By Lena Williams
The headline on the Vox News website spoke volumes: “We’re Journalists at a Sinclair news station. We’re Pissed.”
After reading the April 5 essay, written anonymously by journalists at one of Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s local stations, they aren’t the only ones who should be “pissed.”
Last month, anchors at all of the company’s 193 television stations were ordered to read a prepared script for broadcast to their millions of viewers about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”
On the surface, the so-called “Journalistic Responsibility Promo,” could have been misconstrued as nothing more than a public service announcement or editorial commentary intended to inform viewers about the dangers of biased news stories. But the fact that news anchors were told directly by their bosses that they had to read the prepared text, word for word, suggested something more sinister.
Ask yourself why the country’s largest broadcaster, a media giant with conservative, pro-Trump ties seeking federal approval on a $3.9 billion deal to buy Tribune Media, would order dozens of journalists to broadcast a Trump-friendly script about fake news?
“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think,’” the anchors said as they glared into their teleprompters. “This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”
The journalists who wrote the essay said anchors at their unnamed station privately said they “felt like corporate mouthpieces, especially when they found out no edits of the script were permitted.”
“Yet the bosses made it clear that reading the message wasn’t a suggestion but an order from above,” they wrote. “We hated the way the PSA bashed other news outlets and the way it insinuated that we were the only truthful news source – despite the rightward tilt our network has taken over the years.”
Viewers would have no way of knowing that the anchors on their local television station were reading something identical to that of anchors at other stations hundreds of miles away. The public tends to identify with and trust their local broadcasters, faces they have grown accustomed to watching over the years. So when the anchor of a local station says “Don’t believe those other guys,” it carries more weight.
But news of the anchors looking uncomfortable as they read the statement went viral, spreading across social media, journalism and political circles across the country. Here’s the link: (https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/how-americas-largest-local-tv-owner-turned-its-news-anc-1824233490).
Critics accused Sinclair of using its stations to advance a right-wing, political agenda, of exploiting journalists and of being disingenuous and dishonest towards the public the broadcasting company is supposed to serve.
The National Press Photographers Association, SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents thousands of TV journalists, the National Associations of Black Journalists, the National Association Hispanic Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and The NewsGuild-CWA expressed concern about Sinclair and its company executives’ decision-making. They called attention to statements made by Sinclair executive chairman David D. Smith, who said “he dislikes and fundamentally distrusts the print media which he believes serves no real purpose.”
On April 6, deans and department chairs at 13 universities sent a letter of protest to Sinclair Broadcasting condemning the company’s decision to force local anchors to read a company-written statement on air.
“While news organizations have historically had and used the prerogative to publish and broadcast editorials clearly identified as opinion, we believe that line was crossed at Sinclair stations when anchors were required to read scripts making claims about ‘the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,’” the academics said.
The signatories, including among other, heads of journalism schools at the University of Maryland, Syracuse, Ohio State, Temple and Southern California, said that Sinclair’s use of news personnel to deliver commentary, not identified as such, may further erode the trust that viewers put in their local stations.
“Indeed, the fears articulated in the Sinclair script regarding an extreme danger posed to democracy by news media telling the public what to think describes our fears about the impact of the Sinclair must-carry script,” the educators said.
Sinclair executives’ refused to back down. Instead, they blasted their colleagues in the media and came close to calling them hypocrites.
Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s senior vice president of news, called the backlash “ironic,” and said the company’s stations “keep our audiences’ trust by staying focused on fact-based reporting and clearly identifying commentary.”
“We aren’t sure of the motivation for the criticism, but find it curious that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media, which result in an ill-informed public with potentially dangerous consequences,” said Livingston.
Sinclair’s position was supported by President Trump who lavished praise on the company in a tweet he posted on April 3 at 6:34 AM.
“The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDS 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!” wote @realDonaldTrump.
The president hasn’t publicly expressed his support for the Sinclair merger, but opponents of the deal said his tweet is an indication that a company that has shown favor towards the president and his administration is likely to get approval from the Justice Department and an FCC dominated by Trump appointees.
Last April, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai cleared the way for Sinclair to expand its reach when he revised an FCC regulation that limited the number of stations a single broadcasting company could own.
If the deal is approved, it will allow Sinclair local stations to reach more than 70 percent of American households.
The idea of that happening should give the public something to consider: Are Americans best served by a station that puts words in the mouths of journalists? When a media company forces, orders, demands reporters to follow a script, write what they are told, or else, it’s called propaganda.
Ours is a nation that prides itself on a free press, where journalists are allowed to do their jobs unfettered by government interference. Even if the First Amendment doesn’t prohibit media companies from dictating what their employees say, a free press cannot function when journalists are told what to write and or broadcast, when their livelihoods are threatened for not toting the company line and when the public can’t tell the difference between fact and opinion.