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How Local News Stations Are Rebelling Against Their Sinclair Overlords

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Screenshot: Deadspin

The workers at Sinclair-owned local news stations want you to know something: They are at least as pissed off as you’d expect them to be about being forced to bow to their fear-mongering corporate overlords, who make them do things like repeat Trumpisms about the fake news media and trade on their hard-won reputations as trusted news sources to push “over-the-top corporate talking points.” They want you to know something else, too: They’re in a tough spot.

Employees at local news stations across the country say it’s frustrating being forced to ignore real local news in favor of propaganda that smears other media outlets (which one employee said was “insulting because they make it seem like this is our point of view”); “terrorism alert desk” segments, described by another employee as “the most race-baity, fake, non-issue ‘news’”; or childish, frothy bits from Sinclair’s Mike Cernovich-approved, “millenial-focused arm,” Circa, which one employee called “beyond offensive” and another described as having “no place in a newscast.” They also say that blanket noncompliance is not an option, and probably never will be.

(Deadspin is owned by Univision Communications; Sinclair Broadcast Group, which had not replied to phone messages and a detailed request for comment by press time, owns seven Univision affiliates.)

Since this Deadspin video, which shows dozens of Sinclair anchors reading aloud a bizarre and accusatory script about “biased and false news,” went viral over the weekend, Deadspin has received tips from more than two dozen local news station anchors and people who work in production from all over the country—as well as from people who work in Sinclair’s corporate office—and spoken to nearly a dozen about the small steps they’ve been taking for months to rebel against Sinclair’s efforts to strip local news of its credibility and turn it into, as one person summarized the company’s goal, a “Fox News competitor on basic cable.” The workers—all of whom were granted anonymity because they feared retribution if they spoke publicly to the media—describe feeling embarrassed and frustrated by the position their company has put them in, and some feel galvanized to take steps to push back against the company. For its part, Sinclair is increasingly disorganized and disheveled, desperate to keep its employees from talking to the media while its chairman, David Smith, sends unglued email rants to the New York Times and other outlets.

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Production workers, anchors, and executives at Sinclair-owned local news stations, who have diverse political opinions themselves, resent the fiats from Sinclair and strongly believe that editorial control should rest with the journalists who produce the local news reports. As one local news station employee put it, these reports “function as a public good in many small markets around the country, just like garbage collection or road maintenance.”

“Why are we running these stories?”

One production employee at a local news station said Sinclair’s corporate “must-run” segments—news packages written and produced by the Sinclair corporation, many of which are subtly or overtly right-leaning, and sent to the news stations to run on air—comprise about half of their station’s total newscast, with local news taking up about 30 percent and national wire stories the other 20 percent.

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“They send you scripts and you can’t even change any of it,” the source said. “There has been pushback from people who are like, ‘Why are we running these stories, these national stories that have nothing to do with us?’ Especially when we could be running local content that’s produced locally.”

So far, not running the corporate content isn’t an option—in many markets, anchors and news producers aren’t making that much money to begin with, and they also face legal and financial retribution if they are found to be in breach of their Sinclair contracts—but the workers describe trying to distance their work from the most objectionable “must-runs,” like ravings from former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn, by sandwiching them in between commercial breaks or ignoring them all together. As one worker said, “Nobody introduces Boris, he just pops in right before the commercial break because no one wants their face attached to it.”

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The segment shown in the Deadspin video—which Sinclair vice-president of news Scott Livingston, in a damage-control memo to employees after Deadspin’s video was published, called the “corporate news journalistic responsibility promotional campaign”—also infuriated Sinclair workers. “I feel that Sinclair threw its employees under the bus,” a local news anchor said about being compelled to tape the now-infamous denunciation of the news media. “I feel that we have been used as pawns in whatever political game they’re playing at the corporate level.”

A local news employee pointed to Sinclair’s decision to require stations to run promos featuring Livingston repeating a script similar to the promo anchors were told to read. “They could have given us a choice,” the source said. “Say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing,’ be more transparent. Corporate should be doing this, or let us write our own script, where it’s us speaking for ourselves.”

