In recent days, millions of viewers across the country have been subjected not only to a statement concerning “fake news” eerily repeated verbatim by dozens of local television stations across the country, but also to reports uncovering the fact that those stations had been instructed to recite this statement.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) March 31, 2018
CNN’s Brian Stelter “broke” the news in early March, warning that a “promotional campaign that sounds like pro-Trump propaganda” would be hitting local TV stations. The statement reported by CNN was crafted by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the biggest owner of television stations in the United States. A Seattle Post Intelligencer report provided the script that had been given to KOMO News, which is owned by Sinclair:
“Hi, I’m(A) ____________, and I’m (B) _________________…
(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that KOMO News produces.
(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.
(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.
(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.
(B) At KOMO it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.
(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to KOMOnews.com and clicking on CONTENT CONCERNS. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.
(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual… We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.
(A) Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback”
It’s well-known, especially at this point in time, that Sinclair explicitly leans conservative, and the corporation has faced criticism in the past for pro-Trump sentiments woven into their broadcasting. With several reports pushed by multiple outlets (sound familiar?) tying Sinclair to Trump, Americans are being served an implication that Trump is now pulling the strings in newsrooms all over the United States.
However, this parroting of news material is not new, and is not exclusive to Trump or Sinclair. For years, smaller media outlets have pointed out the peculiarity of local news stories sounding awfully familiar across the U.S. Among the most popular illustrations of this practice is a segment called “Media Reacts” from Late Night With Conan O’Brien, in which O’Brien pokes fun at the identical media messaging from local news stations. Note that a handful of stations in this clip is owned by Sinclair, but there are plenty of stations in these clips that are not; some are owned by Nexstar Media Group, Tegna, Heartland Media, Tribune and Raycom Media.
In most of these cases where O’Brien uses anchors from different TV stations all over the country reading the exact same script word for word, the source of that script is some kind of wire service. This means those stations have subscribed to AP, Reuters, CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, etc. wire services. In those cases, the wire story will come down and a station reporter or producer will copy and paste it word for word into a newscast.
The problem with this policy is that reporters and producers simply take that content as gospel and no one in any newsroom ever bothers to fact check or verify if the wire story is correct. Simply put, in a newsroom, if it is on the wire it has to be true.
Sinclair reigns supreme in ownership of local stations, but several other companies including Nexstar, Gray Television, Inc., and Raycom Media have also been playing this game. A report from the Pew Research Center published in 2014 noted that while Sinclair was sitting at the top back then, companies like Tribune, Nexstar and Gannett were enjoying acquisitions as well. CNN is also in the business of producing content for local news stations via CNN Newsource.
Sinclair is under intense scrutiny for its “must-run” content requirements and demanding stations under its ownership to repeat a canned statement, and rightfully so, as commanding such homogeneity is loathsome. It’s also worthy to point out that hundreds of news stations are under the authority of one powerful company and it’s likely that there’s a good number of reporters who would rather engage in more meaningful journalism. However, pointing to Sinclair and Trump as the sole villains in what plagues news media is disingenuous. While Sinclair is facing due criticism for propagandizing the news, it’s certainly not the first or last to do so; mainstream media should not be acting as if media consolidation has abruptly been foisted on the public immediately following our most recent presidential election.
Regardless of Sinclair’s political leanings, the focus of the issue should be that almost all “local” news stations are following the marching orders of a higher authority and its agenda. The public should be aware not just of Sinclair, but of the danger that arises when one company— whether it’s Sinclair, Nexstar, Tribune, Gannett, or any other entity— owns an alarmingly high volume of stations around the country and wields control over what is spoken on air.