OHIO — A controversial election eve special that aired twice Monday night on the local ABC affiliate in Columbus triggered a wave of criticism on social media, prompting one local anchor to launch her own Twitter defense.

And because the company behind the broadcast is about to expand its media holdings in the Buckeye State, this story may not be over yet.

First reported on Tuesday afternoon by Talking Points Memo, the left-leaning political news site, the special aired by WSYX focused on the economy, healthcare reform, and the September 11 attack on the Libyan embassy.

Given the scant political coverage some local stations offer even as they rake in
wads of campaign ad dollars, that sounds like a good thing. But as TPM’s Eric Lach wrote: “Rather than a side by side comparison of the two major party candidates, however, the special featured some of the most partisan criticisms of President Barack Obama, and spent relatively little time examining Republican nominee Mitt Romney.” As a result, “at times, it sounded more like Fox News than local news.”

The half-hour special was produced by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of WSYX and itself no stranger to controversy. (More on that in a moment.) I was unable to locate the special on WSYX’s website, and TPM embedded only a brief clip in its report. But a local viewer’s video capturing nine minutes of the special, posted on the liberal Daily Kos site, makes it easy to see why Obama supporters—or just viewers expecting balanced news coverage—might be upset.

The clip begins with a bit on the Affordable Care Act, with WSYX co-anchor Bob Kendrick declaring that, “The cost of Obamacare is making many American sick to their stomach, though.” The ensuing segment dwells on the bill’s cost and on public opposition. An unidentified man says on camera, “I think Barack Obama is anti-American.” Someone holds a sign with a picture of the president and the words, “Liar Liar.” Three disgusted-looking, unidentified citizens say in order: “I just think it stinks”; It’s a bunch of crap”; and “You don’t want to know my opinion, we’d be here all day.”

The segment did correctly, and usefully, make clear to viewers that the future of Obamacare was one of the biggest issues at stake in the election. But it’s an understatement to say that it stacked the deck against the reform law.

The foreign policy section was similar. After a lead-in from co-anchor Yolanda Harris, the segment focused on the White House response to the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, a late-campaign preoccupation of conservative media. Sen. John McCain appears twice to question the veracity of the president, and an angry-sounding voice-over—apparently from a congressman—demands to know “why we were lied to.” Then the segment wraps up by saying that, on other foreign policy issues, there was basically no difference between Obama and Romney.

Harris was featured in the TPM report, which helped trigger a wave of criticism on social media. TPM’s Lach promptly wrote that up in a report for Wednesday morning:

Harris responded simply and civilly on Twitter, sending a number of messages including the following: “I understand. I had no choice in the matter,” “didn’t have a choice dude,” and “I guess you’re the better person. I need my job.”

Eventually, Harris appeared to tire of the comments.

“Enough nasty comments about the election special,” Harris tweeted at 9:14 p.m. EST. “Had no choice. Not defending myself any longer. I’ll take the hits. Enjoy your evening.”

Neither Harris nor Kendrick responded to my calls or emails. But this is not the first time Sinclair’s journalists have been caught up in controversy by decisions made by the company’s higher-ups. In 2004, the company’s Washington bureau chief was
after publicly criticizing the company’s decision to air parts of a documentary attacking John Kerry’s anti-war activities weeks before the election. That same year, Sinclair was surrounded by controversy when it barred seven of its ABC-affiliated stations from airing a Nightline episode that displayed the names and photos of 700 American soldiers killed in the Iraq war.

Scott Livingston, vice president of news for the Maryland-based Sinclair, did respond to questions about the latest special. He defended the piece, calling the criticism “unfair.”

T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.