Local news becomes the next political battleground
Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc., which is based in Hunt Valley, Maryland and operates three Reno television stations, already owns the largest number of broadcast television stations of any corporation. Its latest planned acquisition, of Tribune Media, would further secure that status by adding 44 stations currently owned by Tribune Media. Variety reports:
“The breadth of the combined company is eye-popping, even after two decades of consolidation of TV station ownership. The combined entity would own 223 TV stations serving 108 markets, including 39 of the top 50. The group’s stations would reach some 72 percent of U.S. TV households. That’s nearly twice the reach of its nearest broadcast competitors: Nextstar (39 percent), CBS (38 percent) and Fox (37 percent).”
Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley says the corporation has no plans to revive a one-time project of competing with another far-right network, Fox. He told Variety’s Cynthia Littleton, “Our strength is local news. The market for national cable news is very well served.”
That threat alone is enough to send tremors through local news departments.
Recently, Sinclair sent out a script smearing the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its local anchors to use in introducing a “report.” The speculative anchor intro was very deftly written: “Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russia investigation of President Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn? It could very well be true.” Thus an idea of FBI misconduct is planted in the first sentence. The second sentence—“It could very well be true”—never actually says it is true, just implies it. It could also very well be untrue. But that goes unsaid.
Comic broadcaster John Oliver recently showed footage of Sinclair anchors in eight different markets speaking this one-slur-fits-all FBI script. Depending on how many Sinclair stations used the FBI material, it could have planted wide suspicion of the agency. Across the nation, this kind of material washes over trusting audiences who assume it is coming from real news departments. It’s a demonstration of how false information can be spread more or less instantly without using language that is legally actionable, just weasel words like “could.”
Note that no Sinclair manager mouths the innuendo. Rather, corporate executives send anchors who are familiar in their communities out to voice it. So (1) a political hit person in Hunt Valley, Maryland (2) writes up a slander of the FBI, which is then (3) peddled behind the credibility of local news anchors communities trust.
Such reports sent from Sinclair to local stations are often accompanied by the instruction “must run.”
Sparks Tribune columnist Andrew Barbano says of two Reno Sinclair anchors, “Sometimes, Shelby Sheehan and Joe Hart become visibly tight-jawed presenting national items ordered onto the air by corporate.”
With this kind of broadcast firepower, Sinclair could put dubious information into the nation’s information bloodstream overnight with little accountability. With its political agenda, Sinclair’s combined stations might well function as the local news version of the kind of “news” coverage Fox provides at the national level.Six outposts
In Reno, KRNV, KRXI and KAME are all either owned or operated by Sinclair. KRNV is an NBC affiliate, KRXI is affiliated with Fox, and KAME with an arm of Fox, MyNetworkTV. Sinclair owns KRXI but owns only a local marketing agreement to run KAME, which is owned by Zephyr Cove-based Deerfield Media.
In Elko, Sinclair operates but does not own KENV, which carries KRNV’s newscasts. KENV is housed at Great Basin College.
In Las Vegas, Sinclair has KSNV, affiliated with NBC, and KVCW, affiliated with CW.
There have been bits of discontent since Sinclair entered the Western Nevada market.
In April 2014, online commentator Paul Kizer wrote that KRNV News, an NBC affiliate, was rebroadcasting Fox News reports.
Reno News & Review special projects editor Jeri Chadwell-Singley worked briefly as a news producer at KRNV and experienced worrisome practices.
“The first was when the producer who was training me told me not to choose a science- and nature- related fluff piece as a kicker for the show,” she said. “Fluff pieces at the end were mandatory, for whatever reason, but she said that the station and the viewers didn’t like liberal-leaning stuff. The only other thing was that I overheard producers and photogs talking about how the company was right-wing controlled and how they give preferential treatment to political spots from Republicans.”
This last, she acknowledges, is hearsay. She departed after three weeks.
Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada said he has noticed a decline in quality of some Reno stations: “It really shows the depth and the reach of the fascist corporate culture on our country. We’re like that frog in the pot of water, and I’m afraid it’s starting to boil and we’re just getting used to it. We’re inured to it.”
Barbano: “They run regular reports originating from ’The Washington Terrorism Desk,’ always hosted by a comely young woman trying to scare the shit out of the public. … It often runs at 12 noon but rotates through other newscasts. They also run a regular in-the-news commentary—usually at the end of a segment—from some right wing nutso guy [Mark Hyman]. It’s worthy of Fox. … Their Washington Bureau … will often produce segments where most of the time is given to GOP or think tank moonhowlers with perhaps a token 10 seconds near the end as a genuflection to the idea of ’both sides.’ That is many times just a 10-second voiceover, no talking head.”
