A former news director for a Sinclair-owned TV station in the Midwest said this week that the “must-run” promotions — like the one that went viral featuring local anchors denouncing fake news — have been commonplace for years.
But the infamous “one-sided news stories” script was the worst example the 14-year local news producer has seen. The producer, Aaron Weiss, told CNN on Wednesday that the videos were “equivalent to a proof-of-life hostage video.”
“My heart broke, my heart broke for the anchors who were forced to do that,” Weiss told the network, after publishing an op-ed about Sinclair in The Huffington Post on Monday.
“I know several of them and as someone who grew up in the local news business — my mom was an anchor in Tucson, Arizona for 30 years and I imagined if she had been forced to do something like that when I was a kid and forced to make a decision about their ethics versus feeding her family and keeping her job in a business she loves,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine doing it and so my heart goes out to all those anchors who were basically forced to do the equivalent of a proof of life hostage video.”
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) March 31, 2018
In 2013, Weiss joined a news station in the Midwest as news director, after working as a producer in several larger markets on the West Coast for years. Sinclair bought the station not long after he joined the team and he was rapidly introduced to the company’s “must-run” segments, which he described as “pre-produced packages” that came from corporate along with a script for the anchors to read. He said the pieces “barely passed as journalism,” but couldn’t be changed by producers or anchors.
“We had to air them whether we wanted to or not,” Weiss wrote in his Huffington Post op-ed. “Sinclair knows its strongest asset is the credibility of its local anchors. They’re trusted voices in their communities, and they have often been on the air for decades before Sinclair purchased their stations.”
At first, Weiss said his station tried to bury the packages in the early morning news, but were quickly warned by executives that they had to feature them at a more prominent time.
“I didn’t last long after that,” he wrote.
Weiss said he decided to speak out because he knew people inside the Sinclair-owned stations had, essentially, been issued a gag-order.
“They have successfully locked down the company where anyone inside — we have seen some memos that have been leaked threatening anyone who dares to speak out to anyone publicly about this,” he told CNN.
On Tuesday, FTV Live was first to publish a leaked memo that was sent to staff at the KATU news station in Portland, warning staff that they were not allowed to answer “any questions” or “get into any discussion with callers” or speak with the press about the promotional segments. The general manager for the region, Robert Truman, warned that there would be repercussions if they did.
“I will also remind you that giving statements to the media or sharing negative information about the company can have huge implications,” he said, according to the memo.
This is what reporters at KATU news in Portland are dealing with from Sinclair Broadcasting. Note the second-to-last graph. pic.twitter.com/Wuye2vZ3IT
— Samantha Swindler (@editorswindler) April 2, 2018
CNN and The Oregonian have both confirmed that the memo was sent out to the Portland station’s staff from Sinclair’s Truman. TPM attempted to reach Truman and Sinclair’s corporate spokesperson Scott Livingston Tuesday, but neither returned requests for comment.
In a press release on Monday, Sinclair claimed that the promotional segments “served no political agenda, and represented nothing more than an effort to differentiate our award-winning news programming from other, less reliable sources of information.”
Read the response from Sinclair below: