Sinclair makes mockery of ethical reporting with corporate propaganda

Sinclair Broadcast Group's headquarters near Baltimore.
Sinclair Broadcast Group's headquarters near Baltimore. TNS

A familiar TV news anchor stares directly at the camera and begins to deliver a seemingly heartfelt message about the dangers of “fake news” and how much this station values “quality, balanced journalism.”

Coming from a single, trusted newsperson, it seems benign enough.

“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” read the script. “More alarming, some media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’ ... This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

Except it’s not just that one anchorperson making the statement. Instead, the anchorperson is reading precisely from a script, just like dozens of others from across the country – all working for Sinclair Broadcast Group. They were literally reading off the same page; a page provided by their corporate bosses.

If this is “extremely dangerous to our democracy,” then it is Sinclair that represents that danger. Sinclair is entirely guilty of exactly what it is decrying. Newsroom staff reading in unison isn’t journalism; in a communist country, you’d call it “indoctrination.”

Sinclair sent the script to its stations coast-to-coast and demanded that it be read on air. Each station was told to use time slotted for news – not advertising or commentary – and to repeat the message often. This is beyond cynical; it’s propaganda.

Sinclair – which vies with Fox News for the title of most biased broadcaster in America – even threw rhetorical bricks at every other, more legitimate media outlet.

Watch closely, and what you see being read is a hostage video. In fear of their jobs, anonymous journalists complained to CNN, to New York Magazine and several others. Many Sinclair employees said they were heartsick over delivering a message that clearly undercuts their own integrity.

Sinclair owns or operates 193 television stations. It’s already the nation’s largest broadcaster, but wants to get even bigger. To do that, Sinclair needs approval for its $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media. Who grants that approval? The Trump administration, naturally. Hence, the bald-faced effort to curry the administration’s favor.

It’s not the first time Sinclair has tried its hand at propaganda. In 2004, Sinclair forced its stations to air a misleading segment about Democrat John Kerry. More recently, Sinclair forced stations to air commentary by a former Trump campaign official known for making false claims. Most stations carry reports from an entirely alarmist “Terrorism Alert Desk.”

It’s why journalists and broadcasters from Nick Clooney (George’s less-famous father) to the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer to the Orange County Register have decried this episode.

Sinclair has several stations in California, but none in the Sacramento market. Not yet. If the Tribune purchase goes through, Sinclair would obtain KTXL Fox 40 in Sacramento. It would also pick up a second station in Los Angeles and another in San Diego.

Sinclair’s purchase of Tribune is dangerous, not just because it’s anti-competitive but because it represents a danger to ethical broadcast journalism.

Journalists are supposed to be our country’s bulwark against propaganda and lies. It’s why a free press is protected by the First Amendment.

Journalism isn’t always easy, especially in a time when every journalist is asked to do more with less. But we shouldn’t have to overcome lies spewed by other journalists – lies they wouldn’t tell if their bosses weren’t demanding it.