On March 7, CNN reporter Brian Stelter released an investigation of internal documents from Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media conglomerate that owns and operates over 170 television stations, including Utah’s KJZZ, KUTV and KMYU. An internal memo sent from Sinclair Broadcast Group to local media stations told anchors to read a script denouncing “fake news” stories being reported on many national media outlets.
According to CNN, the script read, “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, national media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the national 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.”
As Stelter pointed out, this outcry against fake news, and the national media, is a mimic of President Trump’s rhetoric. However, the memo told local anchors to “Avoid total red, blue and purple dresses and suits. Avoid totally red, blue and purple ties, the goal is to look apolitical, neutral, nonpartisan yet professional.”
Something else troubling is that local media outlets were informed that “corporate will monitor the comments and send replies to your audience on your behalf.”
A July 2017 episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” looked further into the right-wing political agenda of Sinclair Broadcast Group. Oliver found that local media outlets are often handed down prepackaged stories labeled “must run” that reflect talking points of the Trump administration. Some local stations even have a “Terrorism Alert Desk” that focuses on violence abroad and stories irrelevant to local audiences.
Some local TV anchors anonymously told CNN that they are troubled by the conservative agenda of their parent company. One anchor said they “felt like a POW recording a message” when they were given the promo script. “This is so manipulative,” another said.
Sinclair senior vice president of news Scott Livingston defended the company’s actions by saying, “Promo messages, like the one you are referring to, are very common in our industry.” But the political slant of these “promo messages” is what raises concern.
The targeting of local media by Sinclair, a Maryland-based corporation that had a revenue of $2.73 billion in 2016, raises concerns for the state of Utah. As The Salt Lake Tribune reported, “Promos will air on KUTV and its sister stations in the coming weeks, but will focus on the trustworthiness of local news versus ‘fake news’ on social media, according to a source.”
Sinclair’s encouragement for local journalists to peddle pro-Trump messages amounts to an attack on local journalism, and the attack comes at a time when local media needs needs help. On Feb. 6, The Guardian reported that United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May described a decline in local media that “is dangerous for our democracy.”
“When trust and credible news sources decline, we can become vulnerable to news which is untrustworthy,” May said. “So to address this challenge to our public debate we will launch a review to examine the sustainability of our national and local press. It will look at the different business models for high-quality journalism.”
Local journalism offers perspective and voice that cannot be manufactured, not even by a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate. Be on the lookout for the inorganic and politically slanted scripted messages appearing in local TV news broadcasts.