Ex-CBS 6 staffers reflect on Sinclair Broadcasting's 'scripted drivel'
NORTH ADAMS — Sinclair Broadcast Group and its critics seem to agree: "This is extremely dangerous to our democracy."
They differ, however, on what "this" is.
A script read by dozens of local television news anchors at Sinclair Broadcast Group stations across the country recently, including Albany, N.Y.'s WRGB CBS 6 News, has brought the national debate over bias and "fake news" into local newsrooms.
Though reported on by CNN and other media outlets last month, this "must-run" statement has garnered national attention in recent days after the website Deadspin stacked video of the local newscasters into an eerie, unified voice.
The video was captioned "How America's largest local TV owner turned its news anchors into soldiers in Trump's war on the media."
"We are concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country," CBS 6 News Anchor Greg Floyd read during the CBS 6 broadcast. "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," added Anchor Liz Bishop, per the script.
"This is extremely dangerous to our democracy," Bishop and other newscasters read in a line repeated for dramatic effect in the Deadspin video.
Calls to management at CBS 6, which was purchased by Sinclair in 2012, were not returned. It is the only network in the Albany market owned by Sinclair.
Sinclair Broadcasting has drawn scrutiny for years as a result of must-run pieces, from multiple news organizations, including The Guardian and Mother Jones. In a segment last year on "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" on HBO, Oliver criticized Sinclair for airing must-run segments that skew conservative, like commentary from former Trump campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn and regular updates from the "Terrorism Alert Desk."
"Nothing says `We value independent media' like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult," Oliver said, addressing Sinclair again during his show this Sunday.
In 2016, Politico reported that Jared Kushner, son-in-law (and now senior adviser) to President Donald Trump, told business executives in New York City that he had struck a deal for Sinclair networks to air extended Trump interviews during the 2016 election campaign. In response to the article, a Sinclair executive said the offer for extended interviews was also made to Hillary Clinton.
In 2004, Sinclair ordered its stations to preempt their scheduled programming two weeks before the presidential election to air a prime-time segment accusing candidate Sen. John Kerry of betraying U.S. soldiers by testifying to Congress against the Vietnam War in 1971.
The negative feedback on social media this week has been clear.
One user Tuesday advocated a boycott of the station, while another suggested it "has joined the propaganda machine."
Kimberly Howard, a reporter at CBS 6 from 2014 to 2016, lamented the shift of the conversation toward criticism of individual anchors.
"The people who are in that video — I know several of them," Howard said. "I've seen comments on the station Facebook pages and the individual pages of these anchors being attacked."
It's easy for an "armchair quarterback" to say "'I would keep my journalistic integrity,'" Howard added.
"It's very possible that if they refused to read these statements they would lose their job," Howard said, "These people have contracts. There are financial impacts for them."
Bishop has been with CBS 6 her entire 40-plus year career and was inducted in 2016 into the New York State Broadcasters' Hall of Fame. Floyd has similarly spent the majority of his 20-plus years in journalism in the Albany market, according to his biography on the WRGB website.
Neither returned a request for comment from The Eagle on Tuesday.
Ken Screven, who retired in 2011 after more than 30 years with CBS 6, decried the Sinclair segment but stopped short of criticizing Bishop and Floyd.
"I cannot imagine what my former newsroom colleagues Liz Bishop and Greg Floyd must be going through, forced to utter that Sinclair scripted drivel. I greatly respect them both. I don't think I would recognize the newsroom in which I built my career," Screven told The Eagle.
Sinclair is based in Maryland and owns or operates 193 television stations across the country, according to its website.
In a statement posted on its website Monday, Sinclair defended the piece, which it described as a "promotional announcement" and serving "no political agenda."
"These announcements were responding to the public's distrust in news generally," the statement said.
Scott Livingston, Sinclair's senior vice president of news, said in a statement that the company was unsure of the motivation behind the criticism of the announcements.
"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," Livingston said.
The must-run segments have allegedly angered journalists at Sinclair networks who fear they could erode the trust viewers have in local stations, CNN reported Monday, citing multiple sources.
"It's very hard to differentiate between this content and your locally produced content, because it's the same news personalities who are reading it," said Howard, who worked at a Sinclair-owned station for more than two years in Springfield, Ill., before joining CBS 6.
But the must-run segments are just a fraction of what goes on the air every day and that journalists in every newsroom are collaborating to determine what deserves coverage locally, Howard said.
"The people in that newsroom live in that community and know what matters," Howard said.
Trump was among the many prominent figures to weigh in on Monday.
"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," Trump tweeted.
At least one Sinclair station did not air the segment.
Fox 47 in Madison, Wis., posted in a statement on Twitter that it "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."
Sinclair is poised to grow, but its $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media remains under review by the Federal Communications Commission.
Adam Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.
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