If Jonestown had had a television network, it might have aired something like this.
You may have seen the chilling compilation of local news anchors around the country, all reading from the same script about “fake news” and journalistic integrity.
They looked like creepy cult members, and indeed many have said they felt like hostages, forced to parrot a Sinclair “must-read” at the behest of their conservative owners.
The irony of a broadcaster literally staging a broadcast to warn of fake news isn’t lost on many in the media who found the reads disturbing and reeking of state media propaganda. That’s because, essentially, it was.
Sinclair, the country’s largest broadcaster with 193 stations, has been forcing its network anchors to read right-leaning scripts for years. To be clear, these anchors are not opinion journalists like many of us on cable news. They are local news reporters whose job is to report the news. Instead, Sinclair has forced local stations to run flattering coverage of conservatives and more coverage of conservative issues.
For example, after 9/11, Sinclair ordered its stations to read editorials in support of President George W. Bush’s handling of the terrorist attack.
At times, the controlling owners of Sinclair — the Smith family — have used their television stations purely for their own personal interests. In 1996, after then-president (now executive chairman) David Smith was arrested in a prostitution sting in a company car (ahem), he had Sinclair’s Baltimore station WBFF produce reports on a local drug counseling program — to count as part of his community service sentence.
With the advent of Trump, Sinclair has grown even bolder in its propaganda efforts. In December 2016, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner reached deals with Sinclair to give the company extended access to the Trump campaign, in exchange for airing, without editorial commentary, interviews with Trump.
In April 2017, Sinclair hired Boris Epshteyn, a former senior adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, as chief political analyst and required all Sinclair stations to air his pro-Trump commentary nine times per week.
Meanwhile, David Smith has been trying to persuade the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission to approve its $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media, which would allow the company to reach almost three quarters of all U.S. households.
And last year his advocacy helped persuade the FCC to eliminate media ownership rules designed to protect diversity in local coverage — another boon to Sinclair.
All of this should be deeply troubling. What Sinclair is doing is the very definition of fake news. Unsurprisingly, Trump loves it.
He tweeted, “So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased. Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
The joke, of course, is Sinclair, which masquerades as a journalism purveyor and instead uses its television stations as the family’s own personal megaphone.
The question is, what will its anchors and reporters do about it? Many have enjoyed long careers and produced stellar reportage. But if they truly care about their reputation as journalists, they should refuse to participate in the Smith family’s propaganda apparatus any longer.
Many have already shared their frustrations.
Norma Holland, a WHAM-TV anchor in Rochester, N.Y., posted on Facebook: “What I’m about to say hasn’t been vetted. It comes from my heart. I’m angry today. I’ve been angry for days. The Sinclair message you saw me and my colleagues in has damaged the trust you place in us — a trust that’s taken, me in particular, 22 years to build.”
Other talented and principled anchors at Sinclair’s 193 stations around the country should stand up and say, enough. This isn’t journalism and this isn’t responsible.
And if their own media group’s leaders — or the president of the United States — don’t like it, tough.
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.
This column first appeared in the New York Daily News.
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