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Several employees said they’ve been flooded with nasty messages and harassment since Deadspin’s video was published. (According to a review of Sinclair-owned stations, the promo only appeared six times, on five stations, after our publication.)

“I’m worried about the community, and [reporting] news that will help people, not politics at that level. I have received hate and vitriol and harassment,” a local news anchor said, emphasizing that employees are suffering from the company’s poor decision. “We got a forwarded email from Livingston, which means nothing. Because it’s not his career on the line.”

One local news anchor at WOAI in San Antonio, Texas, Delaine Mathieu, defended herself and her co-anchor, Randy Beamer, against critics who said that their participation in the mass promo revealed that they didn’t have an “ounce of integrity.” My San Antonio reported on the Facebook exchange:

“I used to think Randy Beamer was pretty cool, not anymore. Not an ounce of integrity, turns out he’s just a puppet,” [San Antonio resident Lola] Crane wrote. “You too Delaine Mathieu. Shame on you News 4 San Antonio!”

“Yeah, shame on us for wanting to keep our jobs so that we could continue to support our families,” Mathieu fired back. “This wasn’t a choice nor a script that we wrote.”

[…]

“Trust me, this was awful…We had several closed-door meetings and even had to re-record our version because we looked so mortified in the first cut. But we gathered our composure and did our job knowing this would happen…It sucks. It just does. You will make your judgment and I can’t change that. But I wish you well!”

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Several local news employees told Deadspin they have been prohibited by management from putting out a statement of their own or otherwise making public comments in order to try to salvage credibility with their viewers, which they consider an imposition on their free speech. But they said walking away isn’t a good option, either. Another local anchor, who was furious that what one Sinclair-employed source described as a “loyalty pledge” took nearly two minutes out of an already-short window for reporting actual local news, said people have asked why the anchors don’t just quit. Aside from the potential complications of breaching contract, this person said, Sinclair newsrooms need watchdogs.

“For example, I’m the person making sure Boris has ‘commentary’ on it in big, big font,” the anchor said. “So if I left, they would bring someone in maybe with less experience, who maybe isn’t [making sure of that].”

At KHGI, however, a Sinclair owned station in Nebraska, one news producer did actually quit. CNN reported that Justin Simmons, who said he was free to quit because he wasn’t under contract, gave notice on March 26, after Sinclair mandated the “corporate news journalistic responsibility promotional campaign” promos, but before the policy gained national attention.

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“This is almost forcing local news anchors to lie to their viewers,” he said, adding that there were “several segments that have made me uncomfortable.”

According to CNN, Simmons said the stations were required to run corporate content:

Simmons echoed what staffers at other stations have described: Top-down mandates to take up local news time with national stories that sometimes have a conservative bent.

At one point, when higher-ups noticed that he ran only 60% of the “must-runs” in the morning show, “my boss got in trouble,” Simmons said.

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Several sources said the stations were required to keep logs of the newscasts to show that they aired Sinclair-mandated segments and asserted that corporate does “random spot checks” to make sure the stations are in compliance. “People are upset that the editorial control has been taken out of our newsroom. We feel like we should decide what news is of interest to our viewers,” one local news station worker said.

Before the 2016 presidential election, at least one station simply refused to run an animated video that showed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders reenacting the pottery scene from Ghost, among other sexually-charged activities. The video was just one of many segments the news stations are sent from Sinclair every day.

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“It was one of those things, like, ‘There is no way we are running that. I will talk to anyone from corporate,’” said one person familiar with the decision. The source said there wasn’t any pushback from Sinclair at that point, saying those were “more innocent times” and that the company is now more adamant about making sure mandated segments are aired.

Still, some workers manage to make small changes to the programming. One producer described slightly altering a video segment sent from corporate. “One video we got about a school shooting came with really inappropriate music,” the source said. “It made it sound like some sort of action movie. So we took the package and changed the music because we felt it was wholly inappropriate.”

