohio television program and a local Pennsylvania television program. And if you look online, and as I’ve reported in the past, there are examples when these anchors and the programs that they have run have actually confused which—the name of the station, whether it’s the Toledo station or a different station. There has been confusion going from the local meteorologist back to the regional, outsourced anchor desk.

It does not seem to be a model that has worked particularly well, at least in the actual delivery and quality of the broadcast, of the local news delivery. However, I’m told by people who are familiar with Sinclair’s plans for its big expansion, even before the Tribune deal, that this kind of model is something that is being looked at, this outsourcing of parts of the news production process, taking anchors out of the local communities. This is something that’s being considered and looked at in other media markets, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to John Oliver talking about Sinclair Broadcast Group during an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

JOHN OLIVER: Perhaps the most troubling thing of all is that Sinclair has a daily must-run segment called the “Terrorism Alert Desk.” That is right. They report on terrorism every single day, whether there is something major to report on or not, which means that sometimes the updates contain things like this:

LINDSEY MASTIS: The company in charge of security for the Wimbledon tennis tournament says the ringleader of the London Bridge attack did apply for a job. Now, he was not interviewed, and no interview was scheduled. He just filled out an online application. … An ISIS flag was found hanging in a neighborhood in New Hampshire. It was taken down, and police are looking into who put it there. From the Terrorism Alert Desk, in Washington, I’m Lindsey Mastis.

JOHN OLIVER: In other alerts, my grandma heard a loud noise, a man with a beard asked me when the next bus is coming, and Iran still exists.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have John Oliver, Andy Kroll. If you could comment on this? And then talk about who owns Sinclair broadcasting, what the case is before the FCC, and how this devouring of local stations around the country is different from other media consolidation.

ANDY KROLL: Sure, well, the John Oliver segments that he—the pieces that he highlighted, the daily Terrorism Alert Desk, which often just seems like, frankly, Islamophobic brief bits of news, this is something that is a Sinclair trademark. They call these in the business “must-run” segments. And so, there’s the daily Terrorism Alert Desk.

Another particularly egregious example of this is called “Bottom Line with Boris.” Boris Epshteyn, as Juan mentioned earlier, is a former Trump campaign official and a former Trump White House aide, briefly, who last year was hired to be Sinclair’s chief political analyst. His minute-and-30-second segments, “Bottom Line with Boris,” are required to be run every day. And they are shamelessly pro-Trump. Basically, whatever that president is doing at that time, whether it’s tariffs, whether it’s the tax bill, whether it’s opposing DACA, Boris will promote this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Andy, if we can, I’d like to run a clip from one of the recent segments—

ANDY KROLL: Of course.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —on Boris Epshteyn’s show, “Bottom Line,” in which he suggests that the high turnover rate in the Trump administration isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: President Trump continues to reshape his administration. In the past few weeks, the president has announced a new secretary of state, CIA director, top economic adviser, national security adviser and secretary of veterans affairs. More changes are always possible. So why all the turnover? Well, the president deserves to have staff around him who support his agenda and are doing a good job. The president is here to get results and not to coddle staff or Cabinet members. The changes being made are all done in order to keep our country on a path of success on the economy and national security.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Boris Epshteyn’s must-run commentary that appears on the Sinclair stations. Your response?

ANDY KROLL: If your viewers heard that and are shaking their head, thinking what possible value there could be in that commentary—to even call it a commentary is an insult to commentary. Every one of Boris’s clips is along those lines, whether it’s on issues, whether it’s on personnel. The Baltimore Sun television critic, I think, put it best when he said Boris’s segments are, quote, “the closest thing to propaganda that I’ve seen in 30 years or 40 years of watching television.” So that tells you all that you need to know.

Now, in terms of the ownership of Sinclair Broadcast Group and its plans for expansion, you have four brothers who are the controlling members of Sinclair, and really, one of them, David Smith, the executive chairman, former CEO, he is the controlling figure at the top of this company, longtime supporter of Republicans, though he’s also given to Democrats when it has helped Sinclair’s bottom line, as well, I would point out—longtime supporter of Republicans, a high roller in the Republican donor world, if you can think of it that way, really at the top echelon. And his goal, as he has said publicly for decades, is domination of the local media business, gobbling up competitor companies. And this recent effort to acquire—ongoing effort to acquire Tribune Media is very much of a piece of that.

