What if I told you a political operation was working to slant the coverage of your local news? It isn’t FOX, or CNN, ABC or NBC. In fact, it’s probably a company you’ve never heard of, even though it has a tremendous amount of power shaping what comes across the TV screens of a huge number of Americans.
It’s called the Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Sinclair is a Maryland-based company that owns local television stations around the country. It’s the largest of such companies and are trying to get even bigger. Sinclair is in the process of buying Tribune Media, another of the largest media companies. Sinclair currently owns 173 stations in 81 different markets (or areas) and would add Tribune’s 42 stations.
Notwithstanding the major issues around anti-trust questions and some dubious Federal Communications Commission rules changes, these aren’t even the most pressing problems with Sincliar’s seeming attempts to take over the television world.
Sinclair is controlled by a group of conservatives who are operating their media organization as a political outfit. President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner reportedly told a group of business executives in New York that the campaign struck a deal with Sinclair to provide access and positive coverage of the campaign.
That meant Sinclair affiliates in Ohio, Florida, and other swing states were more likely to get a “one-on-one” interview with then-candidate Trump. While in Columbus, Ohio last fall, Trump walked out on interviews with two local Columbus television reporters. A third, which he curiously was asked similar tough questions but stuck around for, was conducted by Sinclair-owned WSYX. Though, if Sinclair or the Trump campaign ordered soft questions or an easy interview, it appears reporter Ben Garbarek ignored those orders. Kudos.
It’s not hard to expect local reporters who report to local News Directors who dictate newsroom direction to Anchors and Producers would stay independent in news gathering and reporting. Most television reporters I’ve met in my years in media and PR are well-intentioned, bias free professionals. The bigger concern is commentary, packaged by Sinclair as news, which it forces local affiliates to run during local newscasts.
Editorials aren’t a new trend in television news. But in nearly every case, those editorials are prefaced by an anchor that an opinion mentioned does not represent the opinion of the newsroom. Sinclair’s pieces are introduced like any other story, or sometimes disguised to look like real news. While the drastic lean to the right without any balance is of journalistic concerns, the people making these editorials and the way they are presented may be even worse. Hyman’s point may even be worthwhile, but it should not be spewed as fact during a local newscast.
To add to it, Sinclair has recently added editorials from former Trump advisor Boris Epshteyn (this one is clearly packaged as news) and has used former White House aide Sebastian Gorka in programming sent to all of the company’s stations for air. Sinclair also reportedly wanted to hire Bill O’Reilly in the midst of a national debate on the treatment of women.
Sinclair is packing local news with right-wing content meant for Infowars and Breitbart. These opinions deserve to be heard, but they should never be packaged as news content. Now that Sinclair is about to become an even larger force in local news, you need to be aware of what you’re watching. There are plenty more concerns about Sinclair, but I’m running out of space for this blog. We’ll get to those another time.
Many advocacy groups and journalism organizations have come out in opposition to Sinclair’s purchase of Tribune. In fact, the Chicago Tribune had a great piece about its former corporate sister. You’ve seen the same reaction in St. Louis, and from four attorneys general asking the federal government to block the merger. You can also write to the FCC and the Justice Department in opposition to the merger. Or, you can join me using the hashtag #stopsinclair on Twitter.
Pick your favorite station and go to its website. (I’ll use WGN-TV in Chicago as an example). For that, and most stations, if you scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, you’ll see the company that owns that station. WGN is owned by Tribune, which is likely to become a Sinclair station. You’ll have the knowledge to know what is or isn’t true as you watch your local news.
Opinion is fine, in fact, I’ve long said you get smarter by listening to people who disagree with you. But Sinclair’s efforts to change minds through political commentary packaged as news is a disgrace to journalism.
Patrick Pfingsten is an award-winning journalist, political consultant, and PR expert. You can find him on Twitter @pfingsten1 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.