Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Media owners in the crosshairs as Trump craves retribution
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April 2, 2018, 11:18 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Anchors at Sinclair Broadcast Group stations across the country are being required to read a mainstream-media-bashing, Trump-echoing script about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country,” as CNN’s Brian Stelter reported at the beginning of last month. Over the weekend, Deadspin edited together clips of the anchors reading the statements: “The net result of the company’s current mandate is dozens upon dozens of local news anchors looking like hostages in proof-of-life videos, trying their hardest to spit out words attacking the industry they’d chosen as a life vocation.”

The right-leaning Sinclair is the largest owner TV news stations in the country; it owns or operates 193 of them, and if the FCC approves its pending takeover of Tribune Media, it will own 40 more. Thirty-seven percent of U.S. adults say they “often” get news from local TV, according to Pew’s most recent research.

Here’s a copy of the full script. Taken at face value, the message doesn’t sound particularly troubling. In context, though, Sinclair’s actions seem more insidious. As I wrote about Sinclair last year:

Sinclair has long been labeled a conservative company that pushes its ideology on its audience — a label it resists.

In 2004, its leadership reportedly ordered all of its local stations to air an anti–John Kerry documentary; Jon Leiberman, a D.C. bureau chief who resisted, was fired. The local stations — and if a controversial $3.9 billion deal with Tribune Media goes through, there will be more than 200 of them — are required to run right-leaning news segments. In April, it hired Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump spokesman, as its chief political analyst. (He has reportedly been questioned as part of the House Russia probe.) Some see Sinclair as a rising competitor to Fox News, which recently dropped its “Fair and Balanced” slogan. (David Smith, who was CEO of Sinclair until January, said in 2005: “There are two companies doing truly balanced news today: Sinclair and Fox.”) Just last week, campaign finance records showed that a Sinclair executive donated $1,000 to Greg Gianforte the day after the Montana Republican bodyslammed a Guardian reporter — not something you might expect from a media company executive.

“I feel bad because [viewers] are seeing these people they’ve trusted for decades tell them things they know are essentially propaganda,” one local anchor told CNN.

“The critics are now upset about our well-researched journalistic initiative focused on fair and objective reporting,” Sinclair SVP Scott Livingston wrote in a memo (published on CNN) Monday. “For the record, the stories we are referencing in this campaign are the unsubstantiated ones (i.e. fake/false) like ‘Pope Endorses Trump’ which move quickly across social media and result in an ill-informed public. Some other false stories, like the false ‘Pizzagate’ story, can result in dangerous consequences.”

And if you’re thinking “why don’t they just quit…” Thread:

Meanwhile, a recent working paper from Emory’s Gregory Martin and Josh McCrain suggests that local news stations’ coverage changes after Sinclair buys them: National politics coverage increases, “largely at the expense of coverage of local politics,” and the stations’ ideological slant shifts to the right.

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