In Wake of Controversial Anchor Promos, Sinclair CEO Tells Staff: ‘We Do Not Let Extremists on Any Side of the Political Fence Bully Us’

The headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group is shown April 3, 2018, in Hunt Valley, Maryland. The company, the largest owner of local television stations in the U.S., has drawn attention recently for repeating claims by President Donald Trump that traditional television and print publications offer "fake" or biased news. (Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group is shown April 3, 2018, in Hunt Valley, Maryland. The company, the largest owner of local television stations in the U.S., has drawn attention recently for repeating claims by President Donald Trump that traditional television and print publications offer "fake" or biased news. (Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Sinclair’s CEO says he is sorry — not about the controversial promos that local anchors had to read, but about the “politically motivated attacks” that followed.

“For having to field nasty calls, threats, personal confrontations and trolling on social media, I am truly sorry you had to endure such an experience,” CEO Chris Ripley said in a memo to staffers on Tuesday.

“However, as an organization it is important that we do not let extremists on any side of the political fence bully us because they do not like what they hear or see,” Ripley added.

Dismayed staffers shared the memo with CNNMoney. Morale is low and frustration is high inside Sinclair’s local stations due to the mandated promos and management’s handling of the situation.

While Ripley blamed outsiders for “attacks,” the controversy began when Sinclair staffers raised concerns about a media-bashing promo campaign. Anchors in some local markets were uncomfortable reading the script, which echoed some of President Trump’s anti-media talking points. But the promos were a nationwide mandate, known as “must-runs.”

After CNNMoney reported last month on the anchors’ concerns, Deadspin compiled the promos into a video that made dozens of local journalists sound like robots.

Some liberal advocacy groups used the controversy to renew opposition to Sinclair’s pending acquisition of Tribune Media. But the resistance to the promos started from the inside.

Sinclair management continues to defend the initiative.

Sinclair chairman David Smith told The Guardian newspaper that the controversy is “the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

These sorts of comments have stirred resentment of management at the local station level.

As CNNMoney reported on Monday, numerous staffers feel that the company’s responses to criticism have been tone-deaf at best.

Ripley’s memo was the latest attempt to respond.

He started by saying that “the practice of on-air personalities following a script is not unique to Sinclair, however, the blowback we received for doing so certainly is.”

(However, some local staffers felt the promo requirement was unprecedented and it made them uncomfortable.)

Ripley’s memo also encouraged innovation and experimentation in local broadcasting.

He wrote: Sinclair will continue to combine “the best of the local broadcast model with the best of the network model which will undoubtable [sic] expose us to more criticism because ‘no other local TV broadcasters does it that way.’ However, those that do not answer the call to innovate will be sucked into the black hole that is big tech which is consuming every segment of the media universe.”

This remark is an indication that Sinclair’s management team will continue sending “must run” programming to local stations. Frustrated journalists say the “must runs” frequently contain bias and have a conservative bent.

Ripley concluded his note by saying “my apologies if you were personally affected by the attacks from last week.”

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Here is the complete memo from Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley to staffers:

Sinclair Team,

I know that for many of you, this past week has been challenging as the stations bore the brunt of politically motivated attacks regarding our news promotions. As you know, the practice of on-air personalities following a script is not unique to Sinclair, however, the blowback we received for doing so certainly is. For having to field nasty calls, threats, personal confrontations and trolling on social media, I am truly sorry you had to endure such an experience. However, as an organization it is important that we do not let extremists on any side of the political fence bully us because they do not like what they hear or see.

On Friday Scott Livingston and I had a News Director meeting to answer questions about the situation from the field. At the end of the call I did a recap regarding our commitment to local that I would like to paraphrase for the benefit of those that were not on the call.

In the TV station business, there are four core sources of value: 1) wireless spectrum, 2) programming/distribution contracts, 3) local news/content and 4) local sales/relationships. Due to our unique engineering talent and industry leadership in next generation TV (ATSC3.0), Sinclair is most known for spectrum, and often times this leads to a perception that we do not value the local aspects of the business. This perception is not consistent with the value drivers of the industry. In fact, two out of the four value drivers in this business are locally based.

As we enter into a time of unprecedented change and disruption in media, it’s more important now than ever to be focused on serving our local communities and businesses with the best programming and the best marketing services. Those that fail to do these two things well and fail to innovate will not be in business 5-10 years from now. That means we cannot be satisfied with the status quo way that TV broadcasting has historically operated. To that end, Sinclair will continue to pursue new and innovative strategies including our hybrid approach of bringing together the best of the local broadcast model with the best of the network model which will undoubtable expose us to more criticism because “no other local TV broadcasters does it that way.” However, those that do not answer the call to innovate will be sucked into the black hole that is big tech which is consuming every segment of the media universe. Contrary to much of the uninformed coverage on Sinclair we are not a monopoly and do not have any material market power, even by pre-internet standards. We simply have a seat a large table of competitors and potential substitutes. A seat that we have to earn the right to keep by focusing on the needs of our local viewers and local advertisers.

So let me be clear, service and dedication to our local communities is an absolute priority here at Sinclair. It is a key strategic advantage for our company and often the reason others value us in the media ecosystem. Once again, my apologies if you were personally affected by the attacks from last week.

Best,

Chris