In today’s media climate, the smoke around any one story gets cleared in record time reducing already short public attention spans and curtailing demand and opportunity for thoughtful contemplation.
This writer, holding a postgraduate degree on the relationship between government and mass media, could not be expected to resist the opportunity to comment on the controversy that arose last month involving Sinclair Broadcast Group and WRGB channel 6, its local media property.
The central issue is whether and to what extent media owners and journalists have a responsibility to differentiate dispassionate reporting from editorial opinion for their readers, listeners and viewers.
POWER AND RESPONSIBILITY
The First Amendment recognizes and protects the unique influence that “the fourth estate” can wield as an independent source of information and check on government power.
Indeed, the term itself springs from recognition of the news media as an integral part of the political system, but separate from the government itself.
A.J. Liebling, the noted war correspondent and longtime writer for The New Yorker magazine once pithily noted that, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those that own one.”
His point was that opportunities to “own one” are limited, making for a two-edged sword.
While some might point to general access to the Internet and social media as counterweights, there is an important distinction to be made between freedom of speech there and freedom of the press.
The former is primarily individual and fleeting in nature, regardless of how “viral” a tweet or posting becomes. The latter is institutional and more established.
It is the print and electronic news media that have proven capacity to influence public opinion by either amplifying speech or restricting it.
Fortunately, most media outlets respect that responsibility. But some seek to exploit it.
It’s the latter that sparked the Sinclair controversy.
There is no denying that Sinclair “owns” a press — in the form of 193 broadcast television stations nationwide — and has the constitutional right to use it to express its own opinions.
Like newspapers, television station owners have always delivered clearly stamped editorials themselves.
Instead, Sinclair issued a script to be read by the principal news anchor(s) on all its stations, apparently intending it to appear locally sourced. Greg Floyd and Liz Bishop did so at WRGB.
The online sports and news blogger Deadspin noticed a distinct pattern and produced a split screen video showing the identical text being delivered at dozens of Sinclair stations.
The resulting ridicule was immediate, caustic and deserved.
The political satirist John Oliver observed, “Nothing says we value independent media like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message … like members of a brainwashed cult.”
Ironically, Sinclair’s act served as a pertinent example of the dodgy practices its editorial sought to criticize. It also tainted the trust that local anchors painstakingly win through earnest journalism — like Floyd’s “You Paid for It” state government report segments and Bishop’s peer honored four decade career in local news — by using them as mere corporate mouthpieces.
If only an isolated incident, it could be excused as a rare atypical error.
But Sinclair has a track record – from refusing to run CBS’s roll call tribute to fallen soldiers during the Iraq War, seeing it as implied criticism of the Bush policy, to instructing its stations to broadcast a highly questionable critique of candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam service just two weeks before the 2004 election.
More recently, it had a dubious one-sided agreement with the Trump campaign securing exclusive interviews with the candidate and has since hired only declared Trump partisans as “commentators” for airing during its stations’ ostensibly local newscasts.
Locally, WRGB-6 has given viewers more reason for doubt by using national report segments from Sinclair-owned Circa in its local newscasts and inserting another Sinclair program, Full Measure, halfway through Sunday morning’s CBS Face the Nation hour, confusingly moving the CBS program’s second half hour to another owned station without any notice to the viewer.
All this gives the impression that Sinclair and WRGB are trying to deceive viewers into watching “product” they want to push.
Sinclair protests that its editorial simply endorsed responsible journalism and warned against false and biased reporting, a universally shared concern.
But the issue was never the message itself, rather the opaque and faithless way Sinclair chose to deliver it.
Newspapers reserve space for viewpoints that disagree with their editorial opinions.
To restore faith with its viewers, perhaps Sinclair and WRGB should do the same.
John Figliozzi is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.