Sinclair Broadcast Group used to be a relatively obscure media company in America. Not anymore.
The sports website Deadspin recently created a mashup of local news anchors from among Sinclair’s 193 stations reading the same prepared script, which included the following:
“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.”
Indeed, it is. Of course, to watch a chorus of anchors parroting the very same lines espousing the virtues of unbiased reporting is not only ironic; it’s chilling. Not surprisingly, the Deadspin video went viral, unwittingly becoming a cause célèbre among First Amendment devotees.
The deans of 13 journalism schools, for instance, complained directly to Sinclair executives: “While news organizations have historically had and used the prerogative to publish and broadcast editorials clearly identified as opinion, we believe that line was crossed at Sinclair stations when anchors were required to read scripts making claims about ‘the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country’.”
Sinclair does not own any stations in Connecticut, but that situation could change with its proposed purchase of Tribune Media Company. Last May, Sinclair announced it would pay $3.9 billion for 42 Tribune stations in 33 markets, including Hartford’s WTIC-Fox 61. Because the deal flouts several anti-monopoly rules of the Federal Communications Commission — it would give Sinclair more than 230 stations, for example, placing it well over the limit of reaching 39 percent of American households — the deal has taken quite the roller-coaster ride over the past year.
To make a long story short, critics have charged that FCC chairman Ajit Pai worked alongside Sinclair to push the deal through, the FCC inspector general is subsequently investigating Pai’s role in the deal, Sinclair has rewritten the deal four times to appease federal regulators, and one FCC commissioner spoke out against the deal just this week.
Still, most observers predict the deal will go through now that President Donald Trump has tweeted his admiration for Sinclair. And in Connecticut, that means WTIC-Fox 61 might soon be delivering Sinclair “must-run” scripts like the one highlighted in the Deadspin video.
But is that such a big deal? Who cares if Lorenzo Hall and Jenn Bernstein take 60 seconds during a newscast to read a prepared statement about journalistic integrity? Seems innocent enough — even laudable.
The problem is that Sinclair’s must-run messages are neither originally created nor locally focused, two virtues consistently practiced by any self-respecting local TV journalist.
Two Sinclair employees who upheld those principles by refusing to read their owner’s recent message are co-anchors Lauren Lapka and Cameron Walker of KVAL in Eugene, Oregon. Lapka told viewers, “If we are talking about trusting journalists, my advice would be to get to know your local journalists as best as you can and make the decision for yourself.”
I was curious how TV reporters in the Hartford/New Haven market might react if asked to air a must-run segment from a corporate owner. So last week I emailed some questions to the news directors of WVIT, WTNH, WFSB, and WTIC. Only Ben Dobson, Vice President of News at NBC Connecticut (WVIT), responded.
“Ultimately, I am responsible for the overall editorial content and tone of our broadcasts,” explained Dobson. “However, it is a collection of news reporters, anchors, producers, and managers who review story ideas and agree on what we’ll cover each day.”
“Our brand and our reputation require that we be independent and transparent with our viewers,” he added. “We have strong corporate leadership that insists upon our independence. To that end, I’ve never had an instance in which our ownership group decided or influenced the news we put on the air. In instances when we report on our parent company, we are always sure to disclose that relationship to our viewers.”
Barth Keck is a father of three and an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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