During a discussion between Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) office and Sinclair Broadcasting Group staff in November 2017 about the company’s proposed merger with Tribune Media, Sinclair staff indicated that the company does not dictate the words or content that local reporters deliver, a Durbin spokesperson told TPM Wednesday.
But, evidenced by the viral, infamous compilation of videos showing dozens of Sinclair-owned stations’ reporters repeating a scripted denunciation of “fake” and “one-sided” reporting, Durbin has asked the company’s executives to clarify its policy on the “must-run” promotional segments.
In a letter to Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith Wednesday, Durbin called the recent scripted promotions a continuation of the company’s “troubling history” of “dictating content to its stations.” He also questioned why Sinclair staff misrepresented its policy at the November meeting, in which Durbin discussed his concerns about the merger, spokesperson Ben Marter confirmed to TPM.
“In response to concerns raised by my staff about the consequences of Sinclair-mandated programming on local reporting, Sinclair representatives repeatedly represented that Sinclair does not dictate the words or content local reporters deliver and that any national content distributed on Sinclair-owned stations is delivered by an identified national correspondent,” Durbin said in the letter. “The requirement that local news anchors deliver a scripted promotional message on-air is inconsistent with those representations.”
He also called reports that there were “contractural penalties” for news stations and employees who refused to run the mandatory content “further troubling.”
“Please confirm what Sinclair’s policy is regarding Sinclair-produced mandated content for local news anchors. Further, please clarify whether there will be employment consequences for personnel at local stations who refuse to deliver the scripted promotional message,” he wrote.
While Marter said the Sinclair-Tribune merger and Durbin’s concerns over Sinclair’s mandated promotion content were “separate issues,” he said the senator’s main concerns about the merger stem from the issue of independence for local media and the journalistic integrity of those local news stations.
Sinclair currently owns more television stations than any other broadcaster in the U.S. and if the merger is allowed, Sinclair’s reach would extend to 72 percent of American households.
Currently, both the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission are separately reviewing the $3.9 billion deal to determine if its in the public’s interest. Under FCC rules, a single company is limited to owning stations that reach no more than 39 percent of households, The New York Times reported in February.
Sinclair spokesperson Scott Livingston did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment.
Read the letter Durbin sent to Sinclair below: