As regional newspapers wither and die — and Americans increasingly view national events through an algorithmically customized, ideological filter — local TV news has assumed a heightened importance.
Never the pride of the Fourth Estate, local television journalism has been notorious for its sensationalism, credulity, obsession with crime (particularly, crimes committed by racial minorities), and superhuman corniness. But for all the medium’s liabilities, it retains two rapidly appreciating assets: a nonpartisan image, and genuine ties to communities outside of New York City and Washington, D.C.
These qualities have helped to make “local news organizations” the most trusted source of information in Pew Research Center’s polling on trust in media. They have also made local TV news stations an excellent tool for disseminating propaganda.
And the nation’s largest owner of such stations is using them to do just that.
A family of conservative multimillionaires owns Sinclair Broadcast Group. And Sinclair Broadcast Group is on the cusp of owning enough local television stations to reach 70 percent of American households. Every news station under Sinclair’s umbrella is required to syndicate commentary that comports with its owners’ ideological views. Over the past 13 months, this has meant regularly providing viewers with the insights of Sinclair’s chief political analyst, former Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn. It has also meant featuring analysis from conservative pundit Mark Hyman, and updates from the “Terrorism Alert Desk” (sensationalized coverage of recent terror attacks from around the world) on a routine basis.
Now, Sinclair is taking its “covert state media” game to new, Orwellian heights: By the end of this month, Sinclair will require all of its local news anchors to condemn “national media outlets” for publishing “fake stories” and “using their platforms to push their own personal bias,” according to internal documents obtained by CNN. Those documents instruct local news directors to air these criticisms of “biased and false news” — criticisms that, of course, echo the president’s own — over and over again, so as “to create maximum reach and frequency.”
As CNN reports:
The instructions to local stations say that the promos “should play using news time, not commercial time.” Like the Epshteyn commentaries, this takes away from local news time.
“Please produce the attached scripts exactly as they are written,” the instructions say. “This copy has been thoroughly tested and speaks to our Journalistic Responsibility as advocates to seek the truth on behalf of the audience.”
The promos begin with one or two anchors introducing themselves and saying “I’m [we are] extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that [proper news brand name of local station] produces. But I’m [we are] concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country.”
Then the media bashing begins.
“The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media,” the script says. “More alarming, national media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the national 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.”
Then the anchors are supposed to strike a more positive tone and say that their local station pursues the truth. “We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left or right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.”
In these “anchor delivered journalistic responsibility message[s],” Sinclair explicitly weaponizes local TV news’ reputation for impartiality to amplify White House talking points. At the end of these messages, anchors are to encourage viewers to send feedback “if you believe our coverage is unfair.” The instructions obtained by CNN stipulate that “corporate will monitor the comments and send replies to your audience on your behalf.”
Sinclair’s propaganda may boast elements of misdirection and subtlety. But its fealty to the Trump administration is utterly transparent. During the 2016 presidential race, Jared Kushner made a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group: The Trump campaign would provide Sinclair’s local news stations with intimate access to the candidate, in exchange for “fair” coverage of the GOP nominee. Here are some of the ways that Sinclair kept its broadcasts fair and balanced, according to the Washington Post:
News stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton were distributed to Sinclair stations on a “must-run” basis — that is, the stations were required by managers in Washington to make room in their evening newscasts or morning programs for them.
… A “must-run” email from Washington managers to stations on Sept. 13 read this way: “DESCRIPTION: Why did Hillary Clinton struggle with disclosing her medical diagnosis? She has been repeatedly faced with previous questions of trust. Can a president lead with so many questions of transparency and trust?…There were no equivalent “must-run” stories examining Trump’s refusal to release his medical or tax records or about questions surrounding his charitable foundation.
When Trump took office, Sinclair was on the cusp of purchasing Tribune media, a merger that would give the firm ownership of enough local stations to reach 70 percent of U.S. homes. But there were two obstacles to such a deal: Federal rules put a cap on the number of local news stations any single entity could own, and also prohibited any company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same media market. Taking on Tribune’s assets would put Sinclair in violation of both those laws.
But by the end of Trump’s first year in office, his appointees to the Federal Communications Commission had abolished both of those regulations. And so, in all probability, a single, superrich family of arch-conservatives will soon dictate standards of “journalistic responsibility” to local TV newsrooms from coast to coast.