You may have seen the mash-up video posted on Deadspin of local news anchors on Sinclair Broadcast Group affiliates earnestly warning against "biased and false news." Local anchors were required to read the script as written. After decrying the dissemination of fake news by "some media outlets" and "some members of the media," the script warns, "This is extremely dangerous to our democracy." Local KABB television anchors Jessica Headley and Ryan Wolf are the first featured on the video. The performance sparked a storm of well-deserved criticism, with pushback from everyone from 13 journalism school deans to a few of Sinclair's own anchors.
I wrote a snarky email to KABB. In response, I got a very nice email from Mandi Mendoza, news director for both WOAI, News 4 San Antonio, and KABB, Fox San Antonio, inviting me to visit their offices. I accepted. Mendoza introduced me to Blaise Labbe, the group news director for Sinclair in Texas and Oklahoma. They were generous with their time, frank and detailed with their take on the controversy. I left gratified that our local media outlets were in capable hands, but I did not feel better about the company for which they work.
Sinclair Broadcast Group is the largest operator of local television programming in the country with 193 local stations, and close to completing a merger deal with Tribune Media that would give it 42 more. FCC regulations prohibit a company from broadcasting locally to over 39 percent of U.S. homes, but last April FCC Chair Ajit Pai, pushed through changes to those limits. Sinclair announced the merger on May 8.
Sinclair has for decades pushed a right-wing agenda with little regard for the truth. Days before the 2004 presidential election, it planned to require all local affiliates to air Stolen Honor, a 45-minute agitprop intended to discredit John Kerry's war record. When Sinclair's Washington bureau chief criticized the stunt, he was fired. Facing advertising withdrawals, Sinclair relented, denying that it ever intended to broadcast the film.
Sinclair has long required local affiliates to air company-produced opinion pieces. For years these featured Sinclair Vice President Mark Hyman. Since April, Boris Epshteyn, Sinclair's senior political analyst, has delivered these features. Before his Sinclair gig, Epshteyn served as a senior political advisor to Donald Trump's campaign. Before his involvement in politics he worked in investment banking, moderating a Russian conference panel entitled, "Invest in Moscow!" His opinion pieces invariably praise, champion, or defend Trump. Local affiliates are required to air these "must-runs" several times a week.
This is pretty awful, but we can assume that Epshteyn's commentary represents his own views. The must-run read by local anchors go farther. Opinion-reciting is not news-reading. CNN reported that local anchors and staff were uncomfortable with what the company internally had called its "anchor delivered journalistic responsibility message," but feared retribution if they pushed back.
By the time I met with Mendoza and Labbe, the "anchor delivered journalistic responsibility message" had a new name. It was now a "promotional spot," designed to remind local viewers why they could rely on their local newscasters, even as people were growing more skeptical of the national media. They have numbers to back that up. Polls show that viewers think local broadcasters are more reliable than their national counterparts.
There is some validity in the claim that the spot is just a promo. Much of the full text is about how professional and hardworking the local newscasters are. I don't have a problem with that.
But right in the middle of the promo is this:
"The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy."
This is not promotion. This is editorializing.
I asked Mendoza and Labbe for an example of a major U.S. newspaper that has been picking up false social media stories and reporting them as fact. Mendoza had one ready: the Condom-Snorting Challenge.
Apparently, the Washington Post picked up a story about teenagers snorting condoms, listing it among "dangerous dares," like that Tide Pod thing. It turns out it's not a thing. Needless to say, it isn't extremely dangerous to our democracy.
Look, I'm even sorry I brought this up, but there is one relevant detail. The Washington Post got the original story from KABB.
Mendoza and Labbe are smart, dedicated professionals who seem to think that the important thing is to tell a good and true story, even if they only have 75 seconds for each.
But the corporation is first in corporate media. Budgets, viewership, polls, data – the story is secondary. Car crashes lead city council meetings. A story that should be about the tragedy of homelessness in San Antonio was published on KABB's website with the headline "Naked, homeless people having sex in the streets." The story itself was oddly both prurient and prudish, featuring people who don't want to look at homeless people. Producers who ask, "How can we get a better Nielsen point/share?" instead of "What needs saying?" overlook the obvious.
Mendoza and Labbe could be overlooking the obvious in this case. Otherwise I would have to think that they know that they are complicit in an attack on professional journalists who put themselves at risk to tell the truth as best they can. Perhaps, in the race for ratings and in the corporate defense of turf, they didn't slow down to ask what they were saying.
Sinclair affiliates reach more homes than any other local U.S. broadcaster, and with its forthcoming acquisition, it will reach farther. The president is a fan; it seems unlikely that his administration will do anything to restrict Sinclair's growth. But what if a federal judge blocked the deal? What if trusted local anchors began reciting promos condemning "judicial activism"? Sinclair has normalized the broadcast of "must-runs," and sketchy, one-sided, political hit pieces. It's how things are. Presidents lie; Sinclair tells us what to think. Where's the danger there?
"Don't worry about it," Sinclair Broadcast will say. "We're not like the lying national media. You trust us."