WGME-TV (Channel 13) has been swept up in a national controversy since its corporate parent directed local anchors at its nearly 200 stations across the country to record a scripted promotional segment warning viewers about “fake stories” from competing media outlets.

WGME hosts Kim Block and Gregg Lagerquist recorded the “must run” segment on orders from the station’s owner, Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcasting Group. The nation’s largest owner of local television stations, Sinclair has come under fire for disseminating centrally produced commentary supporting the Trump wing of the Republican Party.

“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” Block begins, reading from a script Sinclair instructed its local anchors to follow exactly. “More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories – stories that just aren’t true – without checking facts first.”

“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think,” Lagerquist continues, in the segment also aired on Sinclair’s local Fox affiliate WPFO-TV (Channel 23). “This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”

A video montage of dozens of anchors at local stations across the country delivering this same message went viral on social media over the weekend, prompting condemnation from critics and praise for Sinclair from President Trump.

“Local news stations now required by Sinclair Broadcasting to parrot the talking points of the president, moving America one step closer to its own version of state run media,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, wrote Monday on Twitter. “And another freedom is assailed under this administration.”

Trump weighed in Monday morning with a tweet saying it was “so funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased.” The president went on to proclaim the chain “far superior” to CNN and NBC, although Sinclair owns dozens of NBC affiliates.

Media watchers expressed concern about Sinclair’s scripted remarks.

Eric Yaverbaum, author of “Public Relations for Dummies” and chairman of New York-based Ericho Communications, said the company’s move was “absurd” and amounted to an attack on journalism.

“In critiquing ‘fake news’ the stations are implying that they’re real news, so it’s ironic that they’re actually reading from a script they were given,” he said. “This is damaging to the integrity of journalism, especially because local news channels are seriously influential – people think they have a relationship with these hosts, know them, trust them.”

Al Tompkins, senior faculty member for broadcast at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education nonprofit in Florida, said he found the message itself fairly banal – “fake news is bad and people who do fake news are bad” – but that forcing local anchors to read it made little sense.

“I don’t know what they are trying to accomplish by doing this, particularly by having the anchors be the voice of this commentary,” he said. “My preference would be that if they were doing it corporately, it should have a corporate-style messenger – the local general manager – otherwise it totally undercuts the message.”

University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow said Sinclair’s move likely had little to do with the Maine audience. “The actual audience for the Sinclair commentaries is not the home viewer,” he said. “The audience is clearly the political consultants in Washington who are buying ads for the 2018 midterms and for the federal regulators who have to approve the takeover of the Tribune stations.”

Sinclair has 193 stations and a deal to acquire 42 more from Tribune Media.

By echoing Trump’s own rhetoric about “fake news” and by suggesting they are “fairer” than their competitors, Sinclair is hoping to curry favor with regulators while getting a marketing edge with Republican strategists, Socolow said. “Just as Fox news calls themselves fair and balanced in order to indict their competition, Sinclair is discussing fake news in order to distinguish themselves in the market place,” he said.

Neither Sinclair nor WGME responded to interview requests from the Press Herald. Local officers for the union that represents most of WGME’s journalists were unavailable for comment.

In an internal memo obtained Monday by CNN Money’s Brian Stelter, Sinclair vice president for news Scott Livingston defended the segments as a “well-researched journalistic initiative focused on fair and objective reporting” and cited two infamous internet news hoaxes – Pope Francis endorsing Trump for president and the “Pizzagate” hoax alleging Hillary Clinton’s involvement in a child sex ring based in the basement of a basement-less Washington pizzeria – as examples of the “fake news” they were confronting, though neither theory was ever given credence by mainstream news organizations. He also complained that critics’ “misleading, often defamatory stories about our thriving news operations” failed to mention their achievements in audience growth and journalism prizes.

Sinclair, whose executive chairman, David D. Smith, is a seasonal resident of Cape Elizabeth, has been in the national news frequently over the year and a half because it has been requiring local affiliates to air centrally produced, pro-Trump opinion segments at the same time the company is awaiting approval from the administration to purchase the 42 stations of the Tribune Media company, which will extend its reach to 72 percent of American households.

The segments, featuring former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn, are aired nine times a week on WGME, WPFO and other Sinclair stations, as are conservative commentaries from former Sinclair executive Mark Hyman, and nightly updates from the company’s Terrorism Alert Desk, which air regardless of whether there was any terrorism that day to be alerted about. No segments present countervailing points of view.

All of Maine’s other local television stations also are owned by out-of-state companies, but their managers say they have never been required to run opinion segments produced by their owners.

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