A TV anchor stares at the camera and recites a seemingly-benign script about the dangers of fake news and why her station prides itself on “quality, balanced journalism.” But it's not just that one anchor; it is dozens across the country, all working for Sinclair Broadcast Group, all literally reading off the same script.
“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,” the script reads. “More alarming, some media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control 'exactly what people think' ... This is extremely dangerous to our democracy."
Sinclair, which owns or operates 193 stations and is the nation's largest broadcaster, provided the script. It’s what the anchors don’t say that’s so disturbing and, frankly, embarrassing to every journalist who participated in what many are comparing to hostage videos – that they were mandated to do those spots, which strongly resemble President Donald Trump’s words. They were told to use time slotted for news, not for advertising, and to repeat the message often. The anchors don’t mention that inside their newsrooms, journalists have felt uncomfortable because their integrity is being undercut by a corporation seeking to expand its reach by buying Tribune Media.
Sinclair, which has several stations in the Carolinas, became infamous late in the 2004 election cycle when it forced its stations to air a misleading segment about Democrat John Kerry. It has recently forced stations to air commentary by a former Trump campaign official known for making false claims, as well as something called the “Terrorism Alert Desk.”
According to CNN, a Sinclair news station director sent this email to his newsroom: “Let me be absolutely clear here ... These MUST run. If they do not, my job is on the line. I don’t say that to scare you by any means but I do say this so you understand how serious (Sinclair) is about this project.”
An investigative reporter told the cable network: “It sickens me the way this company is encroaching upon trusted news brands in rural markets.”
Journalists have a responsibility to serve as a bulwark against threats to a free press. It won’t be easy. Local reporters are under enormous pressure to do more with less. It’s no small thing to ask someone to risk his job. But that is the stance journalists ask others to take, including the politician pressured to take extreme positions and the man forced to choose between a paycheck and reporting unscrupulous banking practices.
Many consumers want only news that confirms what they want to believe. But journalists are called to respect news consumers enough to give them truth. They can’t do that by dutifully following commands that undercut their own credibility.
That’s why this shouldn’t be a wake-up call only for Sinclair employees. All media outlets must redouble their commitment to more responsibly – and fearlessly – wield the power they’ve been granted.