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'We Had To Grin And Bear It,' Says KUTV Employee Of Sinclair 'Fake News' Promo

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KUTV anchors Shauna Lake and Mark Koelbel were directed to read a promo denouncing "false news."

Employees at Salt Lake City’s Sinclair-owned station KUTV are dismayed and embarrassed about a recent editorial their anchors were forced to read that criticized other media outlets for sharing “false news.” An employee who works for the CBS affiliate but requested anonymity to speak candidly said the unease goes all the way up to management. 

Last month, KUTV started airing the promo, in which anchors Shauna Lake and Mark Koelbel denounce fabricated, one-sided news stories and the outlets who report them.

“Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and their agenda to control exactly what people think,” Koelbel says in the segment. “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy. At 2 News, it is our responsibility to report and to pursue the truth.”

Lake adds, “We understand the truth is neither politically left nor right. Our commitment to factual reporting is a foundation of our credibility now more than ever.”

KUTV’s corporate owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group, required every station to air the promo. The sports website Deadspin made a compilation of anchors across the country reciting it in unison, which was widely shared online.

Sinclair owns Utah broadcasters KUTV, KJZZ and KMYU in St. George. They’re the largest owner of television stations in the country with close to 200 outlets.

Critics, like the progressive advocacy group Alliance for a Better Utah said the promo parrots President Donald Trump’s talking points about “fake news” and perpetuates distrust in the media. The KUTV source told KUER that the original promo used the term “fake news” but was later changed to “false news” when reporters protested.

The source said they were never pressured to skew local coverage to favor the president or conservative talking points. However, since Sinclair bought KUTV in 2011, the station has been forced to air national and international news stories that the source said are poorly researched and overtly partisan. One example the source cited was a story KUTV aired in February about a spike in crime in Sweden that officials attributed to immigrants entering the country.

The source said some employees have expressed a desire to quit over Sinclair’s overreach. But many are locked into contracts that prevent them from working for a competitor within a certain time frame. Utah lawmakers passed a bill this year to limit those non-compete contracts, but it only effects employees at lower pay grades.

Rod Decker, a TV news veteran who retired from KUTV last fall, weighed in on the controversy on Wednesday. He said his colleagues at Channel 2 are good people and the station has high credibility in the community, but that Sinclair is wasting that credibility on “nothing.”

Decker said while he worked at KUTV, management tried to bypass Sinclair’s directives and air the controversial must-run segments only on its smaller sister stations. Sinclair eventually caught wind of the scheme and ordered the station to air them on Channel 2.

Alliance for a Better Utah said the promo has aired 19 times since March 23 and has reached an audience of nearly 800,000 people. They tracked it using the online media monitoring website called TVEyes.

Sinclair is in the process of trying to purchase Tribune Media Company, which includes Utah’s Fox 13. The company may, however, exclude Fox 13 from the purchase.

In a statement, Sinclair said the promo served no political agenda and was meant to focus attention on unsubstantiated stories circulated on social media.

This story has been updated from its original version to add comments from KUTV veteran Rod Decker.

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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