The Sin of Sinclair
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
THE SIN OF SINCLAIR: In March, journalists broke the story that Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner or operator of nearly 200 television stations in the United States—including several in the Pacific Northwest—would force news anchors to record a promo about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.” The script, which echoes Donald Trump’s criticism of stories uncomplimentary to his presidency as “fake news,” brought upheaval to newsrooms already dismayed with Sinclair’s pressure to bring right-wing propaganda to local television broadcasts.
The segments were assembled into a eerie montage with the video editing skills of Timothy Burke, a video director with Deadspin.
The viral assemblage was chilling and Orwellian—paid concern actors, who’ve built their careers around being trusted and trustworthy reporters of accurate local news, all parroting in unison the same canned script.
The message itself was benign enough; however, the delivery undercut the message and revealed much about the oligarchical command vectors that spread the plague of irresponsible, one-sided news stories. It ripped away the illusion that local broadcast news is independent and professionally focused on truth.
“The net result of the company’s current mandate is dozens upon dozens of local news anchors looking like hostages in proof-of-life videos, trying their hardest to spit out words attacking the industry they’d chosen as a life vocation,” Burke observed.
Burke’s montage was a glimpse into a dark future for journalism and the fourth estate, and its power to report accurately and objectively on the operations of government. That dark future draws ever nearer with Sinclair set to acquire Tribune Media. If the merger is approved (by a president apparently pleased with the potential), the company will own enough stations to reach an estimated 70 percent of American households.
“It sickens me the way this company is encroaching upon trusted news brands in rural markets,” one reporter told CNN. “I feel bad because they’re seeing these people they’ve trusted for decades tell them things they know are essentially propaganda.”
In recent days, the Seattle Times has done marvelous, insightful reporting on the gloomy mood inside the Sinclair-owned KOMO TV broadcast studio. The Times reports some KOMO staffers have reached a breaking point and have discussed protesting their corporate bosses, or plan to leave as soon as they can.
“To many, it looked like talking points from the Trump administration had been directly broadcast into living rooms across the country, filtered through their trusted local anchors,” the Times reported.
For the Puget Sound region, in particular, which can hardly be described as Trump Country, those canned talking points are especially jarring to repeat.
“When media giants gobble up local news stations, there are repercussions,” warned KOMO News anchor Mary Nam in a rare act of public defiance of her employer.
Nam rebuked the president’s praise of the Sinclair and the pending merger that requires regulatory approval from the Republican-controlled FCC—which is headed by a Trump appointee with ties to Sinclair.
KOMO anchors had met to discuss a protest when word came down last month about the “fake news” script Sinclair mandated they read.
“Tensions escalated at a newsroom-wide meeting,” the Times reported, “when staffers pushed back against the corporate edicts. But they were reminded that those who disagreed with the station’s direction could quit, according to employees who attended.”
Eventually, every anchor at the station yielded recorded versions of the segment, just as others did at Sinclair stations across the country.
In the past, station officials had buried the Sinclair-produced “must-run” segments—which have featured former Trump advisers and other conservatives—in the wee hours, when viewership is lowest. Even then, viewers noticed, the Times reported.
“People were outraged,” observed a KOMO staffer who answered incoming calls.
But now that Sinclair has mandated segments run during the 6 o’clock news, and required local anchors to read provided scripts instead of simply airing corporate-produced segments, the mood in the newsroom has worsened, said KOMO employees who noted compliance is their only option.
Some reporters and newscasters have already decided they will leave the station as soon as their contract is up, taking with them whatever reporting integrity the station continues to have.
In a statement, KOMO General Manager Janene Drafs said: “It is a challenging time for journalism and I am proud of the work my journalists at KOMO provide day after day. They tell stories that deserve to be told, in an unbiased way, with the highest level of journalistic integrity. They are second to none.”
Sinclair pushed back against the controversy.
“We aren’t sure of the motivation for the criticism, but find it curious that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media, which result in an ill-informed public with potentially dangerous consequences,” commented Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s senior vice president of news. “It is ironic that we would be attacked for messages promoting our journalistic initiative for fair and objective reporting, and for specifically asking the public to hold our newsrooms accountable.”
Why deliver the message through diktat and canned scripts under pain of termination, then, if not to undermine the credibility and independence of local reporting? The resistance from local studios alone should have informed Sinclair corporate the message was poorly conceived.
“Over the course of my 14-year career in broadcasting, I worked for multiple corporate owners, large and small. I have good friends who are anchors, reporters and executives at other station groups across the country,” confessed former news director Aaron Weiss. “Only Sinclair forces those trusted local journalists to lend their credibility to shoddy reporting and commentary that, if it ran in other countries, we would rightly dismiss as state propaganda.
“The only opinions Sinclair allows on air are the opinions that come out of headquarters, because the company will not risk giving local audiences a dissenting view,” Weiss said.
“Being afraid of a variety of viewpoints is, in the words of Sinclair’s now-infamous ‘must-run,’ extremely dangerous to a democracy.”