Maine television station WGME, Channel 13, has again been swept up in a national media ethics controversy after its corporate parent apparently directed it to publish and publicize a news story on its website that promotes President Trump’s campaign merchandise.

Over the past five days, WGME and at least 20 other stations owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group published nearly identical versions of the story that report on the Trump campaign’s sale of a new version of its red “Make America Great Again” hats, including a catalog-like description of the product and its price.

Screen grab from WGME

The Daily Beast reported Monday morning that the stories originally included a link that took readers directly to the Trump campaign’s web store, which sells products to fund the president’s re-election. On Monday afternoon, the Press Herald found at least one Sinclair station, KUTV in Salt Lake City, was still linking directly to the campaign store’s purchasing page for the new hat, with a “Keep America Great” logo.

“Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has rolled out new hats as the President aims for another four-year term in 2020,” opens the story posted on WGME’s website Thursday and credited to the staff of WRGB, Sinclair’s Albany, New York, affiliate. “Trump’s online campaign store has started selling red baseball hats with the slogan ‘Keep America Great’ in white letters.”

Michael Socolow, a nationally prominent media historian at the University of Maine in Orono, said he found the article troubling.

“Any time a journalistic outlet appears to be coordinating closely with a political campaign, it raises ethical questions about the quality of their journalism,” Socolow said. “The fact that not a single source is quoted in the piece makes it appear to be more of a repurposed press release than a piece of journalism.”

WGME Station Manager Tom Humpage did not respond to an interview request Monday. Spokesmen for Maryland-based Sinclair, the nation’s largest owner of local television stations, also did not respond to requests for comment.

WGME promoted the story, which features a screenshot of the new Trump hat taken from the campaign’s store, in a tweet Friday, as at least 20 other Sinclair stations across the country did over the weekend. The story quotes the campaign store warning buyers to “anticipate a delay in delivery due to overwhelming support.”

The story probably wouldn’t have to be reported as a campaign contribution under current federal campaign finance law, said campaign finance legal expert Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine.

“It wouldn’t be a contribution unless it was being done in coordination with a campaign, and even if it counts as a contribution, there’s an exemption for the media engaged in a bona fide news story,” Hasen said. “So someone could file a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission arguing this wasn’t a bona fide news story, but it would take them a few years to figure it out.”

WGME drew scrutiny last October after Sinclair directed local anchors 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 read from the same script as their counterparts, decrying “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country” and ascribing it to “some members of the media (who) use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think.”

Sinclair, whose executive chairman, David D. Smith, has a summer home in Cape Elizabeth, was in the national news frequently in 2017 and 2018 for requiring local affiliates to air centrally produced, pro-Trump opinion segments at the same time the company was awaiting approval from the administration to purchase the 42 stations of the Tribune Media company, which would have extended its reach to 72 percent of American households. The deal ultimately fizzled.

Sinclair also operates WPFO-TV in Portland, a FOX affiliate. All of Maine’s other local television stations also are owned by out-of-state companies, but their managers have said they have never been required to run opinion segments produced by their owners.

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