In fact, if this deal is approved by the FCC, Trump’s FCC, this would be the crowning moment, really, for David Smith’s efforts to take over local news. This would give him stations in the three biggest media markets in America, the big markets that have eluded Sinclair up to this point. That would be WPIX in New York, KTLA in Los Angeles and, of course, you know, one of the biggest television stations, WGN in Chicago, as well, a famous institution. This would really seal Sinclair’s takeover of local news. And by all indications, this FCC, Trump’s FCC, has rolled out the red carpet with a series of deregulation in the past year to help Sinclair. And it’s hard to see, unless there is a public outcry, unless we learn more about Sinclair’s plans, why the FCC would intervene in this Tribune Media merger now.

AMY GOODMAN: This all comes as the third week of a trial between the Justice Department and AT&T kicked off on Monday, the Justice Department seeking to block a proposed $85 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner in one of the biggest anti-trust lawsuits in decades. While many media critics have welcomed the lawsuit as a blow against consolidation, they also believe the case is politically motivated, as President Trump has spent months threatening and disparaging CNN, which is owned by Time Warner. But what’s the difference in this kind of consolidation, Andy, very quickly?

ANDY KROLL: The difference is, you have a corporate megamerger with AT&T and Time Warner. Obviously, there are competition issues there. But we are talking about media properties like CNN, which the president has attacked. With Tribune and Sinclair, what’s really at stake here is local news and diversity in local news and strong, financially supported local news. And if Sinclair’s past efforts to slash costs, to keep costs down, to consolidate when possible, are any indication, and this Tribune Media deal goes through, this could be a huge blow to local media, to the kind of journalism that, even in the age of Facebook and Twitter and Google, a huge percentage of Americans still rely on to get news about their communities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Andy, I wanted to ask you—Trump has also been tweeting feverishly about Amazon and attacking Amazon recently, apparently causing a sharp drop in its stock price. But this, too, has a media angle to it. Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, also is the owner of The Washington Post, which he’s been very critical of. This whole issue of the president directly getting himself involved in taking stands on media companies that are critical of him, could you comment on that, as well?

ANDY KROLL: Well, it’s frightening. It’s disturbing. It is the leader of our country really launching an assault at the First Amendment and going after—talking about punitive measures, as has been recently reported in Vanity Fair and elsewhere, against a particular company—in this case, Amazon—really, because he perceives The Washington Post as overly critical of his administration. It’s the same reason that the president will attack CNN and will praise Sinclair. This is personal. Everything is personal for him. And Twitter is his outlet for venting, really. And he’ll watch television, and he’ll just get on Twitter, and he’ll start rattling this stuff off. But it’s absolutely chilling when you think about the president of our country singling out media entities by name and then potentially using the power of government to go after those media companies that are critical of him, and using his platform, Twitter, to praise the companies that he sees as supporting him. And who knows what that means? Or perhaps we already know what—we’ve seen what that means in terms of government policy for the companies, media companies, he supports and the ones he doesn’t like.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a few seconds left. But, Andy Kroll, what about these local Sinclair stations fighting back? Where are they resisting?

ANDY KROLL: We’re seeing public statements already from members of the Sinclair stations, an anchor in Seattle responding to the president, specifically, and saying that—you know, that he is wrong, and he’s wrong to say this and bring up Sinclair and attack other media in this context. I have personally heard of employees at Sinclair stations around the country trying to think of ways to push back on the Sinclair corporate, you know, orders being handed down. We saw a statement by a station in Wisconsin saying that, you know, they were pushing back against running this anchor statement about “fake news” and bias in the news. Sinclair is known for tough contracts and going after employees who speak out, and so there is a risk of losing your job or of, even worse, legal action. But I think we’re reaching a point in which people inside Sinclair are saying, “I can’t stand idly by and do nothing.”

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Kroll, we want to thank you for being with us, senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine. You have written extensively about Sinclair Broadcast Group. We will link to your piece “Trump Tweets That Sinclair 'Is Far Superior to CNN'” and your other pieces at democracynow.org.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we head to Memphis. This is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s Mountaintop speech. Twenty-four hours later, he would be gunned down in Memphis. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Winnie Mandela-Beloved Heroine” by the South African singer Sathima Bea Benjamin. Winnie Mandela died on Monday at the age of 81 in South Africa.

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