Viral video raises worry over Sinclair’s political messaging inside local news

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Does it matter who
owns your local TV station? While polls shows Americans are increasingly
worried about so-called fake news, they also show that many trust their local news more
than other sources. The largest owner of local stations in the
country is Sinclair Broadcasting. A viral video of Sinclair news anchors has
again raised concerns about the way in which the company mixes news with partisan political
opinion. William Brangham updates his story about the
broadcast giant that originally ran last year. MAN: A train derailment in Tennessee. MAN: Some routine road maintenance has led
to a squabble. WOMAN: We have some breaking news to tell
you about. This is out of Bethesda tonight. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Night after night, the country’s
largest owner of local TV stations, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, reaches over a third of homes
across the nation. WOMAN: A compromise plan for the controversial
Conesus Inn. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Most of us think of local
news as just that, local. Stations run local stories, produced and reported
by local people. But if, recently, you tuned in to, say, WVTV,
which is Sinclair’s station in Milwaukee, you saw this: BORIS EPSHTEYN, Former Senior Adviser, Trump
Campaign: Does the president have to repeat that fact day in and out for us to believe
it? WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s Boris Epshteyn, former
member of the Trump administration, and now chief political analyst for Sinclair. And here he was again on WEAR in Pensacola: BORIS EPSHTEYN: The president is stating the
fact that the fringes of the left and the right… WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And on KSAS in Wichita: BORIS EPSHTEYN: Are both capable of hate and
violence doesn’t mean he is condoning any of it. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And, again and again on
every single one of the 173 Sinclair stations across the country. Eric Lipton is a reporter for The New York
Times who’s been covering Sinclair. ERIC LIPTON, The New York Times: They have
what they call must-runs, which include Boris Epshteyn, who is a surrogate for Trump, who
is on the air, talking about conservative issues. While the local news stations largely decide
what their local news is going to be, you know, covering local government, crime and
local issues, there are these must-runs that go on their networks across the United States,
which have a decidedly conservative flavor. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This partisan tilt has many
free speech advocates alarmed, because not only does Sinclair own such a large chunk
of the marketplace already, but it’s hoping to get bigger still. If a proposed $4 billion merger with Tribune
Media goes forward, Sinclair would now reach three out of four American households. Journalism professor Lewis Friedland: LEWIS FRIEDLAND, University of Milwaukee-Madison:
It is a real step in a very different direction to begin to say the most trusted news source
of most Americans is going to be allowed to be turned into an opinion organization, an
opinion machine for a very narrow, narrowly conservative point of view night after night
in local communities. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Television remains the main
source of news for many Americans. In 2016, 46 percent of adults said they got
their news from local TV stations. And it’s information they trust; 41 percent
of registered voters said they trust local news to tell the truth, while just 27 percent
trust national news. Sinclair disputes having any kind of political
bent. Its executives declined to talk with us on
camera for this report. This weekend, the online news site Deadspin
created this compilation of dozens of Sinclair’s local newscasters recording an identical promo
accusing the national media of spreading fake news. MAN: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy. WOMAN: This is extremely dangerous to our
democracy. MAN: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The video spread quickly
on social media, again stirring criticism of the broadcast giant. Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s senior vice president
of news, responded in a memo saying: “The promos served no political agenda, and represented
nothing more than an effort to differentiate our award-winning news programming from other,
less reliable sources of information.” And today, President Trump defended Sinclair,
tweeting: “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more fake NBC, which is a total joke.” Meanwhile, Sinclair’s bid to buy Tribune,
and thus expand its reach dramatically in local news, is awaiting approval from the
Justice Department and the FCC. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham
in Washington, D.C.

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