The “Terrorism Desk” segments are not the fault of local producers. Sinclair orders its local stations to run them, though there is frequently so little terrorism news to report that John Oliver was able to poke fun at some of the “threats” publicized on the segment. When does terror become a topic of comedy? When Sinclair tries so hard to use it politically that it becomes a reach to even call it terror. The term loses its meaning.Unhealthy codependence
No lobby terrorizes members of Congress more than the broadcast lobby. Legislators worry that if they cross the industry, broadcasters will retaliate with their big megaphones. There is occasional support for that fear. When Robert Dole was the Republican presidential nominee, he received a letter from Nick Evans, owner of stations in five states: “If over the next few days your position on spectrum has not changed and been made public, you will have lost my support. I will be forced to use our resources to tell the viewers in all of our markets of your plan to destroy free over-the-air television.”
The broadcast lobby lies, steals and thrives on conflicts of interest—some of which hurt its journalists. If that sounds strong, here are examples:
Lie: In the 1990s, at the behest of the National Association of Broadcasters, hundreds of stations ran television spots warning that “a TV tax” could pass Congress. It was a lie. There was no tax. The bill the broadcasters were trying to stop would have required them to pay in an auction for public property—additional broadcast spectrum.
Theft: In part because of the television spots that claimed Congress was trying to “destroy free TV,” Congress yielded to the pressure and gave the spectrum to the broadcasters for free! “It is one of the great ripoffs of American history,” said Sen. John McCain. “They used to rob trains in the old West. Now we rob spectrum.” It was a theft that cost the public an estimated $70 billion (“The great HDTV swindle,” RN&R, July 10, 2008). That would be perhaps $101 billion in today’s dollars.
The news departments at the television stations and networks did not provide news coverage on the real purpose of the legislation, though the stations were running an advertising campaign against it, which alone should have made it newsworthy. Local and national news departments ignored “one of the great ripoffs of American history.” Keep that in mind the next time a broadcast executive talks about the public’s right to know.
Politicians are in constant tussles with broadcasters. Nevada’s U.S. Sen. John Ensign once walked out of a meeting with Nevada Broadcasters Association officers in anger.
These days, the broadcast lobby is pushing the Federal Communications Commission for a change to make Sinclair’s absorption of Tribune Media legal. Right now, the audience share that one corporation can have is 39 percent. Never mind that 39 percent is an insane concentration. The FCC—at the suggestion of a Trump FCC commissioner—is considering cooking the numbers to make larger combinations possible.
Of course, if FCC regulations led to hundreds of corporations, each with a 39 percent reach, that might be something to talk about. But our economy doesn’t work that way. When Sinclair is allowed a 39 percent reach, others are pushed out. And television is one tool that traffics in ideas. It serves, or does not serve, our ability to function as a society.
From the beginning, Congress treated broadcasting as outside the protections of the First Amendment. Its members liked to control the industry only to find that the industry could control them with the threat of negative news coverage. In the last quarter of the 20th century, as the Democratic Party started getting more corporate money, Democrats became further obligated to the industry. Part of that became protecting industry from anti-trust, though the courts have ruled that the First Amendment does not prevent breaking up media monopolies.
During that same quarter century, many broadcasting stations—particularly in radio—started using their facilities to spread a conservative message. The Democrats have long called for revival of an old FCC policy called the Fairness Doctrine. It required broadcast licensees to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a balanced fashion. By contrast with the First Amendment, which allows print entities to say what they want, the Fairness Doctrine would require broadcasting stations to present material that is approved by government—which decides what is “balanced” and what issues require coverage.
The FCC came up with the doctrine, and it eventually got rid of it. Congress then passed it as a statute, but it was vetoed by President Reagan.
On July 25, Forbes columnist Brett Edkins noted that Democratic leaders had released a new economic agenda (called the “Better Deal”) that ignores the consolidation of local television news. The Sinclair/Tribune deal was his exhibit one:
“Sinclair requires stations to air political segments with a conservative bent. Former Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn, for instance, hosts ’Bottom Line with Boris,’ a segment in which he defends President Trump and criticizes the mainstream press. In his career as a pundit, Epshteyn has promulgated numerous false claims, including the debunked theory that Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008 because immigrants voted illegally. … In the Trump era, local news will be a crucial political battleground.”
His headline: “Democrats Ignore The Consolidation Of Local TV News At Their Peril.”
Democrats have always tried to game the system instead of putting broadcasting under the First Amendment and letting it function free of government interference.
In 1988, Sen. Edward Kennedy arranged for legislation that required Kennedy critic Rupert Murdoch to choose between owning newspapers or television stations in New York and Boston. Murdoch was already in violation of “cross-ownership,” as it’s known, in both cities. He was hoping the FCC would issue more temporary waivers. Kennedy’s amendment made sure Murdoch obeyed the law. But why aim an amendment at only one man—an adversary of the senator?
Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid once brought heavy pressure on a Clark County radio station. Its crime? It let some right wing figures express opinions on the air.Cat in a box
Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley told Variety that critics “mischaracterize what we do by just focusing on a small subset of our newscasts. We put those players [Boris Epshteyn and Hyman] on because we are optimizing for ratings. They represent a diversity of views that you can’t find on other channels. … The selective cherry-picking of some stories that end up on our newscast paints us in a light that is very unjust. If you were to listen to the John Oliver skit, you would think that our news was 24/7 commentary, which is certainly not the case. It is a small fraction of what we do.” KRNV’s News Director Scott Fitzgerald was not available for comment.
Constitutional scholar Richard Labunski has argued that leaving broadcasting out of the First Amendment has given the U.S. “a second rate First Amendment.”
Labunski—a former KTVN reporter, UNR political science instructor and author of The First Amendment Under Siege—says “It is extremely disturbing that a single company would control so many TV stations that reach such a large percentage of American households. Managers in such a company do not need to say explicitly to their employees that their news coverage should favor one political view over another. Journalists who work for companies that are determined to promote a certain ideology know that some stories and the way those stories are presented may well annoy managers who don’t recognize that fairness and accuracy should be the primary commitment of people working in news and that promoting a political viewpoint is not what journalists do. The effort to shape news coverage this way is often subtle and not easy for the audience to recognize.”
The situation Labunski describes is reminiscent of the time the Reno Gazette-Journal’s publisher also sat on the board of directors of Harrah’s. RG-J reporters said no one had to tell them to use greater care than before when covering Harrah’s. The message was implicit in the situation.
After showing an appearance by Sinclair commentator Epshteyn in which a plainly disbelieving anchor questioned Epshteyn’s hypothesis of a stolen election in North Carolina nine years ago, John Oliver joked, “Do Trump surrogates even know why they are lying, or are they driven by some vague instinct, like when a cat sits inside a box?” After Oliver’s report aired, Sinclair announced it would increase to nine the number of opinion pieces by Epshteyn it sends to its stations each week. Sinclair: “While we appreciate John Oliver’s unique brand of humor, we stand by our approach to sharing content among our stations.”
“Sharing content” sounds less menacing than “must run.”
The one-size-fits-all reports handed down from on high in the Sinclair world often grate on local sensibilities in some markets. That’s not the only thing that grates, either. Businessweek reported on station jackets supplied by Sinclair on the East Coast to KOMO, a well-regarded Seattle station on the West Coast. The jackets bore prominent L.L. Bean logos. Setting aside the ethics of journalists wearing advertising, Washington is Eddie Bauer country. Bauer was founded in Seattle in 1920.
Advertising Age runs an annual list of the 10 largest companies in media. Consider this: “Time Warner, which has held the No. 1 spot each year since 1995, collected 11.8 percent of Media 100 revenue—nearly one of every eight dollars spent by advertisers and consumers on products and services from the top 100. Time Warner is more than 100 times the size of the smallest ranked entry, Schurz Communications, a newspaper, broadcasting and cable operation with estimated revenue of $301 million.”
Now consider this: That was 10 years ago. It has only gotten worse. Competition?
In some ways, Sinclair in Reno is a throwback to earlier times in this valley. In the 1970s, KCRL Television—now KRNV—was owned by Charles Cord, who had inherited it from his father, Errett Cord. Charlie Cord had an old pal, columnist Ernest Cuneo. (Cuneo was reportedly the person who leaked the George Patton slapping incident to columnist Drew Pearson.) Cord subscribed to Cuneo’s column and had local announcers read it at the start of each evening’s news. The sound of television sets changing channels all over town was nearly audible when Cuneo’s turgid prose came on. Many of the dreary Sinclair “must run” pieces serve the same purpose. Bloomberg News has observed that Sinclair does what Fox does—minus “Fox’s high-end graphics, state-of-the-art studios, tailored wardrobes … and polished scripts.”
Sinclair is legally permitted to reach 39 percent of the national audience with its stations. It cranks out one-size-fits-all news “stories” which bear strong resemblance to campaign commercials and sends them to its 100-plus stations. If Sinclair were limited to the ownership of five stations, what are the chances that those five communities would be better served than those 100-plus communities? If Sinclair’s stations did not have to devote air time to attacks on Donald Trump’s critics, might that time be used to cover the local school districts or housing starts? If the one crew back East that makes those one-size-fits-all pieces were released for more productive work, might Sinclair have to make more of a commitment to each of the 100-plus markets, such as hiring perhaps one reporter and one photographer in each market to cover the local stories they now miss?
It’s fair to ask of our neighbors in this valley: Would having three Sinclair stations that do not compete with each other instead of three non-chain stations that do compete improve news coverage?
KRNV and KRXI have the same news director. Competition?