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Sinclair bid to control WGN-TV on track as ‘fake stories’ video rocks internet

President Donald Trump is jumping to the defense of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is under fire after the spread of a video showing anchors at its stations across the country reading a script criticizing "fake" news stories. | AP file photo

Journalists at “Chicago’s Very Own” WGN-TV are safe for now from having to read any “fake” news warnings like the ones recently broadcast at stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group — but the well-known Chicago TV station remains on track to fall under Sinclair’s control.

WGN is one of Tribune Media’s 42 local TV stations that Sinclair is looking to acquire in a $3.9 billion deal. The deal was announced in May 2017 but still needs approval from the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission.

A Deadspin video circulated over the weekend depicts dozens of Sinclair TV news anchors reciting the same scripted message warning against “fake stories.”

The video put in stark visual terms what for weeks had largely been an academic debate about media consolidation and Sinclair’s efforts to promote a consistent message across its stations.

The 98-second video, posted Saturday, has been viewed by millions of people and provoked a tweet by President Donald Trump supporting the corporation on Monday.

Sinclair owns nearly 200 local stations and had ordered its anchors to read the statement expressing concern about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing the country.” Some outlets publish these “fake stories” without checking facts first and some people in the media push their own biases, the statement said.

The anchors gave no specific examples. Sinclair, whose corporate leadership leans right, uses terminology familiar to Trump and his criticisms of “fake news.” In the message, the anchors say they “work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual.”

When asked about the video, Gary Weitman, senior vice president of corporate relations at Tribune Media replied “That’s a question for Sinclair.”

For now, Sinclair’s proposed takeover of WGN and the other Tribune Media stations is on hold. The FCC paused a 180-day “shot clock” on the Sinclair-Tribune transaction in January as the U.S. Department of Justice reviews the merger.

Neil Grace, senior communications advisor for the FCC, said the commission will restart the clock once applicants finish negotiations with the Justice Department and provide updated applications to the FCC.

The DOJ declined to comment.

If the deal goes through, will Chicagoans be subjected to the types of news messaging seen in the Deadspin video?

Al Tompkins, senior faculty of broadcast and online at Poynter, said that under Sinclair ownership, WGN wouldn’t be able to avoid doing what Sinclair asks.

“Now, whether Sinclair actually ends up assimilating WGN or spitting it off, I don’t know, but if WGN ends up being part of the Sinclair Group, they will be, I’m confident, treated in the same manner that every other Sinclair station has,” Tompkins said.

Tompkins said the main issue with the script about fake news isn’t the message itself, but the blurring role of news anchors.

“I think that the public wouldn’t have any idea who we’re listening to now. Are we listening to a news person or are we listening to a commentator? Who (are) we listening to here?” Tompkins said.

Timothy Burke, a video editor at Deadspin, said he read a CNN story last month about the Sinclair script being sent to local stations and contacted a media monitoring service to collect examples of the statement being read on the air. After receiving more than 50, he fashioned them into a video that shows anchors reading different portions of the text, either simultaneously or one after the other.

He posted a “teaser” with a small portion of the video Friday night, and it quickly attracted attention when tweeted by a Wisconsin journalism professor. Not wanting to see his work appropriated by someone else, Burke said he rushed to get the full video posted Saturday afternoon.

The video’s repetition illustrates Sinclair’s reach in a way mere numbers can’t, said Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York.

“That’s what makes the video so powerful,” he said. “It illustrates a story that in some cases can read like a conspiracy theory. You can see by the video that it’s not.”

Sinclair did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the video. In a memo sent to Sinclair newsrooms obtained by CNN Money, Sinclair Senior Vice President of News Scott Livingston said the uniform message was a “well-researched journalistic initiative focused on fair and objective reporting.”

Contributing: Julie Whitehair, Associated Press