They Report. YOU Decide.

My friend in the desert who follows politics voraciously was dealing with a heat wave yesterday, so I’m not surprised he forwarded this from POPULAE INFORMATION author Judd Legum:

On Tuesday, Popular Information reported that Sinclair Broadcast Group injected deceptive attacks on Biden’s age into dozens of local news broadcasts. Sinclair owns or operates 186 local news affiliates and is run by David Smith, a right-wing media mogul. In collaboration with Public Notice, the report documented how dozens of local news stations owned by Sinclair promoted a deeply flawed Wall Street Journal story questioning Biden’s mental acuity.

The premise of the Wall Street Journal story was that Biden “shows signs of slipping” in private meetings. But the only person quoted on the record to support that thesis was former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), a partisan interested in damaging Biden politically. Worse, McCarthy had previously praised Biden’s competence during meetings. Independent media critics panned the piece, saying it had “glaring problems.”  

Popular Information’s report included a six-minute video compilation featuring dozens of local Sinclair anchors reading from an identical script. Again and again, the anchors say that the Wall Street Journal is “out with new reporting calling into question the mental fitness of President Joe Biden,” adding that the issue “could be an election decider.”

The exposé quickly went viral online, racking up nearly 1 million views on social media sites. It then reached millions more on cable news. On Wednesday morning, MSNBC’s Morning Joe devoted a lengthy segment to the story. “It’s really not local reporting. It’s spoon-fed from a right-wing… group that’s spreading disinformation,” host Joe Scarborough said. 

All true, and hardly surprising.  Sinclair has a history of providing its stations with content that would tend to be more liked by someone who isn’t a fan of Biden’s.  NPR’s David Folkenflik wrote about this very topic in spring 2018:

The largest broadcaster in the country is forcing its anchors to read a promotional script that warns viewers about “fake news” on other stations and media. Its among the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s now infamous “must-run” segments that include conservative commentary and reports about terrorism.

In response to a framing question during his NPR interview, Folkenflik offered up this summation:

I mean, the message isn’t a dog whistle. It’s more like a cannonball going off. They’re at once attacking their competitors in service of ostensibly praising their own professionalism. And they’re also saying, look; we’re a safe home for those of you who, like strong devotees of President Trump, believe that much of the media is involving fake news, involved in personal bias, is involved in trying to distort what you’re presented as supposedly objective, fair. Sinclair is contributing directly to that claim in hundreds of markets across the country.

Nonetheless, Legum’s narrative of what went down this week took on an even more self-congratulatory tone:

The story was also picked up by several national media outlets.  And on Wednesday night, I appeared on MSNBC’s Alex Wagner tonight to discuss Sinclair’s conduct. Sinclair was not happy. In a statement, a member of Sinclair’s Corporate Communications team said that Popular Information’s reporting was “outrageous and offensive.”

But Sinclair’s statement ignored the central point of Popular Information’s reporting, which was that Sinclair was amplifying the Wall Street Journal’s flawed story. 

Instead, much of the email focused on defending the practice of requiring dozens of purportedly independent news affiliates to read an identical script. Sinclair said that practice “ensures local station anchors can accurately introduce the footage” and “conserves resources, allowing local producers in each affiliate market more time for newsgathering.” 

So it’s debatable whether or not this is fake news.  But it is OLD news.

Whatever semblance of reality “fair and balanced” journalism may have once been has been forever tarnished by the collective efforts of national news networks.  FOX News is guilty as charged for their own bias, and indeed Sinclair currently owns more FOX-affiliated stations than any other broadcaster.  There is more than likely overlap between those Sinclair stations and the likes of Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.  So for an incendiary as Legum might think this week’s “amplification” may have been, it is more than likely doing nothing more than reinforcing what that audience is otherwise hearing.

And for those who are using the argument that as licensees of government airwaves Sinclair should be held to a higher standard, my onetime colleague Preston Padden is still struggling to gain any sort of toehold in his license renewal challenge of FOX’s Philadelphia owned-and-operated station for what they amplified that a court of law has already ruled against them for.  So good luck in thinking that a thumbs up from Joe Scarborough is going to have any more impact but perhaps get  a few more $6/month subscribers to Judd’s Substack.

If anything, Legum might want to spend some time looking at what else the Sinclair srations have aired under the umbrella of “news”.  As a result of a dearth of viable syndicated options and the reality check that advertisers tend to pay more for content labeled “news”, they continue to expand the length and the commercial load of their newscasts–to the point where the efficiencies that Sinclair did indeed double down are necessary to accommodate the demands of their clients.  And many of them are running for Democratic offices.  Including the Biden re-election campaign.

And what he’ll also likely find is what John Oliver uncovered about local news’ sponsored content in spring 2021, as TV SPY’s Kevin Eck reported at the time:

In case you missed it, Oliver’s weekly HBO show invented a fake product complete with a fake website and then went looking for local stations to report on it. Three stations took the bait—and HBO’s money—to conduct interviews about the Venus Veil, which was touted as the “world’s first sexual wellness blanket.”

Oliver then used them as examples in a story criticizing local stations’ paid content practices.

When we asked the stations about it, two of the three responded by telling us while they agree better care must be taken to check the veracity of claims made on the show—like whether the Venus Veil was real—they also pointed out that neither station showed the made-up product on a news program and that the segments were demarcated as sponsored content.

“Denver7/KMGH and its parent company, The E.W. Scripps Company, take the integrity of our content very seriously. We create clear distinctions between local TV news programming and local TV non-news lifestyle programming, including using non-news employees and clearly identifying sponsorships in non-news shows,” Scripps told TVSpy.

“Our non-news shows were created to help support local businesses and entrepreneurs who are looking for new ways to market their products, and we believe our viewers understand the differences,” the statement continued. “We are vetting our review processes for non-news segments to ensure our stations follow the proper standards.”

In its show description on the station’s TV listings, Mile High Living is described as “a business show offering different ways to save so that you can get the most out of your mile high living! We also cover community and lifestyle!”

Yesterday, when we published the story about its show’s hijinks, KVUE said pretty much the same thing. “‘FYI Austin’ is a two-minute commercial spot that is not a part of the KVUE newscast,” a spokesperson said.    Incidentally, KVUE is owned by Tegna.

Perhaps Legum can take some solace in this report from last month about how the messaging of any news is resonating these days, as no less than FIVE authors of a Pew Research initiative offered:

The local news landscape in America is going through profound changes as both news consumers and producers continue to adapt to a more digital news environment. We recently asked U.S. adults about the ways they access local news, as well as their attitudes toward local journalism, finding that:

A bar chart showing Americans increasingly prefer digital pathways to local news

 

  • A growing share of Americans prefer to get local news online, while fewer are getting news on TV or in print. And newspapers are no longer primarily consumed as a print product – the majority of readers of local daily newspapers now access them digitally.
  • The share of U.S. adults who say they are paying close attention to local news has dropped since our last major survey of attitudes toward local news in 2018, mirroring declining attention to national news.

If anything, perhaps he should turn his attention to the source rather than the messenger.

I’m certainly not  accusing Sinclair of being in the right in any other way but their wing.  But for anyone to think that calling them out for “amplification” is meriting anything more than a pat on the back from a clearly politically biased news operation is an unfortunate reminder that bias cuts both ways, and that’s the world we’re in these days, like it or not.

By thw way, Sinclair may own 59 FOX affiliates, but they do also own 25 NBC affiliates as well.  And what we noted about overlap with network and affiliate cuts both ways.

And I did cough up $6 just to make this point.

So not a total loss, Judd.

Until next time…

 

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