Sinclair shows problem of media consolidation
Sinclair Broadcast Group has spent decades acquiring the 193 local TV news stations it currently owns, and for the last couple of weeks, has been the subject of many local news stories. Though Sinclair's broad reach into the television-viewing households of America has not exactly flown under the radar, with many news outlets covering Sinclair's acquisitions of outlets and struggles with regulators, it took a video published by Deadspin to make this issue really become part of the public consciousness.
The video depicted anchors from forty different news outlets reciting the script that had been handed down by Sinclair. Timothy Burke of Deadspin overlaid the dozens of news anchors all repeating the same message: the media is biased, and you should be on the lookout for journalists who push their own agendas through their work. The effect of the myriad of outlets making the same statement all at once was chilling and led many, including late night host Jimmy Kimmel, to bemoan Sinclair's effect on democracy.
This is not the only instance where Sinclair has required that the news stations run their own particular content. While, according to The Washington Post, most "must-runs" from broadcast groups are meant to promote station content, Sinclair makes stations run segments like commentary from former Trump advisor Boris Epshteyn, or their daily "Terrorism Watch Desk."
While dystopian-looking visuals of this particular Sinclair must-run were indeed disturbing, the real insidious nature of Sinclair's effect on the minds of the public comes not from this specific must-run, but from their overall effect on local news.
A recent study by Gregory J. Martin and Josh McCrain of Emory University examined the effects of a Sinclair acquisition on the local station being acquired. They found that vocabulary of news coverage became more similar to the lexicon of rightward rhetoric, and that news covered more national politics at the expense of local issues.
Local TV stations are one of the few remaining bastions of local journalism, with a Pew study showing that 37 percent of Americans use local news as a news source — a far larger share than cable news. Americans return to local news because the news covered pertains to their immediate community and comes from local figures they know and trust. Since local newspapers are on the decline, it is actively detrimental that these trusted local news sources are shifted away from vital local coverage to national, partisan issues, and that the voices and faces of the anchors they trust are used to promote a partisan agenda — even if it is labeled as editorial.
Journalists from a Sinclair-run news station found, in a piece they wrote anonymously for Vox to avoid losing their jobs, that the must run content felt contrary to their journalistic mission. "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. Our anchors privately said they felt like corporate mouthpieces, especially when they found out no edits of the script were permitted. Yet bosses made it clear that reading the message wasn’t a suggestion but an order from above."
A general distrust in "the media" harms all news outlets as consumers will deem reputable, well-sourced journalism biased. These Sinclair journalists understood that, in making these general attacks the "PSA" was attempting to lower public trust in the media.
The pro-Trump slant of the must-run pieces that Sinclair forces on broadcast stations has led to accusations stating the uproar around Sinclair's editorial content arose solely due to the side of the political spectrum that it fell on. However, the problem with Sinclair stations is twofold: namely, that they have been allowed to hold such an unprecedented percent of the American television news market, and that they have used that share to push their ideals, even at the expense of the viewership of the stations they own, as the Emory study holds that viewership declines at Sinclair-owned stations.
On the issue of promoting a partisan platform, Sinclair protested in an internal memo that their editorial content is clearly labeled as commentary, and further argued that people were “upset about our well-researched journalistic initiative focused on fair and objective reporting” meant to highlight stories like Pizzagate that were entirely unmoored from the realm of fact. However, their statement in the must-run that "unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’" made no reference to specific stories, instead choosing to push broad distrust in the media. Furthermore, using the local anchors to promote their statement made the editorial content, however clearly labeled, hard to distinguish from the news.
It would be impossible to levy a critique at the partisan impact of Sinclair's content without also critiquing the mechanisms that made it possible, namely, the increased consolidation of media. If their deal to acquire Tribune Media succeeds, Sinclair will be able to access around 70 percent of American TV owning households. This deal is pending the approval of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice, and is coupled with an internal investigation in the FCC to see if the chairman, Ajit Pai, improperly coordinated with Sinclair when he loosened regulations around the acquisition of news stations.
This deal is expected to be approved by the FCC, and President Trump himself stepped in to defend Sinclair after the must-run scandal, stating on Twitter, "The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast." This statement harshly contrasts President Trump's claim that Amazon is cheating the taxpayer by underpaying the Post Office for package shipping due to the negative coverage he has received in The Washington Post, which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns. Negative coverage of the Trump administration means that Trump will push for policies that harm companies affiliated with the news organization. Positive coverage, however, will lead to a loosening of regulation by the Trump administration.
This is the means through which the partisan content and the consolidation intersect: partisan content can be pushed through the large platform that large acquisitions afford, and that partisan coverage means the executive branch will allow these acquisitions to go forward.