By now you've probably seen the video of dozens of local news anchors around the country robotically reciting the same canned script warning viewers against "fake news." The script was a diktat from the stations' owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair owns and/or operates nearly 200 local TV stations around the country, including affiliates of CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, Telemundo and Univision. Soon, it likely will control even more.
Under President Donald Trump, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has loosened ownership laws that historically barred media companies from gaining monopolies in the markets they serve. Now, Sinclair is proposing a merger with Tribune Media, which would give it control of 233 local stations, according to a letter sent last month by U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas to the U.S. Department of Justice. The merger would give Sinclair even greater reach in new markets, including New Orleans, whose WGNO-TV (ABC) and WNOL-TV (The CW) would become Sinclair stations.
Sinclair Chairman David Smith has made his contempt for print journalism clear, telling New York magazine recently, "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."
OK. Let's talk "credibility."
Sinclair provides its stations with corporate-generated, "must run" commentaries such as the one on "fake news." Another "must run" is a segment with former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn, whose "Bottom Line With Boris" feature has included stories such as "Don't buy into the media's portrayal of a White House in chaos," "Memo shows law enforcement went out of bounds to go after Donald Trump" and other sycophantic editorials. These "must run" propaganda pieces are tucked between actual stories reported by trusted local anchors in every market where Sinclair owns a station — giving them an imprimatur they otherwise would not have: wrapping actual fake news in real news.
In 2004, Sinclair tried to strong-arm local stations into running a dubious 42-minute "documentary" about then-presidential candidate John Kerry shortly before the election. Though the company claimed it was a news program, negative public reaction and a stock price drop forced Sinclair to abandon the plan. At the time, The New York Times editorialized, "If television companies force their local stations to campaign blatantly, it will not be long before the administrations that have the power to grant licenses begin expecting such favors as a quid pro quo. And the public will question whether it can afford to allow such concentrations of power in the hands of huge media corporations."
Fourteen years later, here we are, facing an even larger concentration of power in one media corporation. If the Tribune Media merger goes through, WGNO-TV news viewers might be surprised to find a Russian-born political consultant named Boris praising the president in between stories about the New Orleans Saints, snowballs and other local enthusiasms.
Last week, Trump praised Sinclair in his tweets and once again decried "fake news," which seems to be anything he doesn't like or agree with, regardless of its objective veracity.
Sinclair's approach smacks of state-run TV — and that's the most dangerous "fake news" of all.