Sinclair Broadcast Group is axing the “must-run” segments of one of its biggest stars, Boris Epshteyn, the network’s chief political analyst and a former special assistant to President Donald Trump. The move is part of a companywide effort to move away from political commentary in favor of investigative journalism, the network said Wednesday.
“We have to shine a light on our value proposition every quarter hour, in every newscast,” the company said in a statement to its staff. “Therefore, we will be expanding our local investigative journalism footprint in our daily newscasts. We are excited to dedicate more time in our newscasts to report on critical and relevant issues.”
“To allot additional airtime for this storytelling, we will be ending the commentary segments this Friday, Dec. 13, featuring Ameshia Cross, and Boris Epshteyn,” the memo continued.
Epshteyn’s political commentary, which ran across all 193 stations as part of a Sinclair corporate mandate, has been widely criticized. In a piece last year about immigration on the Southern border, Epshteyn used the word “invasion” to describe the influx of migrants. Sinclair was forced to post a tweet that the viewpoint did not represent the company’s views and that it is “committed to fair, unbiased journalism across our stations nationwide.”
“Boris will be moving into a sales-focused role with the company,” a source familiar with the situation told NBC News on Wednesday.
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Epshteyn tweeted about the decision saying he’s “thankful” to be part of Sinclair and is looking “forward to continuing to work with this great company.”
Cross, who worked on President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, was hired in January to provide balance on the airwaves.
A former Sinclair producer who was granted anonymity for competitive reasons, told NBC News that the change frees up producers to focus on news.
“It was irresponsible and antithetical to what we were supposed to be doing as journalists.” the former Sinclair producer said. “It is surprising, but for the most part, I think our viewers were able to see commentary for what it was.”
Sinclair said it wants to prioritize what’s important to people on a local level and is putting more focus on the kind of investigative work represented by “Project Baltimore,” a report that looked into alleged grade fixing in the Baltimore school system. The effort won multiple awards.
“Local news is very fact-based and really has very little in terms of commentary added to it,” Sinclair CEO Christopher Ripley told NBC News earlier this year.
The end of the political commentary segments comes as a surprise, given the historic level of advertising expected to flood stations in the runup to the 2020 election. BIA Advisory Services projects that could hit as much as $6.55 billion next year.
“If Sinclair wanted to tidy up its image, or the one that is fostered among people as conservative news machine, I think what they’d have to do is abolish the whole concept of must-run news stories,” the former Sinclair producer said. “Getting rid of commentary is a good first step, but securing trust among viewers, you have to get rid of mandated stories.”
Sinclair has been working to broaden its business beyond local TV stations and is a part owner of the YES Network, a regional sports channel, alongside Amazon. The company also owns The Tennis Channel and a streaming service called STIRR, which carries local news.