By Jim Sabataso
Media consolidation is the kind of dry issue most television viewers don’t give much thought to. Last week, however, knowing who owns your local TV station became a hot topic of conversation when a viral video exposed how much editorial control the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group, the nation’s largest owner of local TV stations, is exercising over its near 200 stations.
The video [http://bit.ly/2H4T1AZ], produced by the website Deadspin, is a supercut of dozens of local anchors from around the country reading from a script written by Sinclair management. The script reads, in part:
“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.”
Played simultaneously, the chorus of voices is a chilling display of Orwellian propaganda. The message is part of Sinclair’s “must-run” segments — prepared scripts, taped video packages or politically slanted infomercials — that all Sinclair-owned stations are required to air.
Absent context, the segment in question might seem like an innocuous warning against the kind of fake news and disinformation that has flooded social media during and after the 2016 election cycle. However, upon closer examination, one sees the disingenuousness Sinclair’s tactics.
Last July, “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver took a deep dive on Sinclair’s far-right political agenda and heavy-handed managerial strategies. To make his point, he played examples of some of Sinclair’s must-run segments, which included commentaries about the dangers of multiculturalism, a taped segment making false claims about voter fraud and a mendacious infomercial about the Democratic party. There’s also the Terrorism Alert Desk, a daily must-run designed to alarm viewers with hyperbole, misreporting and a willful conflation of Muslims and terrorism. (View the entire segment here [http://bit.ly/lwt-sinclair].)
Sinclair’s influence over the local news is destructive. Local news plays an important role in the communities it serves, often covering stories that would otherwise go unreported. Local anchors are trusted by viewers. A 2016 Pew poll found that people trust local news more than national news. To exploit this relationship by making anchors recite partisan propaganda erodes that trust.
Given the typical TV viewer’s deficient media literacy skills and tendency toward uncritical information consumption, using local news stations to push blatantly partisan propaganda is especially manipulative and dangerous.
One might counter that Sinclair is balancing the scales by offering a different perspective to national news media’s liberal slant. While certain news outlets like MSNBC and Huffington Post certainly skew left, let’s not pretend the conservative Fox News isn’t a ratings powerhouse and as mainstream as anyone else.
It’s also worth noting that for all the conservative hand-wringing about the pervasiveness of the liberal agenda, no liberal-owned organization — not even ones owned, or presumed to be owned by big bad George Soros — has ever executed a strategy as manipulative and extensive as Sinclair.
Furthermore, accusations by President Trump and his apologists that outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and NBC are actively disseminating fake news to damage his presidency — which, is absolutely what Sinclair is dog-whistling here — is laughable considering how prone Fox, Breitbart, tank, rank and file conservatives and the President himself are to spreading misinformation and floating demonstrably false conspiracy theories.
Indeed, the term fake news has itself become politicized and corrupted to where it’s now used to discredit any information that does not fit into the world as one chooses to see it. This is a dangerous trend that the right has exploited to soften the ground so it can attack media organizations as dealing in fake news when inevitable mistakes are made.
Another argument, that disgruntled viewers can simply change the channel, is facile and ill-informed. For one, it discounts the combined power of passive viewing and brand loyalty. People get accustomed to a station; they may like the primetime shows, syndicated programming or they enjoy the local newscasters. If the TV is set to channel 3 every day, switching to channel 5 is no simple act.
The digital divide also places limitations on viewing options. In rural markets, some households still rely on antennas to get over-the-air broadcast TV signals if cable providers do not service their area, as is the case in parts of Vermont. Depending on the location and geography, channel options may be limited to only one or two.
Similarly, low-income households that cannot afford cable packages must use antennas instead if they want TV. As media consolidation continues to gobble up local stations and cable subscription costs rise, it’s increasingly difficult to tune out if there’s nothing else to tune in to.
Currently, Sinclair owns 193 stations in more than 100 markets across the country, covering 40 percent of American households. A proposed merger with Tribune Media would add another several dozen stations to Sinclair’s stable. If approved, the $4 billion deal would create the largest single group of TV stations in the country.
According to research done by “Last Week Tonight” in its July episode, when you combine the most-watched nightly newscasts on Sinclair and Tribune stations in major U.S. markets, you get an average total viewership of 2.2 million households — more than any program currently on Fox News. At the time Oliver reported on the merger, it was thought to be a done deal. However, the current public backlash against Sinclair in response to the viral video may compel regulators to reconsider.
So far, Vermont media has been insulated from Sinclair. Currently, none of the three major broadcast stations are owned by either Sinclair or Tribune. WPTZ/WNNE (NBC), which was briefly owned by Sinclair in the mid 1990s, is now owned by New York-based Hearst Television; WCAX (CBS) is, as of last year, owned by the Georgia-based Gray Television; WVNY (ABC) and WFFF (Fox) are owned by the Texas-based Nexstar Broadcasting. That’s not to say things couldn’t change with future consolidation.
Sinclair’s authoritarian propaganda machine is a very real threat to free speech and critical discourse at a moment when they are needed most. It’s an embarrassing, flagrant debasement of journalism that forces newscasters to compromise their credibility or be terminated, and insults the intelligence of viewers. Local news that serves a singular agenda and willfully spreads disinformation is, indeed, as Sinclair said, “extremely dangerous to our democracy.”