A viral video showing dozens of local TV anchors delivering the same politicized segment in unison has reached the screens of staffers and hosts at Fox News, which has long received the kind of criticism now aimed at Sinclair Broadcasting.
Their response? Hey, we’re not that bad.
The video, created by Deadspin’s Timothy Burke, stitches together Sinclair anchors at local TV stations across the country delivering a speech about how “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias” and why that is “extremely dangerous to our democracy.”
Sinclair critics said that the creepily identical segments sounded Orwellian and typified the kind of media-bashing refrain one expects to hear at a Trump rally or on the airwaves of Fox News. On CNN Monday morning, media correspondent Brian Stelter described the spot as “the kind of ‘fair and balanced’ thing we used to see from Fox News where they would say, ‘We're fair, everybody else is unfair.’ The difference here is it's involving local stations across the country.”
But if critics saw a comparison, some staffers inside Fox News said the Sinclair segment stands alone. Some, unsurprisingly, agreed with the message, if not the brazen blanket coordination.
“Whatever Fox's shortcomings, and there definitely are some, there's precisely zero editorial direction from above,” one Fox News host told BuzzFeed News. “I've never been told a single time what to say.” Another network insider said the comparison between Sinclair and Fox News was “ludicrous” and that Sinclair anchors in the video “looked like hostage victims.”
Indeed, a former Sinclair staffer told BuzzFeed News that employees at one station put up with increasingly pro-Trump segments last year because they otherwise enjoyed their jobs and didn’t want to lose them.
The segment comes as Sinclair, an owner of local TV stations, appears to be trying to take on cable network Fox News from its right flank. The spot was one of the broadcaster’s mandated “must run” segments that Sinclair has been widely known for ever since HBO’s John Oliver criticized the company in a takedown last year. The spots have frequently boosted Republican talking points and featured Trump-orbit characters such as former Trump official Boris Epshteyn.
Political “must runs” are unconventional in local television. And in response to the Sinclair comparisons, Fox News insiders pointed to the fact that the network’s owner, 21st Century Fox, owns local TV stations too, but doesn’t force its anchors to read conservative political statements. (Most must-run content revolves around promoting a network’s programming.)
“We aren’t sure of the motivation for the criticism, but find it curious that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media, which result in an ill-informed public with potentially dangerous consequences,” said Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s senior vice president of news, in a statement. “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. Our local stations keep our audiences’ trust by staying focused on fact-based reporting and clearly identifying commentary.”
The criticism also comes amid a broader business battle between 21st Century Fox and Sinclair, which owns the largest number of US local TV stations. There has been swirling speculation that Sinclair might try to compete with Fox News more directly by launching its own cable news network. Sinclair has denied it has cable ambitions.
But Sinclair is also seeking to complete a $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media, which would give the mammoth broadcaster the key thing it doesn’t yet have: a foothold in large markets like New York and Los Angeles. It’s a deal that executives at 21st Century Fox are hoping the government will ultimately spike, which is partly why the new Sinclair segment has raised eyebrows within Fox’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters.
“Sinclair is pretty foolish to be doing this in the middle of a controversial acquisition,” said one Fox News insider. “They may be in over their heads.”