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.
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.