Marc McCutcheon of South Portland was watching WGME’s evening newscast as he has for half a century when something came on that shocked him.

In the midst of the local news, a taped commentary from President Trump’s former special assistant Boris Epshteyn appeared on the screen, trumpeting the administration’s position with what he thought selective use and abuse of facts.

McCutcheon, a small-business owner and political independent, describes the experience as “surreal,” “extremely jarring” and “so out of place with the friendly, local broadcast from news people I’ve come to trust over the years.” There was no rebuttal, no context, no alternate point of view – a situation he found concerning.

WGME-TV (Channel 13) and WPFO-TV (Channel 23) each carry the segments nine times a week on orders from their owner, the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcasting Group, the nation’s largest owner of local television stations and an aggressive, unabashed disseminator of conservative commentary supporting the Trump wing of the Republican Party.

The company has been in the national news regularly this year because the pro-Trump segments are appearing at the same time the company is awaiting approval from the Trump administration for it to purchase the 42 stations of the Tribune Media company, which will extend its reach to 72 percent of American households.

Epshteyn has been a Sinclair employee since April. His pieces are produced at Sinclair’s headquarters outside Baltimore and distributed to the company’s 173 local stations on a “must run” basis, along with conservative commentary from a former company executive, Mark Hyman, and nightly updates from their Terrorism Alert Desk, regardless of whether there was any terrorism that day to be alerted about. No segments present countervailing points of view.

Watch: “Bottom Line With Boris” on limiting press access to the White House

Portland’s WGME, a CBS affiliate, and its sister station WPFO, a Fox affiliate, are required to air them. They are the only stations in Maine that are forced to run editorial commentary by their corporate parent.

“It’s unheard of to have one company pushing one specific agenda reaching so many people and doing it in a way designed to evade local input,” says Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, a Washington-based group that opposes media consolidation. “The idea of having local stations offer an array of viewpoints is great, but what we get with Sinclair is one set of political leanings being broadcast everywhere.”

ULTERIOR MOTIVES SEEN

Aaron says Sinclair has been ratcheting up its pro-Trump commentary in an effort to get special treatment from the administration, which in April lifted a rule on ownership concentration that would have prevented Sinclair from buying the Tribune stations.

“They are essentially gaming the system,” he says. “It’s even more nefarious given that Sinclair has been dedicated to boosting one party, and one wing of that party in particular, the Trump wing.”

WGME station manager Tom Humpage did not respond to numerous interview requests. But in short written responses to questions from the Maine Sunday Telegram, Sinclair Broadcasting Vice President Scott Livingston defended the “must run” editorial segments. “We believe our commentaries contribute to the diversity of views in the marketplace,” he wrote, but would not say why the company does not provide a variety of perspectives to its affiliates.

Al Tompkins, senior faculty member for broadcast at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education nonprofit in Florida, says he agrees with Livingston up to a point. “I think it’s a legitimate argument that these are voices that are necessary to hear,” he says, “but while you are expressing that opinion, you should be providing other ways of looking at a conversation rather than just give another one-sided viewpoint.”

Epshteyn, a 34-year-old Russia-born investment banker, is a friend and former Georgetown University classmate of the president’s son Eric Trump who ascended rapidly within Trump’s campaign.

ECHO EFFECT

“Bottom Line With Boris” commentaries echo the White House’s own talking points. After former FBI director James Comey said in televised congressional testimony that the president had pressured him to let go of parts of his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Epshteyn asserted to Sinclair viewers that Comey’s appearance had been more damaging to Hillary Clinton than the president.

Watch: “Bottom Line With Boris” on James Comey’s congressional appearance

Other segments have championed the president’s much-derided voter fraud commission, the repeal of “net-neutrality” regulations that require all internet traffic to be on an even footing, and the idea that the White House press corps is covering the president unfairly, a favorite Trump talking point.

The Terrorism Alert Desk appears five nights a week on Sinclair stations, regardless of whether there was terror that day. One segment last August was devoted to French legislation banning burkinis, the unrevealing swimwear worn to the beach by devout Muslim women, even though there was no terror angle to the story at all.

Livingston defended the recurring feature. “Recognizing the severity of the threat terrorism poses in the world today, we find it useful to provide our viewers with constant updates regarding the state of terrorism,” he wrote.

Employees at Sinclair station KOMO in Seattle have put up mild resistance to Sinclair’s “must run” segments, airing some of them at obscure hours and complaining to their union about one such spot, an editorial by Livingston himself accusing the news media of running “fake news” and urging viewers to share “content concerns” with local stations with his office.

Last month some of them complained anonymously to Bloomberg Businessweek about having been issued blue L.L. Bean windbreakers to wear on-air when reporting from the field, rather than local rival REI. (“It’s like going to Paris and ordering California wine,” one complained.) But L.L. Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem says that was the result of an advertising promotion involving select media markets where the Freeport-based retailer sees promise for its products.

Asked about the “must run” segments, a representative for the union representing many of WGME’s news-side employees said that whatever their feelings about them were, they didn’t enter into the picture.

“The bottom line is that this is (Sinclair’s) TV station and they can run whatever they want to run,” says Matthew Beck of IBEW Local 1837. “Employees have to run what the company tells them to run, and that is pretty much where it ends right there.”

NO COUNTERPOINT

All of Maine’s other local television stations are now also owned by out-of-state companies, but none are required to run opinion segments produced by their owners. Brian Cliffe, president of WCSH-TV (Channel 6), says nothing “must run” has ever come down from the station’s owner, Tegna of McLean, Virginia. He said that some 15 years ago the station ran locally produced commentary, “but we would always provide an opportunity for an opposing person to express their side of the story.”

Michael Socolow, professor of journalism at the University of Maine, says the situation for Channel 13 is unfortunate because while Sinclair has a history of “intentionally confusing news and opinion,” WGME is one of the best newscasts in all of New England.

“WGME is really not a typical Sinclair company in that it has great local newscasts; they win awards and they have top producers, and (anchor) Kim Block is a local legend,” Socolow says. “I view WGME’s news operation backed by veteran journalists as almost unique in the Sinclair universe.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

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