Sinclair producer quits after local anchors forced to read 'fake news' script

Justin Simmons quit his job as a producer at KHGI TV in Nebraska after local news anchors across the U.S. were forced to read a script condemning fake news.

Justin Simmons is 1 of several employees speaking out after video of the controversial promo went viral

Justin Simmons quit his job as a producer at KHGI TV in Nebraska after local news anchors across the U.S. were forced to read a script condemning fake news. (Submitted by Justin Simmons)
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Justin Simmons quit his job as morning producer at KHGI TV in Nebraska after local news anchors across the United States were forced to read a script condemning fake news.

KHGI TV is among the 193 news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative-leaning media company that has come under fire over a video from Deapsin that shows dozens of local anchors reciting the exact same words about media bias. 

Sinclair is awaiting federal government approval of its Tribune Media acquisition, a move that would dramatically increase its reach.

The company is standing by the must-run script, telling Vox: "We aren't sure of the motivation for the criticism, but find it curious that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media."

But several Sinclair employees have spoken out about what they call a lack of editorial independence and a shift away from local coverage under the company's ownership. 

Simmons took it a step further and handed in his resignation.

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about why. Here is part of that conversation.

What did you think when you first saw this script that your anchors had to read?

I was concerned. My first thought was honestly about Sinclair's bias requiring us to run slanted segments daily because they've cozied up to the Trump administration.

I also felt like it was making anchors potentially lie to their viewers, saying they're concerned about things they may not be concerned about.

It's also, I find, misleading to almost be saying that Sinclair stations are the only ones that do it right. 

How did your anchors themselves respond to this? I guess it was it was a decree, right? They had to do it.

They didn't really have much of a choice, and they were uncomfortable with it.

The headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group Hunt Valley, Md. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

What is the "biased and false news" that Sinclair Broadcast is referring to in this missive?

For me, that part of it is concerning, because it's echoing Trump's rhetoric on fake news.

So you think this is the sort of Trump view that they're being told to to regurgitate here?

Yeah, I think so.

They brought on [Boris Epshteyn], a former ... aide for Trump during his campaign, and he's now a chief political analyst and were required to do segments daily from him.

And those aren't the only examples, right? There are other things, other assignments that journalists and at various stations were uncomfortable with. There's something called the Terrorism Alert Desk. Can you tell us what that is?

It basically talks about terror going on around the world, and I've had to run this segment. I've tried to verify the stories. I've looked into where they were getting their information, and sometimes it was difficult to do that.

Tell us a bit about what the message that they were getting across or trying to get across with the Terrorism Alert Desk.

To me it was fear-mongering, and possibly using unverifiable sources.

The biggest concern about these must-runs is requiring stations to air them. It can take away from local content.

I don't think it's been an issue at KHGI too much. But at other stations, I've heard that people have had to drop local content for these must-runs, which isn't why people watch local news. They do it for local news.

So what led you finally to resign from the TV station?

This promo, several things about it, requiring the anchors to do, just rubbed me the wrong way. And I felt like I had to get out now.

What did your boss say when you told him you wanted to quit?

He wasn't too surprised. I already told him that I'm probably going to quit over this. And so when I put in my notice, he accepted it. And that was about it. He wasn't upset. He was understanding about it.

Did he question your motives?

He respected that I was standing up for what I believed in.

This Sinclair Broadcast Group has a great deal of influence, doesn't it? They have 193 TV stations in 80 markets. They reach almost 40 per cent of U.S. households, and they're expanding. It appears that they'll get even more stations, up to as many as 40, if Mr. Trump agrees with it. What do you make of that?

That is definitely concerning and honestly that is part of what one of the reasons I decided to go public on this was because I was hoping they could bring attention and potentially stop the merger.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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