In March, TV anchors at broadcast stations across the U.S. began reading from an identical script passed down to them by their owner — Sinclair Broadcast Group.
“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” the anchors said, reading from the script.
“Unfortunately, some members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’ … This is extremely dangerous to our democracy,” the script continued.
The segments drew the ire of media journalists and watchdogs, many of whom were already closely watching Sinclair for its ties to President Donald Trump and its ambitions to expand its already-sizable U.S. audience.
But the segments didn’t receive widespread attention until Saturday, when the website Deadspin published a 98-second video montage of the TV segments that went viral.
By Monday, the video had put Sinclair back under the media spotlight, leading Trump to tweet in defense of the TV behemoth as “far superior” to its “fake” competitors including “even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
The video and resulting fallout have drawn fresh scrutiny to Sinclair, its politics and the ongoing controversy over its proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of the Tribune Company — a deal that would give Sinclair reach into seven out of 10 U.S. households.
Sinclair’s willingness to push political content on its local broadcast stations has been a topic of contention going back to 2004, when it was criticized for a program that attacked the military record of the Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry just before the election.
Based in Hunt Valley, Maryland, the company has showcased conservative commentators on dozens of its stations. Boris Epshteyn, a Russian-born former Trump adviser, now serves as Sinclair’s chief political analyst.
More recently, the company has mandated that its stations run a segment about the so-called deep state that featured former White House aide Sebastian Gorka, who has pushed a pro-America foreign policy position and claimed shadow government employees are trying to undermine the U.S. government.
The injection of politics in Sinclair’s programming was examined last year on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”
Sinclair owns or operates more than 190 broadcast stations across the U.S., including 22 NBC affiliates and others of ABC, CBS and Fox in major markets. Except for their own programming, the networks do not control the content that appears on Sinclair-owned affiliates.
It was not immediately clear how many Sinclair stations aired a version of the script.
In a memo sent to Sinclair employees and obtained by NBC News, Scott Livingston, senior vice president of news at Sinclair, responded to criticism of the company in relation to the Deadspin video.
“The critics are now upset about our well-researched journalistic initiative focused on fair and objective reporting,” Livingston wrote. “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. Some other false stories, like the false ‘Pizzagate’ story, can result in dangerous consequences.”
Livingston referenced a Monmouth University poll released Monday. The poll found that three in four Americans agreed that major TV and newspaper outlets report “fake news.”
“This poll underscores the importance of our journalistic responsibility effort. We hold ourselves to the highest standards of accuracy and fact checking,” Livingston wrote.
Perceived bias in media coverage has been under scrutiny since Trump took office last year and repeatedly accused media outlets, including NBC News, of being “fake.”
“Confidence in an independent Fourth Estate is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement. “Ours appears to be headed for the intensive care unit.”
Sinclair, meanwhile, has been working to acquire more TV stations. If the Federal Communications Commission approves its acquisition of Tribune, Sinclair would control more than 220 stations, including in larger markets such as Chicago, New York and Washington. Sinclair has said it will sell but continue to operatethe TV stations in Chicago and New York if the deal is approved.
The company has been accused of wielding influence within the Trump administration to get federal regulations eased that would both eliminate many longstanding rules that put limits on media ownership and pave the way for a successful merger with Tribune.
The Tribune deal was announced after new FCC regulations went through in April 2017 in a 3-2 Republican-majority vote.
Democrats and critics on the left have voiced outrage, saying it shows the Trump administration playing favorites to get more conservative-oriented voices on local news stations.
“This agency is organizing all of its media policies around the interests of this one company,” Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC, told NBC News in November. “That’s troubling. That’s not right. It deserves an investigation.”
Late in 2017, the FCC inspector general launched an investigation into FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and whether the moves he spearheaded had been meant to aid Sinclair.