David D. Smith, chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, told the New York Times that his company’s actions and involvement in local programming are the norm, however, media experts and industry insiders interviewed disagree.
In a lengthy email exchange with the Times, Smith wrote, “Not that you would print it, but do you understand that every local TV station is required to ‘must run’ from its network their content, and they don’t own me.”
While those who follow the media closely have known for a while that Sinclair requires the local television stations it owns to air “must-runs” segments after reporting from CNN’s Brian Stelter, the general public largely became aware only when Deadspin posted a video on their Twitter.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) March 31, 2018
Since then, Sinclair has been under attack for its relationship with its owned stations.
In his exchange with the New York Times, Smith said that broadcast networks require affiliates to “do exactly the same promotional things that we do” and that ‘must-runs’ were “standard practice in the industry.”
The difference is that a network, like CBS, provides programming like sports or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to its affiliates. Presenting editorials as news in a local news broadcast is a different practice all-together.
Interviews with companies comparable to Sinclair in the industry reveal a different story.
Nexstar Media Group is a Texas-based telecommunications company which owns and operates 177 television stations in markets across the United States. It is second to Sinclair in size, which owns 193 stations across the United States.
“Nexstar does not have ‘must runs’” said Joe Jaffoni, a spokesperson for the media giant in an interview.
Additionally, NBCUniversal owns and operates 12 local NBC stations in some of the nation’s largest markets like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. According to a source familiar with NBC’s Owned Television Station division, NBC owned and operated stations do not have “must-runs.”
Other major broadcasters Hearst Communications, TEGNA inc. and Tribune Broadcasting did not respond to requests for comment.
Additionally, a reporter at WJLA-TV, the Sinclair owned ABC-affiliate in the Washington, D.C. market, declined to comment and directed MediaFile to a Sinclair press release.
John Craft, a broadcasting expert and Professor at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication said, “Some top management gives local managers a good deal of freedom in content selection, others manage from the top down.”
He also told MediaFile that while Sinclair’s actions may be ethically questionable, they are legal.
“Based on my knowledge of newsrooms, I find it very unusual, and disturbing, for a corporate entity to, in effect, ‘order’ it’s employees to utilize carefully crafted ‘information/propaganda’ as a part of their news operations.” said Michael Casavantes, 15-year broadcast news veteran and lecturer at ASU.
Casavantes continued, saying, “In my experience as a reporter and news director, I never had anyone tell me what to report or what not to report on. If I were in a newsroom where this ‘run this or else’ mandate came down, I would simply refuse to participate.”
New York Times media reporter Sydney Ember recently tweeted a reason why Smith’s argument does not hold up. If Smith is comparing Sinclair’s relationship to its stations as the same as a network to its affiliates, then Sinclair-owned stations would have a right to not air ‘must-runs.’
In response to what David Smith said re: networks requiring affiliates to run programming, FCC rules state that affiliates retain the right to reject any such programming. https://t.co/yAglcq9xui https://t.co/rvh2JpJ8ws
— Sydney Ember (@melbournecoal) April 5, 2018
As the backlash against Sinclair grows, maybe some owned stations will refuse to air these must-run segments. So far, only Fox 47 Madison in Wisconsin has publically declined to air a Sinclair must-run.
In response to the Sinclair message aired: "WMSN/FOX47 Madison did not air the Sinclair promotional announcement during our 9pm news this weekend. Rather, we stayed true to our commitment to provide our Madison area viewers local news, weather and sports of interest to them." pic.twitter.com/MdQ568cWrH
— FOX 47 Madison (@fox47madison) April 2, 2018