By now most of the country has seen the montage video Deadspin complied of Sinclair media — the largest owner and operator of local stations in the country, with 193 stations — local news anchors parroting a “must run” script about the dangers of “fake news.” The Orwellian chorus of anchors warning their audience that “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’ … is extremely dangerous to a democracy.” Sinclair has defended the segment by claiming that when they refer to “fake news,” they mean conspiracy theories like the bizarre “Pizzagate” mendacity that expanded an entire nation’s definition of gullibility, but given the context of other Sinclair “must-run segments” this seems unlikely.
Many people who were aware of Sinclair media prior to this debacle first heard of them last July when HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” built a damning segment around Sinclair’s own bias in nationally produced segments that local affiliates are forced to air. Most egregious are commentary segments by far right pundits like Mark Hyman, former Trump advisors Sebastian Gorka and Boris Epshteyn, and former Russia Today (Putin’s state propaganda outlet) producers like Kristine Frazao. These segments are indistinguishable from the content of Fox News (which is at least a bit more transparent about their biases), screeching about the perils of multi-culturalism, “snowflake” college students, the so-called “deep state,” and other far-right talking points. Sinclair stations are also required to air a daily alert on terrorism worldwide, which is often just news about Muslims having nothing to do with terrorism, like the Burkini segment Oliver lambasts above. It’s rich for a media empire so obviously aligned with the right wing to denounce media bias, but naturally Donald Trump ate it up, claiming that Sinclair is “far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke,” in one of his apoplectic early morning tweet storms.
Since the video was released, anchors working for Sinclair stations (many of whom worked for these stations before they were purchased by Sinclair) have spoken out about being forced to read Sinclair’s script. Many tried to resist, but were not even permitted to edit the script. A few stations refused to air the segment and the consequences of that decision are not yet known. Some Sinclair journalists want to leave the organization but cannot due to strict contracts, most of which include a six month non-compete clause preventing the journalist from working at competing stations, required arbitration, and most unsettling, a liquidated damages clause for not completing their contracts that could require a journalist to pay Sinclair up to 40 percent of their salary. This is an impossible financial situation for most journalists.
Fortunately, Sinclair owns no stations in the Houston area, though they do own 14 stations in other Texas markets, including Austin’s KEYE-TV and San Antonio’s KTXE-LE. A proposed purchase of Tribune media for $3.9 billion would give Sinclair an additional 42 stations, including Houston’s KIAH. The merger would put Sinclair “must-runs” in 7 of 10 American households. Prior to last April’s changes to FCC media ownership regulations, a single owner could not own more than 39 percent of media outlets in a given market, and was required to have a studio in that market area. FCC Chair Ajit Pai (the former Verizon attorney whose attempts to destroy net neutrality are still being appealed in court) held a meeting in April, without public comment, that redefined UHF stations, those that prior to 2010’s digital conversion did not saturate their full markets due to poor signal, as covering only 50 percent of a market — despite that these stations now reach their full markets. In short, this change means that the FCC would allow a single owner to own up to 75 percent of a given market, produce news for that market in a national rather than local studio, and paves the way for Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune. The FCC is expected to approve the merger, but the Department of Justice is insisting that Sinclair divest themselves of some stations in order to purchase others. This negotiation is ongoing, and ominously, could be impacted by Trump’s support of Sinclair.
The regulations that prevented such consolidation of local media ownership were not arbitrary. While local news viewership has declined in recent years, it still brings in more viewers than cable and network news programs. Local news viewers are more likely to vote, volunteer, engage with their local community, and despite growing partisanship across news preferences, both Democrats and Republicans indicate a greater trust in local news sources than national sources. Sinclair is banking on this trust and engagement with local news stations and their anchors to manipulate viewers and push a strongly right-wing agenda into those communities. That is not, as the infamous “must-run” forced its anchors to repeat, a commitment to “work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual.” It is using the trust local anchors have developed in their communities to inject the extreme right-wing views of pundits like Gorka, Epshteyn and Hyman into the homes of everyday Americans who tune in to learn about their local communities.
As consumers, there is little we can do about the encroachment of local news monoliths like Sinclair. We can boycott Sinclair owned stations in the markets where they exist. We can be aware of local media ownership in our communities, and fight for local studios. We can stand with our local anchors when they refuse to obey instructions from a national corporate overlord. Most of all, we must be discerning media consumers, not the kind of consumer that Sinclair wants us to be, who would believe that a conglomerate which requires all outlets to run a segment of Sebastian Gorka raving about the “deep state” actually cares about the integrity of the news media or objectivity.