SAG-AFTRA Slams Sinclair Over "Fake News" Scripts

Sinclair Broadcast Group 2004 - Getty - H 2017
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Promos about “false news” and “fake stories” are veiled attempts to undermine an independent press, the union suggests.

Performers’ union SAG-AFTRA — whose 165,000 members include several thousand broadcast journalists — has come out swinging against Sinclair Broadcast Group, slamming the company for requiring that anchors in its nearly 200 local stations across the country read promo scripts decrying “false news” and “fake stories.”

“SAG-AFTRA has been in contact with Sinclair to express our concerns with this campaign, and we stand with our members and journalists everywhere in challenging corporate directives that call into question the journalistic integrity of the news presented to the public,” said a statement attributed to a union spokesperson. “SAG-AFTRA opposes such directives in the interest of defending the professionalism of journalists and preserving the basic rights of a free and independent press.”

It’s no coincidence that the canned script echoes President Donald Trump’s frequent denouncement of “fake news.” Executive chairman David Smith, son of the company’s founder and (with his brothers) one of the public company’s controlling shareholder, is described as a close friend of Trump’s. The company is expected to challenge Fox News’ hold on right-leaning audiences.

“Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.” Trump tweeted Monday. Meanwhile, Sinclair said Tuesday that it was “ironic that we would be attacked for messages promoting our journalistic initiative for fair and objective reporting.”

“The journalists who work for Sinclair Broadcast Group are hard-working and dedicated professionals who care deeply about the work that they do,” the SAG-AFTRA statement also said. “Over the last couple of days, many of them have been the subject of misdirected criticism for the script Sinclair required them to read for its recent promotional campaign.”

Some of those journalists may be inclined to quit as Sinclair tightens the ideological vise, but they won’t find it easy to do so. Those who leave voluntarily are required by Sinclair’s employment contracts to pay a penalty for doing so, and can’t work at another station for 180 days.

Conversely, those who express personal political opinions on the air can be terminated by the company for breach of contract. And forget about growing some scruff in solidarity with the left: The contracts require Sinclair’s permission for “materially alter[ing]” one’s appearance.

The Sinclair promo script received attention after Deadspin assembled a montage of local anchors delivering the script verbatim and comedian, political commentator and TV host John Oliver weighed in. The company’s pending acquisition of Tribune Media, if approved, as seems likely, would bring it several dozen additional stations.