Edward Fitzpatrick, RWU director of media and public relations, a New England First Amendment Coalition and Common Cause Rhode Island board member, and a former Providence Journal columnist:
The bad news is that local TV news anchors from coast to coast stared into the camera and read from a script, parroting the “fake” news mantra of a press-bashing president.
The good news, such as it is, is that perhaps there was no better way to vividly illustrate a largely academic debate about media consolidation than the 98-second Orwellian montage that Deadspin fashioned out of that Sinclair Broadcasting Group script.
Now, it might not be surprising that Sinclair, whose chief political analyst is former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn, would join in the president’s war on the media (or at least the war on those media outlets that dare stray beyond the president’s circle of sycophancy).
But it was surprising to hear trusted voices in local news – including anchors at WJAR-TV in Rhode Island – warning that, “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories.” And it was surprising to see familiar faces declaring that “Some members of the media use their platform to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’ … This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”
Well, you don’t have to be the dean of a journalism school to realize that while there’s obviously danger in intentionally false information and increasingly partisan media, there’s also danger in Sinclair demanding that local anchors echo the president’s press critique just as it seeks government approval for a $3.9 billion deal to buy Tribune Media. Keep in mind that Sinclair is the nation’s largest owner of local television stations, with 173 stations in 81 broadcast markets.
The point certainly wasn’t lost on President Trump, who rushed to Twitter to praise Sinclair and blast “Fake News Networks.” Keep in mind that this is a president who has branded major news organizations “the enemy of the American people.”
Earlier in April, the deans or department chairs from 13 journalism schools signed a letter condemning Sinclair for forcing local anchors to read the “promos” accusing other news outlets of false and biased reporting.
“Ironically, Sinclair’s use of news personnel to deliver commentary – not identified as such – may further erode what has traditionally been one of the strongest allegiances in the news landscape, the trust that viewers put in their local television stations,” the letter states. “Indeed, the fears articulated in the Sinclair script regarding an extreme danger posed to democracy by news media telling the public what to think describes our fears about the impact of the Sinclair must-carry script.”
The letter was signed by the deans of journalism schools at the University of Maryland (a major feeder school for Sinclair), Boston University and Syracuse University (my alma mater), among others.
“Certainly, no news organization is beyond critique,” the letter states. “And, as the Sinclair stations noted, social media have been used all too often to spread ‘false news.’ But these are two very different things – the work of professional journalists who produce real news and the false accounts on social media. In making the leap to disparage news media generally – without specifics – Sinclair has diminished trust in the news media overall.”
Roger Williams University journalism Professor Paola Prado said she grew up under a military dictatorship in Brazil, so she’s familiar with seeing journalists forced to serve as “mouthpieces” for those in power. “That is not democracy,” she said. “That is what happens in authoritarian societies.”
Prado said U.S. government policy has produced more media consolidation and less competition over the years, and today a handful of major conglomerates control more than 80 percent of the nation’s mass media. “Why do they need to silence a multitude of voices?” she said. “The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) would do well to reconsider the tenets of a free marketplace and promote competition in the news media across the country.”
RWU School of Law Professor David A. Logan, who has studied and written extensively about First Amendment issues, said the collage of Sinclair news anchors reciting the script is powerful, providing what appears to be the “mainstream media” rising up as one to endorse Trump’s efforts to discredit news outlets that are critical of him and his policies.
“Sinclair may have chosen an inopportune time to display its sweeping editorial reach, given that its Tribune purchase is being evaluated by the U.S. Department of Justice for antitrust violations,” Logan said. “But with a pro-business administration in the White House and an editorial message that meshes perfectly with that of President Trump, one cannot expect the march to a consolidated media to slow anytime soon.”
Logan expects media consolidation to continue, and if that happens, he said, “there is a real danger that our ‘marketplace of ideas’ will increasingly leave us with the kind of narrow selection you might find in a 7-Eleven rather than the wide variety offered in a supermarket.”
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said, “By forcing news anchors to express an opinion that’s not their own, Sinclair is eroding the trust we have in our local journalists. These promos ultimately make it more difficult to distinguish corporate dictate from genuine news reporting. Viewers are left to wonder whether their trusted news anchors are working in the public’s interest or merely serving as a mouthpiece for their employer. When that line is blurred, the entire broadcast is tainted.”
To quote one trusted TV news anchor, that’s the way it is.