“Unfortunately,” the news anchor said, “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’ ” This, he said, “is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”
Or she said. Both. Because that line, occasionally with slight variations, was broadcast nationally on scores of affiliates of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Deadspin compiled examples from a number of regional television networks into one Orwellian video.
The unsubtle point of the message was to cast other news providers as biased to, in effect, reinforce President Trump’s argument that coverage critical of him is “fake news.”
“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” the Sinclair message states, noting that fake news proliferates on social media. “More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories, stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.”
Sinclair owns 285 television stations, according to the site RabbitEars.info, affiliated with each of the four major networks. When it purchased WJLA-TV in Washington four years ago, The Washington Post noted examples of the network’s conservative coverage. During the 2016 campaign, the company reached an agreement with the Trump campaign that, in exchange for expanded access to the candidate and his team, it would air Trump interviews without commentary. (When this agreement came to light after Jared Kushner mentioned it at a conference, Sinclair said it offered the same deal to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.) It now regularly insists that affiliates run packaged pro-Trump segments featuring Boris Epshteyn, a former administration official who briefly hosted a campaign “newscast” as Election Day approached.
After the Deadspin video went viral over the weekend, the president rose to the network’s defense on Twitter.
He was mostly tweeting to the choir.
The coverage of television stations owned by Sinclair generally overlaps with population centers in areas that voted for Trump. There are no Sinclair stations in New York, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area or Los Angeles.
D.C. and Boston are two of the few blue areas included in Sinclair’s broadcast coverage range. Areas within broadcast range of those 285 individual Sinclair stations voted for Trump over Clinton by a 19-point margin on average, according to Post analysis that includes overlapping broadcast areas. Clinton won nationally by 2.1 points.
On Monday morning, Monmouth University released new poll results that show that those areas, areas that voted more heavily for Trump, were already inclined to agree with his tweet.
Monmouth asked respondents which they were more likely to trust as a source of information, Trump or the various cable news networks. People who lived in places that voted for Trump by 10 or more points trusted him more than CNN or MSNBC by a 10- and seven-point margin, respectively. They were slightly more likely to trust Fox News Channel than Trump, but a plurality said they trusted both equally.
A plurality of people in places that Clinton won by a wide margin said the same thing, although perhaps because they were more likely to see both Trump and Fox News as equally unreliable. Both CNN and MSNBC were considered more trustworthy in Clinton country by more than 30-point margins.
Although a third of respondents in Trump country trusted CNN and MSNBC more than Trump, clearly some percentage agrees with Trump that the networks are a “joke.”
What’s more, Trump country is more likely to think that even traditional media sources regularly release “fake news.” Nearly 4 in 10 of those in places where Trump won by at least 10 points said that TV networks and newspapers regularly created fake news; more than 8 in 10 said they did so regularly or occasionally. Half said they did so to push an agenda, not solely as a function of mistakes made in coverage. (Less than 4 in 10 in other parts of the country agreed with that idea.)
The definition of “fake news” employed by respondents in Monmouth’s poll was broader than erroneous facts, but included editorial choices made by news outlets.
Sinclair’s endorsement from Trump isn’t a surprise, given the relationship between it and the Trump campaign and administration. It’s also not a surprise, given the correlation between where it owns stations and places that supported Trump. The question that arises is how Sinclair’s advocacy colors opinions of the news media moving forward and, secondarily, how that influences views of the president.
Trump’s view of that question is uncomplicated: Sinclair’s perspective is good.