JESSELL AT LARGE

Viral Video Makes Sinclair Look A Bit Sick

Deadspin's spot-on video exposed Sinclair's top-down right-wing news agenda for all to see. But Sinclair's problem is not that it has a point a view, but that it is pressing its news pros to join in promulgating it. You don’t create a great news organization by pitting your anchors, reporters and producers against their own ethics. Or, by opening them up to ridicule. This fiasco did both.

Last Saturday, Deadspin’s clever, spot-on video of Sinclair anchors reading in unison word from on high went viral and triggered a backlash against the station group like nothing I have seen in broadcasting.

TVNewsCheck has posted 32 articles about the video-fueled controversy — almost all negative.

On its face, the news promo is rather innocuous.

The anchors say they are “concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media,” they say. “More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories without checking facts first.

“Unfortunately, some members of the media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think …. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

In the video, that last sentence takes on an Orwellian vibe by its repetition by one anchor after another after another.

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Had the RTDNA or some First Amendment group distributed the copy, it might have slipped by without causing a stir. After all, everybody’s for unbiased reporting and fact-checking, right?

But you have to consider the source, which is, in this case, Sinclair, a company with a Trump-loving leader in David Smith and a long record of Democrat bashing and of force feeding its stations news features and commentary that tilt hard right.

Watched in that context, the promo says that Sinclair is not committed to “balanced journalism,” but rather to providing counterpoint to what it sees as liberal bias in the mainstream media just as Fox News does.

Sinclair news chief Scott Livingston tipped his hand early in 2017 in a memo to his stations that was leaked to FTVLive. In it, he cautions stations against the liberal bias he said he and Sinclair board members had found in some of the stations’ reporting and urges them to challenge “the accepted narrative in the mainstream media…. We will not tolerate any deviation from our goal to provide fair and balanced coverage.”

Funny how Livingston’s internal review uncovered no instances of conservative bias. I guess he didn’t watch any of the reports coming from Sinclair’s national desk.

I also have to ask that, if Sinclair is really seeking balance, where are the liberal commentators to offset the must-run pieces of the right-wing Mark Hyman and Trump apologist Boris Epshteyn?

If there was any doubt about whose side Sinclair is on, that ended Monday when President Trump tweeted his support for his friend Smith. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

Sinclair’s many critics raise two basic issues:

  • Sinclair is monopolizing the airwaves to create local versions of Fox News and the government ought to do something about it, and
  • It is making its TV anchors look bad by turning them into mouthpieces for their right-wing boss.

The first complaint is hollow. Smith has the right to use his stations — his press — to say anything he wants. It’s right there in the third clause of the First Amendment.

I know that there are a bunch of people out there who believe that broadcasting doesn’t merit full free press protection because it uses the “public airwaves,” but that’s always been a lame argument. Just because government can regulate broadcasting doesn’t mean it should.

And as the news outlets in cable and on the internet have proliferated, the argument for broadcast regulations has become increasingly weak. At this point, broadcasting deserves the same freedom from government meddling as newspapers and the internet. In fact, it deserved that long ago.

To say that Sinclair is monopolizing local TV news is ridiculous. Yes, if it closes on its Tribune buy, it will end up with more than 220 stations and a footprint covering more than two-thirds of the country.

But in no place — in not one of the some 110 markets in which it will operate — will it be the sole source of local TV news. In each of those markets, I believe, it will still have to compete with at least one other station, and usually two or three. In the big markets it is picking up from Tribune, it will have to compete with four. And I’m not even counting the Spanish-language stations in those markets.

And while it is true that Sinclair might fill its local newscasts with stories and commentary that will drive liberals nuts, it is also true that Sinclair is the No. 1 purveyor of “mainstream” TV news.

Even without Tribune, it owns or operates 96 affiliates of ABC (41), CBS (30) and NBC (25). Smith has absolutely no influence on how the networks produce the news and yet he is more or less obligated by contract to air it.

I talked about this in my column last August and Smith made the same point in a cranky email Tuesday to The New York Times. “[D]o you understand that every local TV station is required to ‘must run’ from its network their content, and they don’t own me?” he wrote. “That would be all their news programming and other shows such as late-night talk, which is just late-night political so-called comedy.”

Smith is not a new phenomenon. He is in the great American tradition of media moguls who have used their print or electronic outlets to espouse their political views, a tradition that includes the likes of William Randolph Hearst, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.

I would prefer that Smith — all corporate suits, for that matter — steer clear of the newsroom and editorial matters. But Smith is a man of strong opinions and I guess Hearst, Turner and Murdoch make for good company.

I have far more sympathy for the other charge being leveled at Sinclair, that it is undermining its TV news professionals by making them cleave to the Sinclair world view — or least pretend to.

Journalists have an ethical obligation to remain independent in their reporting, not to succumb to government or corporate influences, even when the corporation trying to do the influencing is their own. The journalist’s allegiance must be to the truth and nothing else.

Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of TV journalists, battled CBS’s Bill Paley to tell his stories as he saw fit. George Clooney even made a movie about it (Good Night, and Good Luck).

You don’t create a great news organization by pitting your news people against their own ethics.

Or, by opening them up to ridicule.

Seizing on the opportunity that Sinclair gave it, the Deadspin video reinforced the stereotype that anchors are nothing but brainless pretty boys and girls.

In his email to the Times, Smith did nothing to allay that notion. “Do you understand that as a practical matter every word that comes out of the mouths of network news people is scripted and approved by someone?” he wrote.

On Tuesday evening, I watched for the first time the smart 1954 movie Executive Suite, in which the officers of a furniture company vie to replace the president who dies in the opening scene. The character played by William Holden wins the job with an impassioned speech about how the company has lost its way and damaged morale by prioritizing short-term profits over quality.

The speech contains a promise that Smith and Livingston should personally make to all their employees: “We’ll never again ask a man to do anything that will poison his pride in himself or his work.” (Excuse the “man”; this was 1954.)

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (32)

Leave a Reply

Erik Stone says:

April 6, 2018 at 2:09 pm

great article

Scott Cote says:

April 6, 2018 at 2:39 pm

Mr. Jessell is a MORON! Lots of misinformation in his article and definitely slanted. Does this belong on TVNewsCheck?

    John Bagwell says:

    April 6, 2018 at 3:13 pm

    Please enlighten us with all of the “misinformation”. This quote from the top summary pretty much sums up the main point of the article, which I happen to very much agree with. “But Sinclair’s problem is not that it has a point a view, but that it is pressing its news pros to join in promulgating it. You don’t create a great news organization by pitting your anchors, reporters and producers against their own ethics”

    John Murray says:

    April 7, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    Well, actually, scv91355 (if that is indeed your REAL name…), It DOES belong on TVNewsCheck as does anything else Mr. Jessell feels like posting here. It’s HIS site, after all….. Einstein….. : )

Mike Long says:

April 6, 2018 at 2:49 pm

You have to wonder about the publisher of a TV industry blog that gets his journalism education from the movies!

    Linda Stewart says:

    April 6, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    I got my journalism education from Duquesne; I got my business education from the movies.

Cheryl Thorne says:

April 6, 2018 at 3:20 pm

Harry..If you cannot be objective and stop being a leftie..shut down this site or sell it to someone..Please…

    Teri Keene says:

    April 6, 2018 at 7:39 pm

    Then don’t read the site.

Taiwo Akande says:

April 6, 2018 at 3:50 pm

Please keep in mind that Media Matters has taken credit for instigating this and we all know what Media Matters is right? If not, read the opening paragraph in Wikipedia and you will understand how this in itself was a targeted attack on Sinclair. The promo itself was no different than what networks and stations do all the time.

Peter Wharton says:

April 6, 2018 at 3:56 pm

Outstanding column, Harry. You really nailed the true issues here…all of which could have been avoided by Sinclair if it had taken another approach to getting the same message out.

    bill schneider says:

    April 6, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    Mike says it best. Everything Smith stated is accurate and as an organization they have the same entitlements bestowed upon CNN, NBC and others. An opinion. That said they are terribly guilty of simply being direct and managing their point of view and preferences by comparison of those resting upon laurels of legacy values that used to be ubiquitous. “You can believe us because of who we are.” Look where that has gotten us. As Mike suggests in this community of professionals it is mandatory to be engaged, collaborative and aggressive about your interactions. I heard of no one suggesting that they were to in any way asked or directed to provide or contribute to misinformation. Directly stated to do the opposite. Too bad doing the right this is simply interpreted to being a “right” thing. Sorry Harry I thought you were a fair guy most disappointing.

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

April 6, 2018 at 3:57 pm

scv91355, teevee99, Brdcasterfrnd, Eagleeye if you think Me. Jessell or this article reflect a left-wing philosophy then you are either illiterate or intellectually unable to absorb information. I’ve been arguing with Harry for years about the value of regulation across the political spectrum. He has always seen it as a burdensome infringement to broadcaster’s speech, while I see it as a journalistic safety net that prevents cynical excesses like what Sinclair is trying to impose. Reasonable people may disagree, but watch what you say about Harry’s integrity or I will smack you down hard. We Pittsburgh guys stick together and we will crush you!

John McElfresh says:

April 6, 2018 at 3:59 pm

Should be no surprise that Harry panders to the left. He sucks up to them constantly.

Michelle Underwood says:

April 6, 2018 at 4:00 pm

Never knew Harry was a Soros acolyte.

