Directive from media company threatens democracy, ignores SPJ Code of Ethics

COMMENTARY

David Baxley

Baxley Bites

By David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina member and Associate Professor at Francis Marion University

It’s no secret Sinclair is a media organization that heavily slants conservative. In fact, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, the company came to an agreement with Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Trump, to provide more coverage of the candidate. Sinclair reportedly agreed to carry sit-down and air interviews with Trump – without commentary – in their television markets.

Kushner capture PoliticoSinclair owns or operates 173 stations in 80 markets – the largest of such groups in the country. Providing then-candidate Trump with blanket coverage in those markets gave Trump more air-time in those markets. For a media owner to make agreements to give positive coverage to a particular candidate is dangerous.

Kushner confirmed the arrangement in a meeting with business executives in mid-December, after the election, as reported by Politico. Read article HERE

In early March 2018, several journalists who work for Sinclair Broadcast Group raised their eyebrows at a directive sent down from their corporate offices: “Please produce the attached scripts exactly as they are written. This copy has been thoroughly tested and speaks to our Journalistic Responsibility as advocates to seek the truth on behalf of the audience.”

“Please produce the attached scripts exactly as they are written. This copy has been thoroughly tested and speaks to our Journalistic Responsibility as advocates to seek the truth on behalf of the audience.” – Directive from Sinclair Broadcast Group

Boris

Boris Epshteyn

The script is the same copy used for promos in each of Sinclair’s markets. According to Media Matters for America, that monitors and fact-checks misinformation in U.S. media, Sinclair Broadcast Group has strong ties to the Republican Party. Many SBG executives regularly contribute to Republican candidates, according to Media Matters for America. After the 2016 campaign, SBG hired Boris Epshteyn, a former aide to Donald Trump. Sinclair stations then began running pro-Trump segments produced by Epshteyn. SBG’s Vice President of News attacked the mainstream media, saying many journalists are pushing their own personal bias in their reporting. Read the Media Matters story HERE:

Media Matters captureThe first of the forced-script promos hit the airwaves in Sinclair’s markets this past week. And, if you are a fan of American democracy, it should scare the living daylights out of you.

For a media company to blatantly go after other media outlets for reporting news that may not be positive toward the President is appalling and is borderline undemocratic. Even the Supreme Court has ruled elected officials should expect to be scrutinized and questioned while holding public office.

For a media company to blatantly go after other media outlets for reporting news that may not be positive toward the President is appalling and is borderline undemocratic. Even the Supreme Court has ruled elected officials should expect to be scrutinized and questioned while holding public office.

For executives of a company to suggest news from other media outlets is fake simply because it goes against their owners’ political views is wrong. Actually, it’s reprehensible. When a company buys up stations in 80 markets then sets an agenda to promise positive coverage for one political group over another, the American people should be outraged. If only they knew the messages were slanted. That leaves it up to the consumer to be educated on particular topics, which arguably isn’t happening in many rural areas.

Perhaps those who watch Sinclair’s broadcasts and have seen the promo aren’t media literate. They believe whatever they see and hear on Sinclair’s airwaves. Much the same way FOX News continued to insist President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, which was, of course, false. But it was a narrative given to FOX News by Donald Trump. FOX News allowed the misinformation to spread. And, their viewers, at least some of them, continue to believe it.

FOX News continued to insist President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, which was, of course, false. But it was a narrative given to FOX News by Donald Trump. FOX News allowed the misinformation to spread. And, their viewers, at least some of them, continue to believe it.

When we allow media outlets, ones that own a majority of local TV news outlets in U.S. markets to push their conservative – or liberal – agenda, it’s time to say no more.

For those of us who have studied the agenda-setting theory, we understand media have an important role in our society. The theory suggests the items presented on television, radio, and even social media are not designed to tell viewers what the think; rather, media messages are meant to inform people what to think about. SBG goes too far.

Here’s a summary of how Sinclair Broadcast Group is attempting to push partisan viewpoints on its viewers, reported by PBS News Hour last year. See video at top of article or link HERE.

Code of Ethics BWThe SBG executives are forcing news anchors to share conservative content. Anchors are supposed to espouse the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. News anchors are expected to be objective and present information in an unbiased manner. SBG’s mandate on local news anchors to record a promo accusing other outlets of being “fake news” is callous. A media group’s support of a politician’s agenda has prompted good news reporters and anchors to relinquish the linchpin of being “accurate” and “fair” journalists. In fact, by SBG executives forcing a script to be read by their news anchors, the SPJ Code of Ethics section on “act independently” has been undermined. Sinclair’s must-run promo seems to suggest to viewers that only its stations are fair and all other news is fake and biased – taking a page from Donald Trump’s playback.

SBG executives forcing a script to be read by their news anchors, the SPJ Code of Ethics section on “act independently” has been undermined.

Website Deadspin edited together the promo with the various Sinclair-owned news stations. You can watch it HERE

Media issues are real issues to our democracy. Sinclair is a media conglomerate. That means they own numerous media companies. Such concentration of ownership is damaging to our democracy. It allows for fewer individuals or organizations to control the media. News companies are supposed to be unbiased. If the company is providing a platform for news with a conservative or liberal slant, it is time for the Federal Communications Commission to become involved.

News organizations such as Sinclair are ruining the free-and-open market for those who wish to understand both sides of a story in order for the viewer to make an informed opinion. Media companies should not be making that decision for consumers. Having varying views is healthy for our democracy.

Journalists work inside these newsrooms won’t put up a fight to cover the other side for fear of being fired.

Concentration of ownership is dangerous. It discourages diversity inside the workplace thereby eliminating differences of opinions inside newsrooms. That suggests newsrooms will only cover stories from one angle rather than both sides. And, journalists who work inside these newsrooms won’t put up a fight to cover the other side for fear of being fired. It’s a sad state of affairs. Alas, this is how the big corporations have ruined news media, and why journalists must fight for transparency and objective reporting every day.

As karma often does, the truth of the motives behind Sinclair’s conservative promos speak loud and clear. One of SPJ’s codes requires journalists to, “Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.” Exposing the truth behind Sinclair manipulative use of their airwaves is shameful, and it should be called out. This really is “extremely dangerous to our democracy” and should be stopped.

david-baxley

David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. Baxley is a regular contributor to the SPJ Region 3 website, SizingUpTheSouth.com.

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