Scott D. Pierce: Big, bad Boris is gone, but the specter of Sinclair still hangs over KUTV-Channel 2

(Andrew Harnik |AP file photo) Boris Epshteyn, former special assistant to President Donald Trump, right, attends the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington on April 1, 2019. The Sinclair group of local television stations said it is dropping its commentary segments featuring Epshteyn in favor of a greater emphasis on local investigative journalism.

They are heaving sighs of relief at KUTV-Channel 2. Sinclair has gotten rid of Boris Epshteyn and his vile, partisan “commentaries.”

But I’m not sure that will be enough to clean the stain off the local newscasts.

Oh, both KUTV staffers and viewers are glad to have “Bottom Line with Boris” gone for good. His slavish devotion to his former boss, Donald Trump, was offensive to all but the president’s most ardent supporters. His xenophobia was hideous — he defended using tear gas on families (and small children) who he said had launched “an attempted invasion of our country.”

(Epshteyn will move into the sales department at Sinclair. Would you buy an ad from that guy?)

Yes, the segments — which Sinclair ordered its stations to run — were labeled as commentary. And, no, I don’t believe that anything in Epshteyn’s diatribes affected any of Channel 2′s news coverage.

But having them there could hardly help the way viewers perceived KUTV. Even if you’ve spent a fortune remodeling your home and turned it into a showplace, the run-down dump next door is going to make it harder for you to sell your house.

And even though Sinclair tried to put some window dressing on the Epshteyn segments by adding commentaries by a liberal, Ameshia Cross, back in January, it just served as a reminder that the company has a long, sordid history of inserting its right-wing political agenda into the newscasts on the 190-plus TV stations it owns or operates across the United States — including KUTV, KJZZ and KMYU in Utah.

But those Epshteyn segments aren’t the only issue that I find troubling when watching KUTV’s newscasts. It’s not just that the station is airing reports from “national correspondents" who are in the employ of Sinclair, but it’s the content of those reports.

I’ve seen more than one such segment that consisted of a reporter stating that the Democrats were out to impeach Donald Trump, followed by clips of the president denying he’d done anything wrong. No context, no balance.

More troubling still, I’ve seen KUTV anchors do the same thing.

No, local newscasts are generally not replete with context and explanations. They’re more about headlines and soundbites. But when you’re operating under the weight of a corporate reputation that you’re biased in favor of right-wing agendas, wouldn’t it make sense to take particular care to disprove that with balanced reporting?

I’ve repeatedly defended Channel 2′s reporters and anchors against allegations that they’re tainted by the politics that infest Sinclair. Over the past few months, I’ve been less certain in my defense.

Even if Channel 2′s reporting was flawless (and no reporting is perfect — including mine), I was troubled to see a Sinclair reporter essentially embedded with the Republican congressmen who “stormed” a closed-door deposition during the impeachment hearings back in October. And, while Sinclair announced that it will move away from “political commentary,” it’s beyond alarming that the company plans to continue its fear-mongering, Muslim-baiting “Terrorism Alert Desk” segments.

At the risk of repeating myself, interference from its corporate overlords at Sinclair undermines the work done by reporters trying to do their jobs at KUTV and stations across the country.

Sinclair announced that, in place of political commentary, it 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.”

If that’s true — great. I hope Sinclair gives KUTV more resources to do more investigative stories.

But ... I’m skeptical, for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of what’s labeled “investigative journalism” in local TV isn’t. When a reporter calls up a couple of people and produces a story, that’s reporting. That’s journalism. “Investigative” — not so much.

That’s also true at other Utah TV stations, by the way.

And, second, I’ll reserve judgment until I see what and who, exactly, KUTV investigates. And what conclusions its reports draw.

Sinclair has given us plenty of reasons to doubt its motives. Unless and until we have evidence that it’s no longer slanting its coverage, it doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. And, unfortunately, that’s the system in which KUTV reporters are working.