By ETHIC STAFF
As an institution, news production—printed or digital—owes a responsibility to the people it serves and for the sake of well-informed political decisions, one that does not turn local anchors into mouth pieces for the highest bidder’s ideological stance.
“For what is good journalism all about? On a working, finite level it is the effort to achieve illuminating candor in print and to strip away cant. It is the effort to do this not only in matters of state, diplomacy, and politics but also in every smaller aspect of life that touches the public interest or engages proper public curiosity. It is the effort to explain everything from a summit conference to why the moon looks larger coming over the horizon than it does when it has fully risen in the heavens. It is the effort, too, to describe the lives of men—and women—big and small, close at hand or thousands of miles away, familiar in their behavior or unfamiliar in their idiosyncrasies. It is—to use the big word—the pursuit of and the effort to state the truth.”
-Clare Boothe Luce, Women’s National Press Club Conference
When American journalist and politician Clare Boothe Luce was invited to speak at the Women’s National Press Club and stand upon her podium to criticize the tendency of ’60s media to sacrifice journalistic integrity for sensationalized stories, she must have realized that, despite her best efforts, her words would not have a profound, future-altering effect on the auditorium full of reporters before her. She could have guessed that her two cents would only linger in the minds of those press representatives for perhaps another week before being mechanically swept under the rug in pursuit of the next story.
In this is the basis of the dangerous vulnerability people so often inflict on themselves: the leaving of the front door to collective memory open to welcome curiously familiar issues—but forgetting entirely about the unlatched back gate. Thus, these issues have been allowed to come and go, always returning only looking slightly worse for wear.
As Mark Twain once famously noted, “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” despite a lack of substantive evidence that the acclaimed author actually uttered the epigram. Rather, it seems a bit of misinformation has been repeated so often that it canonized itself and ergo it had been unconsciously decided to put words in Mark Twain’s mouth.
Thus in the vein of questionable journalistic integrity and the repetition of key phrases, early this April the website Deadspin published a video that featured dozens of news anchors from across the U.S. eerily reciting the same “anti-fake news” script. Their other troubling similarity however has raised more than just goosebumps but public outcry: the Sinclair Broadcast Group. This distinctively right-leaning company is the largest owner of television stations in the country with 193 local television affiliates and an impending $3.9 billion deal to acquire 42 more, a move that if approved will allow the conservative Sinclair Group to reach up to 70 percent of American households. This wide sphere of influence is compounded by studies that demonstrate local news outpacing national news outlets in terms of overall viewership and trust, according to Pew Research Center. Therefore, when the 193 Sinclair owned stations were mandated to air a series of segments that warned of the “fake news” perpetuated by “members of the media [who] use their platform to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think,” the Deadspin video became a visceral portrait of corporate message control as it ended with anchor after anchor repeating the same warning that “this is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”
Unfortunately, this is not a first for Sinclair. In fact, as the company has been steadily growing and reaching more and more markets, it has been encouraging its strong partisan views onto its acquisitions for decades. A recent paper by Emory University political scientists Gregory Martin and Josh McCain found that when Sinclair Broadcast Group buys a station, its local news program begins covering more national news at the expense of local politics and experiences a “significant rightward shift in the ideological slant of coverage.”
But most troubling of all, the millions of viewers of these stations often are unaware that they are watching company-mandated conservative editorials in the place of local news. Sinclair programming comes to people on channels affiliated with ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, channels that have had a strong foothold in their communities for decades prior to being bought by the company, giving Sinclair an immense ability to influence the political and ideological views of their audiences.
Though in recent years, American audiences seem to have grown used to news cycles being characterized by inflammatory “fake-news” firestorms and panels of experts squabbling over their version of the truth—despite the reality that no one person could independently remain as well-informed as demanded of a modern society. It naturally forces one to depend on various outside sources for information such as social media, local broadcast, national news, or even friends or family and in each instance accepting that the source’s bias is inextricably tied to the news itself.
However, in the case of professional journalism, there should be no excuse for personal bias or corporate payroll overwhelming the undiluted truth, despite such dishonesty frequently occurring in an industry so crucial to a functioning democracy. As an institution, news production—printed or digital—owes a responsibility to the people it serves and for the sake of well-informed political decisions, one that does not turn local anchors into mouth pieces for the highest bidder’s ideological stance. In the end, the ethically questionable Sinclair Broadcast Group remains correct in only one aspect, that such a monopoly over information is unquestionably “extremely dangerous to our democracy” and the words of a corporate media giant spoken through the familiar faces of daytime TV should be warning enough to take meaningful action before the works of George Orwell become no longer just fiction.