Staff Columnist

There's something chilling with Sinclair's script

Capitol Ideas: Corporate headquarters required local anchors to read same words

From Sinclair Broadcasting's headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md., anchors at the company's TV stations were instructed to read from the same script but insert their station's name to make it sound like the message was local. (Jonathan Hanson, Bloomberg News)
From Sinclair Broadcasting's headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md., anchors at the company's TV stations were instructed to read from the same script but insert their station's name to make it sound like the message was local. (Jonathan Hanson, Bloomberg News)

They sound harmless, maybe even admirable.

But trouble lies beneath the surface of promotional pieces airing across the country on local TV news broadcasts.

Local news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, including multiple stations across Iowa, have been airing promotional pieces decrying the spread of false news stories on social media and media members who use the news to influence viewers’ opinions.

The script was written at the corporate level and delivered to local stations with instructions that local anchors read it, with “Insert Your Station Here” spots to make it feel like a locally produced piece.

The pieces gained national attention last week after the website Deadspin compiled a video featuring dozens of anchors from across the country reading the script, almost word-for-word.

On the surface, the promotional piece does not sound troublesome.

“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” the script says and the anchors read. “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.”

Here, here. I’ll march and bang that drum with anyone.

“More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories, stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.”

I’m unaware of any reputable news gathering organization that has published fake stories from social media, but the sentiment remains admirable.

Here’s where things get a little dicey.

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“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.”

That is a largely baseless and troublesome allegation, and it becomes even more so when read through the lens of Sinclair’s political history.

The company, objectively, has a conservative slant.

Among other must-run pieces handed down from the company’s leadership have been a segment from Sebastian Gorka, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, which was produced by Kristine Frazao, a former reporter for Russia’s government-funded news network.

The Sinclair brass also requires stations to run segments from Boris Epshteyn, the company’s chief political analyst and a former Trump adviser.

Sinclair stations increasingly have aired national political news at the expense of local news, and that coverage has had a conservative slant, according to research published by Emory University.

With that kind of background, the message carried in the station’s promotional piece — “Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think” — carries a much more chilling tone.

Or at least it should to anyone who values a free, independent and objective press.

When viewers watch cable TV news with an established ideological viewpoint — the opinion or analysis segments on Fox News or MSNBC, for example — they know what they’re getting into. Or at least they should.

But this is local news, a product that should be as free from bias as humanly possible. It’s unsettling to see local anchors — news providers who should be trusted in their communities — required from on high to read this missives.

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The piece aired 68 times between March 23 and March 31 on Iowa TV stations owned by Sinclair, according to an analysis compiled by the liberal advocacy group Progress Iowa.

The pieces aired on stations across Iowa, including KGAN-TV in Cedar Rapids and KPTH-TV in Sioux City.

Local Sinclair officials have been told to forward media requests to the company’s corporate office. Corporate leaders have pushed back at criticism about the pieces. In an internal memo obtained by national news organizations, Sinclair leaders defended the promotion pieces as “well-researched journalistic initiative focused on fair and objective reporting.”

A focus on “fair and objective reporting,” warnings against the consumption of genuinely fake stories shared on social media — those are admirable journalistic endeavors.

But when a corporation with a historical political slant such as Sinclair’s makes the on-air allegation that “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think,” that is cause for concern.

Along those lines, I hereby nominate “This is extremely dangerous to a democracy” for the Lack of Self-Awareness Hall of Fame.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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