Oliver Carmona says:

April 6, 2018 at 4:24 pm

Great article, finally a voice of reason regarding this overblown subject

Darrell Brotherton says:

April 6, 2018 at 4:31 pm

Way to go Seattle! Rosco takes on Fake Comedy!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aEed_XxAAQ

Bruce Morrison says:

April 6, 2018 at 4:43 pm

I am glad to see the majority see through this misleading and slanted piece. I hope it remains that way for 2018. There would be no such outcry if someone else took the time to point out how this same thing happens in most mainstream outlets also and no surpirse that Soros funded this like his organizations fund the Caravan coming up from mexico.. It should also be noted that since most of the Journalism majors graduating from “Liberal Arts” programs are of the type that are easily manipulated and indoctrinated, even Sinclair probably has a majority of their news force thoroughly indoctrinated with this slanted and misguided philosophy, so they are relegated to scripting things just to get the truth out.

kendra campbell says:

April 6, 2018 at 4:47 pm

Harry – Excellent. Well thought out and executed.

Dan Levitt says:

April 6, 2018 at 5:19 pm

This is all a smokescreen for the Advertising disguised as News going on. $$$ is what matters to these station groups not slanted political views.

Sandy Hinkle says:

April 6, 2018 at 5:19 pm

There has been no better friend and supporter of broadcast business interests than Harry, and the criticisms I am reading here of him are grossly unfair. Plus, as a journalist and editor, Harry is doing EXACTLY what he is supposed to do to cover and comment on news that affects the broadcast industry. He and I don’t alway agree on the issues, but I respect his courage and journalistic integrity to write what he did today about Sinclair. One thing we both agree on – GREAT educations from Duquesne University!

Cheryl Thorne says:

April 6, 2018 at 10:00 pm

Greenwald we are alll shaking

John Livingston says:

April 6, 2018 at 11:04 pm

Great article Harry agree with you which you nailed it.

Nicole Evatt says:

April 7, 2018 at 1:31 am

Spot on, Harry.

Dan Levitt says:

April 7, 2018 at 8:12 am

Individual stations are all corrupt in their own right.

bart meyers says:

April 7, 2018 at 9:09 am

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for TVNewsCheck. Harry Jessell is my editor.
But I’m free to express my opinion.
I agree with Harry on two key points, which are at the center of his article.
The script itself is, as Harry said, innocuous. No examples are given. No companies or news organizations are named. In fact, one could just as logically think the script is referring to Fox News, ‘using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda’.
And like Harry said, isn’t everybody for unbiased reporting and fact-checking?
It would have been better to have some spokesperson do the spot than trade on the trust and neutrality these anchors have gained in their markets.

    alicia farmer says:

    April 7, 2018 at 10:14 am

    The script appears fairly innocuous, but just below the surface is the Trump administration/Fox “News”, Sinclair endorsed propaganda laced false equivalency. Trump (and his administration) lie and distort several times a day. Every day. “Fake news” is yelled from the roof tops in direct contrast to the actual facts. That is right out of the Joseph Goebbel’s playbook. Repeat a lie often enough – people will question their own judgement and start to believe it. Responsible media have an obligation to report reality, not fantasy. There is no obligation to report blatant lies and distortions as “alternative facts”. Just the opposite.

    Brian Bussey says:

    April 9, 2018 at 4:10 pm

    Sinclair thinks they can print money like Faux News by distorting like Faux News. That and retrains dollars are the only reason they want 75% coverage.

kari hamon says:

April 7, 2018 at 11:27 am

Would anyone even be discussing this if Sinclair’s viewpoint leaned left instead of right?

    Clarke Havener says:

    April 8, 2018 at 8:43 am

    I agree 3TVguy.

Greg Cole says:

April 9, 2018 at 9:37 am

Always liked you, Harry, but your left wing leanings are starting to wear thin. SBG is a legitimate source of local news. While your comments are appealing to your lefties, the real world is that the MSM, CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, et al, all inject opinion to their content. If you’re going to pick-on Sinclair, be objective and cite the real culprits who collectively comprise a lot more eyeballs than their local stations.

Bob Smith says:

April 9, 2018 at 10:27 am

maybe those of you criticizing Harry should speak to actual news anchors in various markets who work for Sinclair…you might get a different perspective…dividing people into 2 extreme political camps seems very black-and-white, and gets very wearisome

    Frank Palazzi says:

    April 10, 2018 at 4:09 pm

    All these people who are complaining have never watched Sinclair in action. I live in the Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto market. From 1997-2005, Sinclair owned KOVR-13. You want to see painful looks on people’s faces? You’d get it when the anchors had to announce one of Sinclair’s “must-runs”. Programs had to be pre-empted so they can run a hit piece on anyt Democratic target (John Kerry in the case)-it was frustrating. When Viacom purchased KOVR from Sincalir, the difference was night and day, Now that they’re trying to buy Tribune, another station is in their crosshairs locally-KTXL. This channel had to battle down a stigma of only carrying Fox News feed (and they’re only an affiliate). It took them years to get backand win the community’s trust. Now that Sinclair is poised to buy (if it hasn’t happened already), all that effort that station worked on will be gone.


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