A couple of days ago I was watching CNN when they ran a story about the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. The largest owner of TV stations in this country has been forcing news anchors in their corporate owned stations across the country to read a script which sounds a lot like Trump’s twitter rants about the media attacking him with “fake news” stories. I was both amazed and appalled when CNN ran a montage of maybe 40 or more sets of local TV personalities all reading from the exact same script during their regular news broadcasts. Even more alarming was recognizing one of the sets of TV anchors – trusted TV news personalities who we have watched for years on one our local TV stations here in Birmingham.
The following is a text of the statements which Sinclair forced pairs of their local TV news hosts to read on the air during their news programs. It is only the most recent of what the company calls “must runs”, segments of news programing prepared by Sinclair’s corporate offices which their local stations must incorporate into their local news programs within 36 to 48 hours. The blanks in the statement were obviously to be filled in with the names of two local TV news personalities (A & B) and other local station information.
Hi, I’m(A) ____________, and I’m (B) _________________…
(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our _______ communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that _________produces.
(A) But we’re 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.
(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.
(A) 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 a democracy.
(B) At _______ it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.
(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to ___________and clicking on ___________. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.
(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual… We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.
(A) Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback”
I have since learned that Birmingham TV station WBMA, known locally by its brand name ABC 33/40, was acquired by Sinclair several years ago. It is one of 193 stations (233 after all currently proposed sales are approved) in over 100 markets scattered across the United States but concentrated in the South and Mid-West. Sinclair stations are affiliated with various broadcast companies which provide their commercial programing; 43 are affiliated with Fox, 33 with ABC, 27 with CBS, and 22 with NBC. The rest are affiliated with smaller broadcast companies. Sinclair stations reach into 60% of our country’s households. The company is publicly traded, but it is tightly controlled by the four sons of its now deceased founder, Julian Sinclair Smith. The four controlling owners are very conservative and are big Trump supporters.
Taken on its face value, the statement written by Sinclair’s corporate offices can be interpreted as being fairly innocuous: “Other’s may distort the news for their own ends, but we will give it to you straight and free of political interference.” However, it is clear from context that the news sources which are being charged with distributing “fake news” are members of this country’s mainstream news media – broadcasters such as CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC, newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, and magazines/websites such as the New Yorker and Politico.
The statement read on each Sinclair station news programs should be interpreted in light of an editorial by Sinclair’s Vice President for News, Scott Livingston, which Sinclair’s local stations were also forced to include in their local news broadcasts recently. In that editorial Livingston accused the national news media of publishing “fake news stories.” Sinclair also forces its stations to run a daily segment called the “Terrorism Alert Desk” with terrorism related stories from around the world. This is obviously an attempt to support one of Trump’s big talking points and to continue to stoke the viewers’ fears of terrorism and integration. During the campaign last year Sinclair also forced their stations to run a segment which implied that viewers should not support Hillary Clinton because the Democratic Party was “historically pro-slavery”.
Sinclair also currently forces their station’s local news teams to insert political commentary segments recorded by former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn into their newscasts at least nine times a week. Epshteyn is a former member of the Trump administration who was briefly responsible for identifying surrogates who would represent the administration in TV appearances. Last year he was hired to be Sinclair’s chief political analyst. Russian born with suspected ties to the Kremlin, Epshteyn echoes the Trump’s daily line in his segments. Though his media poll ratings are terrible, local stations managers are still forced to include Epshteyn’s political comment segments in their news programs.
With the latest Sinclair news story going viral, the company has been getting a lot of heat nationally from professional journalist who are understandably worried about the integrity of their profession. Not surprisingly Trump has weighed in with a tweet because he sees the Sinclair group as one of his biggest defenders:
Donald J. Trump Verified account @realDonald Trump:
The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The “Fakers” at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!
Since I was personally disturbed by Sinclair Broadcasting’s attempts to turn their station’s news broadcasts into miniature mirrors of the Fox News Channel, I sent wrote the following in an email to the management of ABC 33/40, our local Sinclair owned station, with copies to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group and the American Broadcasting Company.
To: The Management of ABC 33/40
It has come to my attention that your station’s owner is exerting undue outside political pressure on your local newscasts. I supposed that they have a right to dictate how their stations are run, including their stations’ news departments. However, local TV news rooms should be dedicated to interests the local community, not controlled from afar by corporate edict. That is one of the main reasons I watch local TV newscasts instead of getting all of my news from the big cable news networks. The sight and sound of hundreds of TV anchors reading exactly the same script prepared by Sinclair as part of their regular newscasts was mind boggling and forcing these supposedly independent news reporters to perform like puppets is an appalling attack on their integrity. I am reminded of government controlled news media in authoritarian ruled country like Russia or China dutifully broadcasting government propaganda.
This is to inform you that ABC 33/40 News broadcast will no longer be viewed in our home, and that’s a shame my wife and I always admired Pam Huff and Brenda Ladun. James Spann is of course one of the most recognized and respected people in Birmingham. Since we are also seriously thinking of boycotting all of your station’s programing, I will also be sending a copy of this complaint to ABC (the American Broadcasting Company) via their website. I also be spreading the word about this corporate misconduct via my blog and social media as best I can. I am sorry that you have been put in this unenviable position by your parent company, but corporate control of local news content is an un-American concept.
After I sent the email I received a call which went to voice mail from the General Manager of ABC 33/40 saying that since comments were “extremely well written” he wanted to discuss my concerns in person, asking me to call him back. I called him today. Initially he pretty much toed the Sinclair company line saying that the statements read by his news anchors were merely meant to convey that his station was dedicated to providing its viewers with local news without bias. After we discussed the statements in context of the other “must run” news segments which Sinclair mandates for its local newscasts, he had to admit that my interpretation might also be valid. The GM really seemed like a nice guy and therefore I am going to keep the rest of our long telephone conversation private.
However, here is the bottom line folks – in the interest of maintaining our democracy in this country we simply cannot allow our local news broadcast to become the next outlets for political propaganda, regardless of its slant. We already have enough of that on a national basis. Please join me in fighting back. Please let your local Sinclair owned station(s) know that you are not happy with the corporate interference of their owner. Also make your concerns known to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group national headquarters and the that of the broadcasting companies whose programing those stations carry -ABC, CBS, NBC, etc. Most importantly find a way to hit them hard in their pocketbooks – when their profits are at risk, that’s when they pay the most attention.