With just 2,044 followers, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Twitter account is a worthwhile symbol of the company’s entire gambit. The conservative TV empire isn’t a loud political actor like Fox News, but a shadowy network of nearly 200 news stations that lives behind local brands and their connections with local audiences. Must-run segments from the company’s Maryland headquarters carry the logos of ABC, NBC, Fox, or CBS affiliates.
It’s in Sinclair’s interest to keep a low profile. And its PR push since a Deadspin supercut of its must-run media-bashing promo went viral this week has attempted to suggest that the practice of mandating segments from on-high is basically normal. In a rare interview with The New York Times on Wednesday night, Executive Chairman David D. Smith continued to argue that his company’s unprecedented roll-up of local TV stations—it’s awaiting federal approval of a $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media—is nothing to worry about.
“Not that you would print it, but do you understand that every local TV station is required to ‘must run’ from its network their content, and they don’t own me,” he wrote to Times media reporter Sydney Ember in an email exchange. “That would be all their news programming and other shows such as late-night talk, which is just late-night political so-called comedy.”
I need not explain how NBC Nightly News, a distinct program clearly produced from a national perspective by far-off journalists in Washington and New York, is different from a Boris Epshteyn appearance during a local newscast. Or how the content of Jimmy Kimmel Live! can’t honestly be compared with a must-run segment shared by local news anchors, who theoretically have more personal ties with their respective communities.
The Times continued (emphasis mine):
In subsequent emails on Tuesday, Mr. Smith, said that the networks “do exactly the same promotional things that we do” and that such segments were “standard practice in the industry.”
Asked about the widespread criticism prompted by the Deadspin compilation, Mr. Smith expressed disbelief.
“You cant be serious!” he wrote. “Do you understand that as a practical matter every word that comes out of the mouths of network news people is scripted and approved by someone?”
Ah, yes: editing. It depends who does it. While there is nothing wrong with “journalistic responsibility messages” per se, the ones playing on Sinclair-owned and -operated stations are coming from management with a well documented political agenda. They’ve fused together the dangers of media politicization and consolidation.
The counterpoint to the uproar around Sinclair’s attempted expansion into almost three-fourths of US households is that viewers can still change the channel. The company has no monopoly on public attention. This is, of course, true. But disengaging from local news in response to this wolf in sheep’s clothing isn’t a good outcome, either.