Sinclair Broadcast Group Should Run Anti-Sinclair Ads, Watchdog Says

Sinclair Broadcast Group forced its local news anchors to read a script warning viewers about the danger of “false news.” Now a consumer watchdog group is trying to force Sinclair stations to run ads warning viewers about the company’s monopolization of local media.

Washington D.C.-based Allied Progress said it bought a “six-figure” ad buy across four Sinclair-owned stations in order to run a 30-second ad featuring a viral video of Sinclair anchors across the country reading the same company-mandated monologue on bias in the news media. The ad encourages viewers to contact the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and ask it to block a proposed $3.9 billion merger between Sinclair and Tribune Media that would give the company unprecedented control over local news broadcasts.

On Friday afternoon, Allied Progress executive director Karl Frisch said the ads were shipped Thursday morning to run Friday, but the ads had yet to run. A Baltimore station blamed the delay on a “review of the spot,” according to Frisch, who was told by three of the four stations that the ad will begin running this weekend. The fourth, a Sinclair station in Seattle, told Firsch on Friday it was still waiting for final approval of the ad.

“I’ve been part of many media buys, I’ve never seen a review process take this long,” Frisch told Newsweek

Sinclair did not respond to multiple calls for comment. Three of the four Sinclair stations that were sent the ad buys declined to comment on the ads. The ad department at Baltimore’s WBFF could not be reached by press time.

“What happens when your local news isn’t local? This,” a narrator intones in the ad, before a clip from the viral video, created by Deadspin, show anchors across the country reading the same script.

“Sinclair owns this station and nearly 200 others,” the ad’s narrator says. “Now Sinclair is trying to control local news stations in 72 percent of American homes. Tell the FCC to stop the Sinclair merger.”

The buy would have the ad run 175 times over the next week on Sinclair stations in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Des Moines, Allied Progress said in a Thursday press release.

“Our hope with the ad was to point out that what you’re seeing is what they are able to with 170 some stations,” Frisch told Newsweek. “The Tribune merger is highly problematic, but it's just the beginning.”

The Justice Department and the FCC are required to review the proposed merger, which would give Sinclair control of more than 210 stations across the country. Sinclair, which currently owns more than 170 stations in more than 80 markets nationwide, has been criticized by former and current employees, many of whom have contracts that force them to pay damages to the company if they resign, for allegedly forcing a conservative bias onto local news broadcasts.

The company has required local stations to read scripted political statements on-air for many years. A former employee wrote in The New York Times that scripts were given to anchors during the George W. Bush administration that said Democrats were “trying to undermine the United States” and that the former president was “‘winning’ the war on terror.” In 2004, the company barred its affiliates from airing a Nightline segment in which anchor Ted Koppel read the names of more than 700 fallen American service men and women who had died in the Iraq war. In more recent years, the company had stations broadcast commentary segments criticizing former President Barack Obama. In 2015, the company began forcing stations to run daily updates from its “ Terrorism Alert Desk.”

Company chairman David Smith defended the company to The New York Times on Tuesday, calling the scripted segments “standard practice in the industry.” He also told the Times it was “nonsense” to claim the company used required scripts to push a right-wing agenda.  

Frisch said he knew it would be “difficult” to get the ads on the air. “It’s really a choice for them to accept them or not,” Frisch said, explaining how Allied Progress choose the four stations that received the ad buys. Allied Progress chose WBFF in Baltimore because it’s the company’s flagship station; KDSM in Des Moines because it’s represented by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who heads the judiciary committee, which has jurisdiction over mergers; WJLA in Washington, D.C. because it broadcasts in the nation’s capital; and KOMA in Seattle because “there’s been a lot of coverage Sinclair employees being dissatisfied with their corporate overlords there,” Frisch said.

The FCC review of the merger has been halted twice, and it’s own commissioners have agency criticized the agency for aiding the company in its move to acquire Tribune. Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted this week that the “agency’s big media policy decisions all seem custom-built for the business plan of Sinclair Broadcasting.” Last November, the FCC voted to overturn long-standing media ownership rules that prevented companies from owning two of the top four broadcasters in a local media market, a move which aided Sinclair’s bid to acquire Tribune.   

Sinclair has been a supporter of President Donald Trump, who defended the company this week, tweeting Monday “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC,” and again Tuesday that “The Fake News Networks” are “worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast.”