Other changes include trying to offset the dreaded “terrorism alert desk” segment by putting a national news clip directly before it to add a buffer between the local news and the “scare tactic” terror alert segments. “We cannot stand the terrorism alert desk…That’s one way we try to combat it,” the source said.

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Other rebellions are more simple, like blasting out Sinclair’s pleas to not speak to the media about what’s going on. One source sent Deadspin this memo from KATU general manager Robert Truman, which was also published on FTV Live.

A worker from another station said they had received a flurry of emails from management over the course of the past week, begging employees not to talk to the media about the anchor promo or the company. A couple of emails came from the station’s general manager and an email from corporate was simply the same press release that Sinclair pushed out to all media.

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“We feel trapped”

It’s not just employees from local news stations who reject Sinclair’s direction; there appears to be tension within the corporate structure as well. One source said the people within Sinclair who truly care about producing strong and accurate journalism are stymied by Livingston and Sinclair chairman David Smith, which stilts the culture of the entire company.

“It’s like you have a culture of leadership that relies on outdated techniques and workflows. From Scott on down on the news side…they’re great at teaching you how to operate a camera, how to light a shot, how to stack a rundown, etc.” the source said. “They woefully lack in digital prowess, and creating a culture where people feel valued coming to work.”

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The source also said Smith and Livingston simply don’t care about changing that culture, or mind that they’ve been repeatedly exposed as power-hungry political shills. “[Livingston and Smith] are going to keep doing the same thing, because they’ve learned that no matter what is said…nothing will happen. Whether it’s this video, stories in the Post or the Times, John Oliver pieces, whatever. Nothing has changed,” the source said. “All the while, good journalists like ourselves are just caught in the middle trying to answer questions from former colleagues and friends. And we feel trapped.”

Other rebellions aren’t so anonymous: One station, a Fox affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin, simply refused to air the loyalty pledge.

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Other stations refused to tape versions of the pledge. In addition to the two-minute script stations were instructed to insert into the newscast, some stations were also told to cut a 60-second promo version to fill space alongside things like anti-smoking PSAs. At at least one station, according to a source familiar with the situation, the anchors weighed their options and refused to do the 60-second promo. At another station, the mandate to tape the 60-second promo didn’t come down until this week, and—after the furor over the newscast promo—a source said the anchors are refusing to re-do the 60-second version.

This is where the cracks within Sinclair start to show: The company has a reputation for being willing to, as one source said, “come after its own employees” and implementing an “obey or get out” mentality. But in reality, even basic policies like the loyalty pledge promo are inconsistently applied. In failing to understand the dedication many local reporters and anchors feel to their local communities; making poor decision after poor decision in an effort to cement its place as a power player in conservative media; and using scare tactics to keep employees in line, the company has undermined itself to an embarrassing degree. The public knows how the company works, many employees hate management for damaging their credibility, and it’s all happening as the company’s proposed $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media is being reviewed by Justice Department and the FCC.

Much of Sinclair’s power comes from keeping its stations in the dark about how it deals with their counterparts, and Sinclair is counting on that lack of communication to keep its employees in line. Not knowing the consequences for noncompliance is a powerful deterrent, especially for people just breaking into the business. As one source put it, journalism school didn’t teach them how to respond when the corruption is coming from inside the house.

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“A lot of us are paycheck-to-paycheck, minimum-wage, part-time employees,” said the source. “We all have degrees in broadcast and we know that some of this stuff isn’t kosher and shouldn’t be framed like this, but we don’t know who to talk to, how to voice our concerns. Whether you’re liberal, Republican or whatever, if something is totally beyond the pale…we have no idea what would happen if we didn’t air it.”

But as Sinclair continues to push its agenda, journalists will continue to push back. As one source said: “Sinclair, you’re dealing with journalists. Of course we’re going to document this and take notes.”

Additional reporting by Timothy Burke and J.K. Trotter. Know anything we should know? Contact the writer at laura.wagner@deadspin.com or through our SecureDrop system for extra security. 

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