November 30, 2018

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 193 TV stations in 81 markets, waded back into the crosshairs of criticism this week when the broadcaster's chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn said in a commentary set to run on Sinclair-owned stations that border officials “had to use tear gas” on migrants at a border crossing to guard against an “attempted invasion” of the United States. Before Sinclair hired Epshteyn, he was a Trump campaign spokesman and briefly worked in the Trump White House. When he was hired, Sinclair said Epshteyn would provide “political context that goes beyond the podium” for viewers. 

Sinclair mandated that all of its stations run the commentary about the border clash. But when critics started slamming the commentary, Sinclair backed away from Epshteyn:

We'd like to take a moment and address some concerns regarding a commentary segment by @borisep that was aired on Sinclair stations this week. The opinions expressed in this segment do not reflect the views of Sinclair Broadcast Group.

— Sinclair Broadcast Group (@WeAreSinclair) November 28, 2018

When Boris’s segments are aired on our stations, they are labeled clearly as commentary. We also offer our stations reporting from the Beltway and beyond that are not partisan or bias in any way.

— Sinclair Broadcast Group (@WeAreSinclair) November 28, 2018

I thought the wording of the two tweets was odd. I wondered if the company was saying it disagreed with its chief political analyst or was it simply saying Boris was not speaking for the company without saying whether it agreed or disagreed with what he said? I sent Sinclair bosses some questions.

Question one:  "If the comments do not represent the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose views do they represent?"


Question two: "Does SBG have a view on the teargassing incident? "


Question three: "Do I take from this that when Boris appears he is speaking only for himself, even though it is a segment mandatory to be aired on all Sinclair stations?"


Question four: "How would the viewer know when it is a SBG-backed stance? "


Sinclair's hired public relations spokesman Ronn Torossian responded:

“Bottom Line with Boris segments are commentaries which present facts and offer Boris’s views on a range of current events. These segments are clearly labeled as his commentary and provide our viewers with the opportunity to form their own opinions as to whether they agree or disagree with Boris’s perspective. The segment on the migrant crisis at the southern border has been drastically and intentionally mischaracterized by those set on criticizing Boris Epshteyn’s commentary segments. We urge critics to review the actual segment, not the biased coverage of it.”

Torossian came into the news when he testified before the Mueller grand jury and again when he was hired by Sinclair to take on the public relations disaster caused when Sinclair forced local anchors to read a corporately authored commentary about "fake news" without disclosing that the commentary was coming from corporate; word-for-word.

Since Torossian didn't answer my questions I followed up with a message to Robert Ford, senior vice president for Torossian's agency:

Respectfully, you did not answer my questions which are:


-If the comments do not represent the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose views do they represent?


-Does SBG have a view on the teargassing incident?  


-Do I take from this that when Boris appears he is speaking only for himself, even though it is a segment mandatory to be aired on all Sinclair stations?


-How would the viewer know when it is a SBG-backed stance? 


I am certainly willing to use your statement but I will also be showing the questions I asked and you didn’t answer.


I wish we didn’t have to do that.

Ford responded, "I feel our statements have been very clear that these are Boris’s views. I don’t understand the other questions."

The key ethics issue involved in this flare-up is not whether Sinclair TV stations should offer conservative commentary on news events. There is plenty of legitimate disagreement about how much force is justified at the border as there was when border agents fired tear gas at migrants trying to cross the border during the Obama administration. There is nothing wrong with Sinclair's stated intent to offer a range of voices seldom heard in local news. Sinclair says it felt no need to have an equally-weighted liberal commentator to Epshteyn since, the company said, that view is more widely spread in media. Sinclair says its commentaries were just filling a gap in missing voices on local TV. 

If corporate bosses force its local stations to run a commentary that always comes from the same political spectrum time after time, is it plausible to believe the commentary does not reflect the company's position?   

The public, I believe, has the capacity to discern opinion from news content if it is clearly labeled. Sinclair should have learned from the last time it was in the spotlight when it forced local TV anchors to read the corporate commentary about "fake news." Then, as now, the controversy was not about the separation of news and commentary. The key issue in that incident is the lack of clarity about whose views were being voiced: was it the local anchors, the local station, or corporate? 

The answer then was "corporate" but the commentary didn't say that.

Sinclair believes that calling Boris' segment "commentary" should be clear enough that he alone is responsible for what he says. It's not. Say more. Go for clarity and transparency.

This is an easy fix that everyone can learn from. If Sinclair is dedicated to providing a conservative opinion on the news of the day, before and after the Boris commentaries air they should say, "This conservative viewpoint commentary is Boris' alone and is not intended to reflect the views of this station or Sinclair Broadcast Group." But then, if the group does not agree with the commentary, why run it, unopposed, on all of its TV stations and offer Epshteyn his own commentary page on its station's websites?

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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