I was a Sinclair news director. For a few months, at least.
In 2013, I was a young news director at a struggling small station in the Midwest, having worked my way up the ranks as a producer in larger markets. I’d uprooted my family the year before and moved from the West Coast to “earn my stripes” running a newsroom. I had a small team with a handful of veterans and eager new reporters I enjoyed mentoring.
That fall, Sinclair Broadcast Group bought the station. Sinclair was not a household name at the time, but it did have a reputation in the business for being heavy-handed in station operations and for having a conservative editorial lean. The company first made national headlines when it forced all its stations to run an anti-John Kerry documentary just before the Democratic nominee lost the 2004 presidential election.
Still, I went in with an open mind. As Sinclair prepared to purchase my station, I emailed a colleague to say, “From everything I’ve seen so far, it’s not the evil empire some people think.”
It took just a few months to realize how wrong I was.
It began with the “must run” stories arriving in my inbox every morning. “Must-run” stories were exactly what the name suggests: They were a combination of pre-produced packages that would come down from corporate, along with scripts for local anchors to read. We had to air them whether we wanted to or not.
On the way to a meeting of company news directors, someone whose station had been acquired a few months earlier explained that the arrangement wasn’t that bad — you just had to bury the “must-run” corporate stories and commentary in early-morning newscasts where few viewers would see them. Shortly after that, an executive made it clear to us that the “must-run” stories were not optional and that corporate would be watching to make sure they weren’t getting buried at 5am.
Sinclair knows its strongest asset is the credibility of its local anchors. They’re trusted voices in their communities, and they have often been on the air for decades before Sinclair purchased their stations.
The must-run stories, however, barely passed as journalism. More than one script came down that, had it come from one of my fresh-out-of-college reporters, I would have sent back for a complete rewrite. But Sinclair executives made it clear that the must-run scripts were not to be touched by producers or anchors.
I didn’t last long after that. I soon realized I would have trouble looking myself in the mirror if I put stories and commentary like that on the air. I couldn’t in good conscience ask young reporters and anchors to sign multi-year contracts knowing what they’d be forced to say on the air and face severe financial penalties if they left early.
So I quit, and once again uprooted my family in search of a company with ethical and news standards I could be proud of. I was fortunate enough to find a new position with another station group that, unlike Sinclair, had a true commitment to local journalism.
Over the course of my 14-year career in broadcasting, I worked for multiple corporate owners, large and small. I have good friends who are anchors, reporters and executives at other station groups across the country. Only Sinclair forces those trusted local journalists to lend their credibility to shoddy reporting and commentary that, if it ran in other countries, we would rightly dismiss as state propaganda.
In the four years since I left, Sinclair has doubled down on its “must-run” strategy. Segments like the Islamophobic “Terrorism Alert Desk” and commentary from Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn have started running in markets from Seattle to Washington, D.C. If the Federal Communications Commission approves Sinclair’s purchase of Tribune Broadcasting, it will get a foothold in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Denver and other major markets. I know several journalists who preemptively left Tribune stations after the sale was announced. They’re the lucky and principled ones.
When Deadspin’s genius supercut of Sinclair’s latest promo went viral last weekend, my heart broke for the anchors who were used to make the equivalent of a proof-of-life hostage video. They know what they’re being conscripted to do, but most of them have no choice in the matter. They’re trapped by contracts, by family obligations and by an industry that is struggling to stay relevant in an era of changing media habits.
The anchors who were forced to decry “fake news” put their own credibility on the line, accusing “some members of the media” of pushing “their own personal bias and agenda,” when nothing could be further from the truth. The only ones pushing a personal bias in local broadcasting today are the corporate executives at Sinclair, who leverage the trust that those anchors have developed in their communities over years and often decades of hard work.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with journalism that wears its bias on its sleeve. At some point, local news may transform into something more like the cable news landscape, with hosts who are paid to share their perspective and commentary. But that requires honesty on the part of station owners, and it requires embracing a diversity of viewpoints on the air. That’s the exact opposite of what Sinclair is doing to local broadcasting today.
During my time with Sinclair, while on a conference call with other news directors, someone asked if we could ever run local commentary during newscasts. The answer was a firm “no.” The only opinions Sinclair allows on air are the opinions that come out of headquarters, because the company will not risk giving local audiences a dissenting view.
That “no” was telling. Being afraid of a variety of viewpoints is, in the words of Sinclair’s now-infamous “must-run,” extremely dangerous to a democracy.