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Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Trump-aligned media corporation that operates hundreds of local television stations in the U.S., has abandoned its plan to widely air a segment sharing a baseless conspiracy theory blaming Dr. Anthony Fauci for the coronavirus. The move followed widespread blowback over Sinclair’s decision to broadcast the segment, in which medical researcher Dr. Judy Mikovits claims that Fauci made the virus and sent it to China. Mikovits had previously made that and other discredited claims in the viral video Plandemic (which was banned by Facebook and YouTube earlier this year).
Mikovits and her lawyer, Larry Klayman, were both guests on the latest episode of American This Week, a weekend talk show produced by Sinclair and hosted by conservative commentator and former Fox News host Eric Bolling. Sinclair announced on Saturday that it was delaying the episode in order to rework the segment, and pulled it from its network websites.
In the original interview, as CNN reported on Friday night:
Mikovits told Bolling that Fauci had over the past decade “manufactured” and shipped coronaviruses to Wuhan, China, which became the original epicenter of the current outbreak. Bolling noted that this was a “hefty claim,” but did not meaningfully challenge Mikovits and allowed her to continue making her case. Klayman, who did not respond to a request for comment, also pushed conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. He said the “origins” of the virus were in the United States. Bolling didn’t meaningfully challenge Klayman either.
In a response to CNN, Bolling claimed that he was unaware of the Plandemic video ahead of the interview, insisted he did not “endorse” Mikovits’s theory, and said he had invited her on the show to “question and challenge her beliefs.” He didn’t; the closest thing to an counterargument in the show was during the follow-up segment between Bolling and Fox News medical contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier, in which they agreed, while the chyron “DID DR. FAUCI CREATE CORONAVIRUS?” appeared onscreen, that it was “highly unlikely” Fauci created COVID-19. But, per CNN:
[T]hey went on to theorize about other possible explanations for what had happened. Saphier said it was possible the virus was “man-made within a laboratory” and escaped. That claim has been rejected by experts who have studied the virus’ genetic sequence.
Media Matters, which was the first to flag the segment after the episode was posted online before it aired on television, has pointed out that this wasn’t the first time Bolling entertained the idea that the virus was manmade, and that like many Trump allies in the media, he has also previously downplayed the threat of COVID-19.
On Saturday, Sinclair initially tried to distance itself from Mikovits and Klayman in a statement — while also pushing an all-sides-matter defense:
We hear your feedback regarding a segment on this week’s “America This Week.” At no juncture are we aligning with or endorsing the viewpoints of Dr. Mikovitz or Mr. Klayman or endorsing the “Plandemic” documentary. Full stop. We also interviewed a medical expert who debunked Dr. Mikovitz’s claims as conspiracy theories. We’re a supporter of free speech and a marketplace of ideas and viewpoints, even if incredibly controversial.
Several hours of pushback later, the company decided to temporarily close that marketplace and announced that it was delaying the episode and would “spend the coming days bringing together other viewpoints and provide additional context” to improve the segment.
“We would also like to clarify that at no point did we air the Plandemic documentary, nor do we have plans to,” the company insisted. “This documentary has been widely discredited and we as a company do not support the baseless claims that were rebutted during the original segment.”
Except the claims weren’t really rebutted. Furthermore, Media Matters reported Saturday that by the time Sinclair pulled the episode, it had already aired in its original form on at least one station (in West Virginia).
Sinclair’s Mikovits segment follows repeated attempts by President Trump and his allies over the past few weeks to discredit Dr. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, after he repeatedly diverged from Trump and the White House’s glass-mostly-full stance on the pandemic — even though COVID-19 is continuing to spread throughout the country and has already killed more than 145,000 Americans and infected more than 4.1 million in less than half a year.
According to Pew Research, local news has been an essential source of information for Americans during the pandemic. Sinclair, which operates in 81 television markets, emphasized on Saturday that it has been taking that responsibility very seriously.
Sinclair’s reputation for taking Trump’s wishes seriously is more widely recognized, however. During the president’s first year in office, the ever-growing company mandated that its networks broadcast commentary from a former Trump aide while making an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to acquire an even larger share of America’s television stations. It later made local news anchors read what was essentially Trumpist propaganda, as well, which ultimately led to one of the most unsettling videos of the Trump era.