Fox News has long played the wolf in sheep’s clothing among national media, with ideologues spewing right-wing talking points and slamming mainstream journalists under the cloak of fair-and-balanced language. Sinclair Broadcast Group applies similar principles to its chain of local TV stations, the largest in the country. And a new promotional campaign suggests it’s ramping up its anti-media crusade with familiar Trumpian rhetoric.
CNN’s Brian Stelter obtained internal Sinclair documents on Wednesday night describing an “anchor delivered journalistic responsibility message” set to begin airing frequently later this month on Sinclair stations “to create maximum reach and frequency.” It’s a classic fake news screed, and one anonymous Sinclair anchor who cut a promo package already told Stelter, “I felt like a POW recording a message.”
Here’s how Stelter describes Sinclair’s 60- to 75-second spots:
The promos begin with one or two anchors introducing themselves and saying “I’m [we are] extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that [proper news brand name of local station] produces. But I’m [we are] concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country.”
Then the media bashing begins.
“The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media,” the script says. “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.”
Then the anchors are supposed to strike a more positive tone and say that their local station pursues the truth. “We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left or right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.”
Seems reasonable enough, right? Sinclair Senior VP of News Scott Livingston told Stelter that the campaign is merely nodding to journalistic principles we all share: “This promo addresses the troubling trend of false stories on social media”—his emphasis—“and distinguishes our trusted local stations as news destinations where we are committed to honest and accurate reporting.”
But weigh that idealistic description against Sinclair’s actual output— particularly its content about national and international affairs distributed to local stations. Last year, The New York Times reported that, in 2015, the company ordered stations to run often inflammatory segments from its “Terrorism Alert Desk” every day. Other “must-run” segments mandated from on high have included commentaries from Mark Hyman, who for years cheered on the Iraq War, and, more recently, former Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn.
Livingston himself appeared in a segment aired on several local stations last year that echoes the forthcoming campaign almost word for word. It also includes a passage where he virtually tells the audience to snitch to Sinclair management if they feel like local news anchors aren’t being “fair”:
Sinclair owns and operates 173 stations and is currently awaiting Trump administration approval for its acquisition of dozens more as part of a mega-merger with Tribune Media. As Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch eyes more local stations for his own conservative media empire, the board is set for a potential power struggle at the local level between the two right-wing titans. Sinclair’s new promo campaign would seem to suggest the company is once again applying Fox News’ tactics on a wider scale.
Local TV remains the most commonly cited source for news among American adults. And the Trump administration’s approval of Sinclair’s merger with Tribune Media would put its news stations into three-quarters of American households. So get ready for more terrorism alerts and Boris Epshteyn. Or, as Sinclair would have it, “honest and accurate reporting.”