united states project

An Ohio election special causes controversy

TPM flags some anti-Obama programming on Sinclair stations
November 8, 2012

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.”

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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.”

Livingston said the special, produced by “shared content” from some of the company’s stations, ran on stations in five other cities—WRGT in Dayton, Ohio; KGAN in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; WLOS in Asheville, N.C.; and WPEC in West Palm Beach and WEAR in Pensacola, Fla. (WPEC’s version of the full broadcast is here.) Those cities were chosen because the company felt they had “higher news value” for the piece in those markets, Livingston said—or in other words, they were located in key presidential swing states. I called and emailed the Dayton and West Palm Beach stations for comment, but got no response.

“The only complaints are in Columbus. I think it was because of that [TPM] article,” Livingston said. “It’s important to point out that no one is disputing the facts in the stories. It was a hard-hitting piece that looked at accountability.”

The story has been picked up by some other media-watchers—including
Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik, who folded it into his big-picture look at “partisan media madness,” and MediaBistro.

It’s also been noticed here in Ohio. John Kiesewetter, media blogger for the Cincinatti Enquirer, flagged the incident in a post Wednesday morning that asked whether something similar could “happen at WKRC-TV, the top-rated news station here, when Sinclair Broadcast Group takes over Channel 12 in the near future?” As Kiesewetter previously reported, Sinclair struck a deal over the summer to acquire the top station in Cincinnati.

My call to WKRC to ask journalists for their thoughts on the station’s new owner was directed to station manager Les Van, who said the deal with Sinclair would be completed no sooner than December, adding, “I can’t comment further.” But based on Sinclair’s history, the concern Kiesewetter raises is not unfounded.

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.