Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which all last week found itself on defense for forcing local news anchors to read corporate statements about fake news, now faces accusations that it sold advertisements to an opponent group but tacked on a warning before and after the ad without telling the advertiser it would "bookend" the spot.
This weekend, Sinclair Broadcast Group aired ads that were purchased by a group that opposes Sinclair's plans to expand its holdings. Allied Progress, which calls itself a "progressive consumer watchdog group," also included complaints about Sinclair's recent "news promotion" in which local anchors from its stations read a corporately written statement about the perils of "fake news."
Sinclair took the "six-figure" commercial buy for its stations in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Des Moines and Seattle. But Allied Progress said it was surprised that Sinclair wrapped its own comments around the ad warning that in Sinclair's opinion, the ad is "misleading."
Before the Allied Progress ad, Sinclair's preroll said it was "proud to present both sides of issues. For that reason, we have agreed to air the commercial you are about to see opposing Sinclair's acquisition for additional television stations. We think the ad is misleading but wanted to let you decide."
Allied Progress executive director Karl Frisch told Poynter that he didn't know Sinclair was going to bookend the advertisement with its own message until the ads were airing. He told Poynter that as he watched he said:
"Gosh they are giving more scrutiny to our ad than than what they forced their anchors to say on the air."
Frisch said Allied Progress hoped the ads attacking Sinclair would air on Friday but accused the company of "slow-walking" the airing until the weekend. He said his group is "looking into the contract" to see if it was a violation for Sinclair to bookend the ads without telling Allied Progress.
"It is standard practice for a station to seek permission before bookending an ad with a content warning," Frisch said. "That did not happen here, which is hardly surprising coming from a company that doesn’t even subscribe to the basic pillars of independent journalistic integrity."
Allied Progress said the one-week ad buy aired on WJLA (ABC News) in Washington, D.C., KDSM (FOX News) in Des Moines, KOMO (ABC News) in Seattle, and Sinclair’s flagship station, WBFF (FOX News) in Baltimore.
Sinclair, through its PR company, sent Poynter a response attributed to Sinclair Vice President for News Scott Livingston:
“While Sinclair believes that most companies would not accept ads attacking them, Sinclair did so because it believes in presenting all sides of an issue. For the same reason Sinclair chose to present an alternative view. We trust that Allied Progress concurs with this support of free speech.”
Frisch quipped, "Our speech certainly wasn't free here. We paid for our time."
When asked by phone and by email whether Sinclair told Allied Progress that it would "bookend" the advertisement with its own warning and commentary, Sinclair's PR spokesperson, Ronn Torossian, told me, "Thanks you have our statement." Pressed further to answer Allied Progress' claim about not being told that Sinclair was going to bookend the ads, Torossian said, "You have a job to do, we have a job to do, you have our statement."
Allied Progress has been a long-time critic of Sinclair. Allied Progress describes itself as a "project of the New Venture Fund" which is a non-profit with income of $363 million in 2016 with a wide range of causes from conservation to the arts to activism. Frisch, Allied Progress' founder, is the former press secretary of Democratic Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and formerly worked for Media Matters, another frequent Sinclair critic. Allied Progress has called for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to recuse himself from votes pertaining to Sinclair because, Allied Progress says, Pai is biased in favor of Sinclair.