Sinclair to stop producing pro-Trump commentary

Sinclair Broadcasting Group will stop producing conservative-leaning commentary that has earned the local television stations owner much criticism from journalists both outside and within the company.

In a memo to staff, a Sinclair executive said it would stop producing the commentary after this Friday and would no longer require stations to run them. The move comes as Sinclair shifts its focus away from conservative oriented news toward local journalism and investigative reporting.

“We are excited to dedicate more time in our newscasts to report on critical and relevant issues,” a company executive wrote in a memo distributed to employees across its more than 190 local television stations on Wednesday.

The memo was first reported by NBC News. Sinclair operates more than 20 local NBC affiliates across the country, including the largest group of NBC affiliates in Montana.

Sinclair drew criticism when it required local broadcast outlets to run political commentary voiced by Boris Epshteyn, a Russian-born investment banker and a former special assistant to President Donald Trump. In public statements, Sinclair has tried to distance itself from some of Epshteyn more-controversial pieces, saying the views of their commentator don’t reflect those of the company or its employees.

But the commentary and other segments were used as fodder in debates over a proposed merger between Sinclair and Tribune Media — one that would have created the largest owner of local broadcast stations in the country. Hundreds of people filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency that regulates broadcast stations and the companies that own them, following critical media reports and a segment on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” which highlighted Sinclair’s unusual mandates for local news outlets.

Those mandates included Ephsteyn’s commentary as well as a so-called “Terrorism Alert” segment that described violent acts and threats, some of which contained dubious sourcing, unverified information and no apparent nexus to actual terrorism.

“Sometimes these [segments] were labeled as commentary,” one former staffer wrote in an editorial published by the Washington Post. “But most ‘must-runs’ were slanted, and some segments went straight into blatant fear-mongering.”

Under intense pressure from the public and federal regulators, Sinclair’s merger with Tribune fell apart. Tribune was later acquired by Nexstar Media Group in a deal worth $4.1 billion.

In recent months, Sinclair has signaled a willingness to move away from controversial, politically-tinged segments as it repositions itself as an entertainment behemoth. The company launched STIRR, an Internet-based streaming service with around 50 linear channels, including repurposed versions of its local news outlets, and acquired a handful of regional Fox Sports stations left over as scraps from Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s movie studio and cable channels.

A former Sinclair producer who spoke with NBC News about the company’s decision to move away from political commentary said it freed up local journalists to focus on news. But the ex-staffer said it didn’t go far enough because the company hasn’t stopped mandating local news outlets carry certain non-political stories — something few other broadcast operators require.

“Getting rid of commentary is a good first step, but [to secure] trust among viewers, you have to get rid of mandated stories,” the unnamed staffer reportedly said.

Epshteyn, who was hired by Sinclair in 2017 to produce the commentary, will transition into a sales role within the company.