The genius of Sinclair Broadcast Group's national campaign to stir up suspicions of fake news is that it does not appear to be national. Coming from local television anchors, a message about “stories that just aren't true” seems like a friendly warning from the folks at Channel 2 in Portland, Channel 29 in San Antonio or Channel 57 in Columbia, S.C.
The effort is indeed national, however. Viewers across the country, who may not know who owns the local CBS, ABC, NBC or Fox affiliate, are seeing journalists bash their own profession while parroting one of President Trump's favorite talking points.
“We're concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” journalists at Sinclair stations are saying in scripted promos that recently began airing. “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 — stories that just aren't true — without checking facts first. 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.”
While the message contains grains of truth, it could leave the false impression that many reporters are fabricators — an idea Trump likes to promote because it grants voters permission to disbelieve whatever information they wish were untrue.
CNN reported in March that journalists who work for Sinclair, the nation's largest owner and operator of local TV stations, with 193, had been directed to record these uniform messages, and Deadspin on Saturday posted a video mash-up of the promos. Some Sinclair employees told CNN that they were uncomfortable with the corporate mandate; one described feeling “like a POW recording a message.”
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) March 31, 2018
HBO's John Oliver ripped Sinclair's “creepy” message Sunday on “Last Week Tonight,” saying, “Nothing says ‘We value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult.”
Trump, naturally, is reveling in the criticism of Sinclair, which he described as “far superior to CNN” in a tweet on Monday morning.
CNN aired a segment about Sinclair minutes before the president tweeted. “I seldom, if ever, watch CNN,” Trump claimed in December.
Individual Sinclair stations employ their own journalists to cover local news, but the company also centrally produces segments about national issues — sometimes with a clearly pro-Trump bent — that local stations must air. Sinclair's chief political analyst is Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide. Stations are often required to broadcast Epshteyn's commentary.
According to Politico, Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, told a group of business executives in December 2016 that, during the presidential race, the Trump campaign had struck a deal with Sinclair to receive better coverage in exchange for greater access to the candidate. Kushner reportedly said the campaign figured it could reach more voters through local TV in certain battlegrounds than it could through national networks.
Trump's team might have been right. A post-election survey by the Pew Research Center found that more voters said local TV was their main source of campaign news than said the same about CBS, ABC, NBC or MSNBC.
Sinclair's already-broad reach could expand with a $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media's 42 stations. The merged company would violate an FCC limit on TV station ownership, but the FCC is considering raising or eliminating the cap, which would help the deal pass regulatory muster.
In the future, Sinclair messages such as the one about fake news could air on dozens more stations.