The corporation that has been at the forefront of consolidating ownership of local television stations across the country, Sinclair Broadcast Group, has been promoting an initiative that has the company’s newscasters present what are referred to as “anchor delivered journalistic responsibility [messages].” The broadcast pronouncements from the corporation—which has established a long track record of aligning itself with right-wing political interests, and more recently with the Trump administration—echo the president’s ranting about national media outlets’ circulating “fake news stories.”
That’s caused plenty of controversy, and rightly so. But the burgeoning debate needs to focus more attention on the issues that explain why Sinclair has grown so influential—those of media consolidation and conglomeration, the homogenization of content and the death of localism—as well as Sinclair’s scheming to grow even more influential.
Last month, news anchors at local Sinclair stations across the country were told how to dress and how to comport themselves as they delivered a scripted messages attacking national journalists and news networks with an Orwellian claim: “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.”
When media analysts called out Sinclair executives for telling anchors to mouth this doublespeak—CNN’s Brian Stelter referred to the Sinclair initiative as “a promotional campaign that sounds like pro-Trump propaganda”—the president delivered an enthusiastic defense of his echo-chamber network.
“So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” Trump tweeted. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
The mistake that many pundits and partisans will make is to imagine that the controversy regarding Sinclair has to do with conservatism versus liberalism, or Democrats versus Republicans. The problem is not so much with local stations’ taking positions on issues of consequence—as stations across the country have since the dawn of the modern media age taken stands on political matters, sometimes with “editorials” that are labeled as such, sometimes with comments from anchors. The real problem is with the amplification of that messaging by a media conglomerate that is now the largest owner and operator of local television stations nationwide—173 at last count—and that is angling to acquire many more stations.
Local television stations remain highly influential because their heavily promoted news programs—with their mix of headlines, sports reports, and lots and lots of weather coverage—still tend to earn high ratings. Those ratings mean that stations, even in small markets, are highly profitable. As such, locally owned and operated stations have the potential to survive and thrive, with solid news departments and deep connections to the communities and regions that they serve.