ONE local television anchor compared the experience to being a prisoner-of-war recording a proof-of-life video. Others called it merely embarrassing. Either way, scores of TV newsreaders at local stations squirmed after colleagues at CNN, the cable-news network, caught wind of a media-bashing political commentary being run on outlets owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, America’s largest operator of local television stations. The look of the spots is glossy, with nicely-coiffed television anchors leaving the safety of their desks to stand directly before the cameras, before delivering a heartfelt attack on the ethics of much of the news media. A leaked corporate memo instructed: “Talent should dress in jewel tones”, while avoiding hues associated with elections, such as red, blue or purple.
Sinclair insists that the spot was a non-political appeal to viewers to trust local TV news. An early version of the script accused “national media outlets” of running untrue stories without checking facts. In the script used on air that charge is laid at the feet of “some media outlets”. But allegations of liberal bias in the media have long been a conservative staple, recently turbocharged by President Donald Trump and his tweets attacking TV networks and “failing” newspapers. Not irrelevantly Sinclair is controlled by David Smith, a conservative ally of Mr Trump’s.
Critics detected a Trumpian edge to the script sent by corporate bosses to many of Sinclair’s nearly 200 stations in 89 markets, assailing “false news”. “Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think,” presenters intoned. “This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.” Mr Trump certainly seemed pleased. On April 2nd and 3rd he praised Sinclair twice in tweets, while making his customary attack on “Fake News Networks”.
The episode sheds light on Sinclair’s unusual, and underappreciated, place in the marketplace of ideas. Last year the company hired Boris Epshteyn, a former campaign aide to Mr Trump, as chief political analyst. Local stations frequently air his pro-Trump commentaries at the behest of corporate bosses in Hunt Valley, Maryland. In between stories about traffic accidents and local sports teams, Sinclair stations are told to run such segments as the “Terrorism Alert Desk” about acts of terror elsewhere in the world.
About 39% of Americans are within range of a Sinclair-owned TV outlet, most of them unwittingly, because local TV stations typically use the logos of national networks with which they are affiliated, like NBC, CBS and Fox. Sinclair’s reach will soon extend to most of the country, with a planned acquisition of 42 stations owned by Tribune Media. Last year the Federal Communications Commission loosened media consolidation rules, making the merger feasible. (Sinclair has announced it will sell some stations as it seeks regulatory approval.)
There is a lot at stake. Last year 37% of Americans got their news from local television, according to the Pew Research Centre, compared with 28% who got news from cable networks, including the conservative powerhouse, Fox News. Older viewers are even more devoted to local TV news. For the time being, Mr Smith may be less famous than Rupert Murdoch, the boss of Fox News. But as astute media barons know, power trumps fame.