By now most have seen the video mash-up of scores of local TV news anchors from across the country reading a brief commentary appearing to express each station’s commitment to factual reporting.
Viewed separately, the spots could have been dismissed by viewers as innocuous and easily ignorable station promos. But in the video produced by the news and blog website Deadspin, which combined the commentaries from many of the 193 televisions stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the segments become an increasingly eerie in-unison incantation that makes the anchors sound like the cybernetic Borg of “Star Trek” lore.
The script for the segment read by anchors — including Sinclair-owned KOMO-TV, Channel 4, in Seattle — varied little among all stations and was typically read by one or two anchors at each station. With the push from the Deadspin video, condemnation of the statement and how it was handled at each station was widespread across the media landscape and even among more than a few Sinclair employees, anonymously and publicly.
Mandated by Sinclair’s national ownership as “must-run” segments, local stations were not given a choice in broadcasting them and employees were not allowed to opt out of recording them. Even resignation was not a viable option for most employees, as a Bloomberg report showed: Most Sinclair employment contracts contain non-compete clauses and require hefty fees to compensate Sinclair for its investment in employees — up to 40 percent of an annual contract — in order to leave before the end of a contract.
Along with its heavy-handed approach with its employees, the content of the segments went beyond a simple statement reflecting commitment to accuracy, fairness and accountability; the segments dragged in the spectre of “fake news,” using a broad brush to vilify other unnamed media outlets for publishing “fake stories, stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.”
Without referencing specific examples, the script lumps in “some media outlets” and “members of the media” with the fabricated rumors commonly found on social media.
It’s not difficult to hear in the segments an echo of President Trump’s accusations of “fake news” against respected media outlets, attacks that are as unsubstantiated as they are repetitive.
The real target in Sinclair’s generalized attack becomes clearer in recent Trump-like statements made by its executive chairman, Dean Smith, to New York magazine: “The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble, which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility.”
Some will wonder over all the fuss; Sinclair has every right to determine the editorial content of its stations, just as a newspaper opinion page can reflect the views of its publisher. But newspaper publishers don’t require the reporters in their newsrooms to place their bylines above the publishers’ opinion, thereby risking the credibility of individual journalists in their communities.
Sinclair has pushed “must run” commentaries on its local stations for years, something that KOMO in the past has creatively rebelled against by running them during the middle of the night. The requirement that local anchors record the segments — and put their names and reputations behind a political statement — reflects a campaign that is intensifying as the nation’s political divisions widen.
As Sinclair works toward the FCC’s approval of its $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media and several dozen more TV stations — including KCPQ-TV, Channel 13, in Tacoma — some are noticing not only an emphasis on politics but a direction for news coverage that is de-emphasizing coverage of local politics while increasing coverage of national political topics, part of a longer-term and wider decline in coverage of local government and politics.
A recent study out of Emory University, discussed in an April 6 report by SeattlePI.com, showed that over a period of several months Sinclair-owned stations had decreased their coverage of local politics by about 4 percent, but increased that of national politics by 25 percent. The switch was most notable among stations that had recently been acquired by Sinclair.
Even as local viewers express a preference for local stories, the report notes, the national segments are cheaper for Sinclair to produce, a reflection of the pressure elsewhere in media to cut costs and run on thinner revenues.
In numerous “Star Trek” episodes and movies, the hive mind of the Borg would announce to their victims that “resistance is futile.”
If consumers of local news — in print, broadcast and online — are to resist a Borg-like assimilation of their local sources of news, they need to demand stories and content only those media can provide and support the outlets that provide it.