Sinclair distances itself from views of former Trump official after backlash over tear gas segment

(Carolyn Kaster | The Associated Press) Retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn, center right, and Boris Epshteyn, a spokesman for President-elect Donald Trump, center left, are reflected in elevator doors Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in New York.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of local television stations in the country, sought to distance itself on Wednesday from commentary it ran by former Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn.

The company, which has been criticized for injecting right-wing views into local news broadcasts, sought to "address some concerns" about an unnamed episode of "Bottom Line with Boris" that aired this week. Multiple segments by Epshteyn, who worked in both the Trump White House and as a campaign official, had drawn scrutiny.

The first was a two-minute spot in which Epshteyn defended the use of tear gas on migrants near the border.

"The fact of the matter is that this is an attempted invasion of our country. Period," Epshteyn said, parroting rhetoric used by President Donald Trump. "Our border must remain intact and secure. It is not a partisan position to believe that our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed."

That segment was criticized on social media amid a discussion about the treatment of migrants, including some with children, at the border.

Epshteyn "has been a central player in the Trump-conservative media complex," Princeton University professor and CNN analyst Julian Zelizer wrote on Twitter. "He has capitalized on the thirst for content, as a campaign surrogate, administration official and Sinclair operative to spread Trumpian pr."

According to data cited by the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America, Epshteyn's tear gas segment aired on stations in at least 24 states.

The second was a bit in which Epshteyn defended Laura Loomer. The fringe right-wing activist was recently suspended from Twitter after accusing Minnesota Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, a Democrat who is Muslim, of being "anti-Jewish" and part of a religion in which "homosexuals are oppressed ... women are abused and forced to wear the hijab."

Sinclair said that Epshteyn's views were not representative of the company's.

“The opinions expressed in this segment do not reflect the views of Sinclair Broadcast Group,” the company wrote on Twitter. “When Boris' segments are aired on our stations, they are labeled clearly as commentary.”

Matthew Gertz, a fellow at Media Matters for America, said he found Sinclair's defense of Epshteyn to be disingenuous.

"He is one of a handful of right-wingers whose commentary Sinclair forces stations to run," Gertz wrote. "He has no natural audience; his YouTube views are minuscule."

The president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Hugo Balta, expressed concern about the segment in a statement that called it "propaganda."

Epshteyn, who was hired last year as the company's chief political analyst, helms segments that often defend Trump and hammer on other Republican themes.

He defended himself to some people who criticized him on Twitter on Wednesday.

“Thanks,” he wrote to one. “Did you bother watching the segment or just attacking me based on the hit piece by [Media Matters for America]?”

Sinclair did not return a request for comment.

The owner of at least 170 stations in 81 broadcast markets across the country, many of which are affiliated with more well-known national media companies such as Fox and ABC, Sinclair has been the subject of increasing amount of criticism in recent years that it has injected right-leaning coverage and commentary into its local broadcasts.

In April, the company was widely criticized after a video showed anchors at dozens of stations reading robotically from a seemingly Trump-friendly script that ominously warned of fake news and one-sided reporting.

“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think,” the anchors said in the one-minute spot. “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”