What Sinclair Broadcasting is doing feels personal to me. It should feel personal to you.
When I came to Idaho 44 years ago, Boise’s Channel 2 station, which was KBOI (later KBCI, then KBOI again), had been a landmark in Idaho journalism, renowned among reporters and producing a crop of the best, not least among them a news director who had just become Boise’s new mayor.
In 1990 I worked there for a time, and while television journalism wasn’t by then quite what it had been a couple of decades earlier, there were still fine journalists doing good work at that station.
And still are today. But nowadays, I have to extend my sympathy to them. They face challenges I and their other predecessors never did.
Channel 2 now is owned by the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcasting group; KLEW television is Lewiston is owned by Sinclair as well, as are stations in Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City and many others - 172 around the country, with probable expansion to 233 before long. Like most local television (and radio) stations these days, Idaho’s stations mostly are owned by large national corporations.
That isn’t new. The news is what Sinclair is doing to its local stations.
The concerns many of us in local news a generation or two ago had with far-away corporate ownership, tended to involve budgets or internal structural issues. We seldom (and this was true at newspapers as well as broadcast) heard even echoes of specific takes on news coverage, and rarer still encountered anything “must-run” from corporate, much less any direction toward a political preference. The news reports you saw in the local news were, for better or worse, developed by the local staff. I know; back in the day, for a short stretch, I wrote some of them myself.
This is what’s new with Sinclair.
Watch the video posted at https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/, under the headline, “How America's Largest Local TV Owner Turned Its News Anchors Into Soldiers In Trump's War On The Media.” It compiles clips from dozens of Sinclair stations - KBOI is one of them - showing anchors robotically reciting, word for word, a script handed down from Sinclair corporate, in essence advising viewers to believe nothing of what they see or hear from any other news source (Sinclair’s presumably exempted).
Cable host John Oliver nailed it: “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.”
There’s power, and danger, in the image of these local people, with established local reputations, doing this, which is why Sinclair’s executives are going to the trouble.
“Must-run” sequences, strewn in among (diminishing) local news, have become regular, witness the "Bottom Line With Boris" clips, the “Terrorism Alert Desk” - anything to ratchet up fear. On March 21 viewers saw former Trump staffer Sebastian Gorka on the "Deep State." And much more.
Not everyone nationally has gone along. Complaints have leaked; at least one on-air person reported feeling “like a POW” delivering the ordered anti-journalism message. A station in Madison, Wisconsin tweeted that it "did not air the Sinclair promotional announcement … we stayed true to our commitment to provide our Madison area viewers local news, weather and sports of interest to them." Will they still have their jobs in a couple of weeks? Some at other stations already have quit.
(What do the local stations say about this? From a leaked internal memo at Sinclair’s KATU in Portland: "Please DO NOT answer any questions or get into any discussion with callers, as they try to navigate to someone internally. … Most certainly don't talk to the press about the issue.” Got it.)
The must-read Sinclair script parroted by local anchors ends with the words, “this is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” That part, they got right. Here’s hoping no other corporate masters try pulling the same thing on the rest of local TV news.