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Frontline: What the Sinclair controversy really means for journalism

Opinions of the editorial board

When the words “fake news” first appeared on the radar, worries about media literacy and fabricated stories going viral were on everyone’s minds. But a much bigger threat looms on the horizon -- uniform news, controlled by corporations.

A free press is essential to democracy. Without it, the public is not able to hold those in power accountable or make informed political decisions. 

Historically, this has meant media free from government censorship, first and foremost, but corporate control has become equally dangerous to press freedoms. 

When powerful corporations control news, our access to unbiased information can become limited. As a future with bigger and more powerful corporations looms, regulations protecting the press from their influence become more essential.

Having diversity in news is critical because it provides a wealth of different ideas and opinions, ideally formed from unbiased evidence and facts.

Many people recently became aware of the media giant behind their local news station, conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcasting Company, when a video circulated over the weekend showing dozens of anchors from Sinclair-owned local news channels forced to read a script submitted by the company.

Reading the script on paper is one thing. It looks very impersonal. But watching anchors from Oregon, Washington D.C. and South Carolina giving a uniform message is another. 

“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” the anchors said. 

It seems as if the company has good intentions, but the phrase doesn’t have the same ring to it when 36 screens with 36 different people are saying it in unison, side by side. 

The anchors all voiced concerns that media groups are pushing fake news and using personal bias to control public opinion, which critics were quick to point out is one of President Trump’s favorite talking points. Published by sports news site Deadspin, the eerie video ends with anchor after anchor saying, “This is extremely dangerous for our democracy.”

Local news and corporate media groups may seem like water and oil, but Sinclair has been acquiring local TV channels from Oregon to South Carolina, becoming one of the largest media companies in the U.S. and reaching 39 percent of Americans, Vox reports.

Counter to ideas of a democratic free press, that number would jump to 72 percent if their purchase of Tribune Media is approved. This was made possible when Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai scaled back regulations on how many TV stations a company can own, Mother Jones reported in 2017.

While their message seems well-meaning, their method is ominous. The true threat to democracy lies in having homogenized news spread to Americans from sources they already trust. The gray area between this and propaganda doesn’t stretch far. 

When people are tired of politicized news coverage from CNN and FOX News or looking for local coverage, they may turn to local news stations, where many anchors are familiar faces who have built trust with their audience. 

Sinclair is known for giving their broadcast stations “must-run” segments like this scripted one and right-leaning segments featuring former Trump White House official Boris Epshteyn. Their interest is in making money, but their role should be to inform audiences instead of lobby for policies that will help their business.

The danger of corporate-controlled media is that companies could control the news in a way that benefits them, giving them even more power and influence over the public. When media companies all over the country are scrambling to find a way to fund honest, ethical journalism, the options available become fewer and far-between. 

There can be a balance between corporations and the media they own, and autonomy can be maintained in news organizations. For example, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the owner of the same “Fake News Washington Post” Trump has been bashing since before he took office. Concerns of Amazon being its own corporate giant aside, Bezos keeps out of The Washington Post’s news coverage, including coverage of Amazon, its executive editor Martin Baron told The New York Times.

As journalists are government watchdogs, the public must be watchdogs as well. Public critique of Sinclair and the FCC calls for stricter regulations on media monopolies and holding companies to higher ethical expectations helps protect the integrity of a free press. If any time is the right time for journalists and the public to hold media companies and monopolies accountable, it’s now.

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Taylor Nichols, Kira Erickson and Eric Trent.

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