Sinclair TV Segment Defends Use of Tear Gas on Migrants at Border

Posted November 28, 2018 10:30 p.m. EST
Updated November 28, 2018 10:36 p.m. EST

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has faced criticism for forcing its nearly 200 local television stations to air right-leaning “must run” segments, has distributed a new two-minute commentary defending the use of tear gas on migrants at the border.

In the segment, Boris Epshteyn, the broadcaster’s chief political analyst and a former Trump White House official, argued that U.S. authorities “had to use tear gas” on hundreds of migrants at a border crossing near San Diego on Sunday to guard against an “attempted invasion” of the United States.

“The fact of the matter is that this is an attempted invasion of our country,” Epshteyn said, echoing language that the president has used repeatedly to describe the caravan of Central American migrants, many of whom are seeking asylum from countries plagued by violence. The right to apply for asylum is protected by federal law.

The use of tear gas was criticized by many Democrats as a harsh and disproportionate response. “Firing tear gas into crowds of women and children is cruel,” Rep. Jacky Rosen, the Democratic senator-elect from Nevada, wrote on Twitter.

In one Reuters photograph, shared widely online, a woman from Honduras and her two young children can be seen fleeing a smoking tear gas canister fired by U.S. border authorities.

Epshteyn argued in the segment that the tear gas was necessary to prevent the migrants from entering the country. As of Wednesday morning, the segment had aired on at least two dozen Sinclair stations from Maine to Texas to Washington, according to a review by The New York Times.

Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog organization, and others reported that the commentary was among the “must run” segments produced by Sinclair, the largest operator of local TV stations in the country.

The company has faced criticism over the practice, which some say uses the reputations of its member stations to push an agenda.

“These are local stations that advertise themselves as affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and draw off the credibility of local anchors to present themselves as part of the community, with Sinclair HQ in Baltimore forcing delivery of these Trump-a-grams,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, wrote on Twitter.

In a series of tweets late Wednesday, the company distanced itself from Epshteyn’s segment, though it was not entirely clear whether it was referring to his commentary on the use of tear gas or a later, less-criticized segment about Twitter’s decision to ban a right-wing activist.

“The opinions expressed in this segment do not reflect the views of Sinclair Broadcast Group,” the company said. “When Boris’ segments are aired on our stations, they are labeled clearly as commentary. We also offer our stations reporting from the Beltway and beyond that are not partisan or bias in any way.”

In the subsequent segment, Epshteyn criticized Twitter for banning right-wing activist Laura Loomer after she called Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota “pro-Shariah” and “anti-Jewish,” according to Mediaite. Last year, Loomer was also banned from Uber and Lyft following several anti-Muslim tweets.

Some Sinclair employees have described the segments as one-sided and poorly made. Last year, journalists at KOMO, a Sinclair station in Seattle, said they received reporting instructions from the company that seemed politically motivated.

At the time, Scott Livingston, the company’s vice president for news, defended against the suggestion of right-leaning bias.

“We work very hard to be objective and fair and be in the middle,” he said. “I think maybe some other news organizations may be to the left of center, and we work very hard to be in the center.”

Earlier this year, Timothy Burke, the video director at Deadspin, stitched together a widely shared video of dozens of local news anchors at Sinclair stations reciting the same script, voicing concern over “fake stories” and “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”

David D. Smith, Sinclair’s chairman, defended the practice in emails to The Times, comparing the “must-runs” and scripting to other programming, such as late-night shows, aired by local network affiliates.