It could be a scene in a dystopian fantasy: A chorus of news anchors warning viewers about the scourge of media bias, all reciting the same words in stations across the country. “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias,” they intone. “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” The level of groupthink on display is so glaring—so on-the-nose—that the video, created by Deadspin, was widely shared on social media as evidence of the real-life dystopian turn America has taken under Donald Trump, who has regularly maligned the free press as “fake news.”
The dozens of anchors who recited this identical editorial are employed by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the conservative media behemoth that has gobbled up local news stations across the country. If a proposed merger between Sinclair and Tribune Media is allowed to proceed, this type of propaganda would reach nearly three-quarters of American households.
Sinclair’s growing reach is part of an ongoing crisis, the latest evidence that conservative plutocrats are remaking the media landscape—from alt-weeklies to mainstream magazines to the broadcast networks—in their image. In a divided era, local news broadcasts remain the rare form of journalism that is trusted broadly. The Sinclair takeover could not only have far-reaching political consequences, but also further erode trust in media by introducing hyper-partisanship into local news.
However, the controversy surrounding Sinclair has obscured the fact that local news has been in a serious crisis for a long time. Its partisan appeals compound a years-long economic collapse with a crisis of trust.
Any discussion of local news starts with the decline of print journalism. In June of 1990, there were nearly half a million people employed in the newspaper industry; in March of 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 183,000—a decline of nearly 60 percent. Many of those jobs moved to the internet and television, but the decline has been acutely felt in small and medium-sized markets, many of which are no longer served with reliable print journalism. Those that are often get little original reporting, with newspapers instead dutifully regurgitating dispatches from local law enforcement.
Newspaper reporters did the work of responsibly covering local politics, law enforcement, and the courts. They not only kept citizens informed, but also often performed the role of a watchdog. These stories were often featured on local television news, providing depth that a 30-minute telecast, which also covers national stories and sports and the weather, simply can’t.
There are many causes for the newspaper’s decline, the most notable of which has been the rise of Google and Facebook and the subsequent collapse of the advertising model that sustained newspapers for decades. With internet companies breaking up journalism’s near monopoly on local advertising, media organizations have been forced to curtail their reporting and cut back on staff. Many newspapers have also been hit by Wall Street firms seeking to make a profit—The Denver Post, for instance, recently handed out pink slips to a third of its newsroom employees, despite posting healthy profits for its hedge fund owner.
These changes have damaged the quality of local news reporting across the country. But they haven’t had a substantial effect on the way that people view local news. A Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted in August of last year found that “41 percent of registered voters have more trust in their local news outlets to report the truth,” compared to only 27 percent who have more trust in national news outlets. It’s no surprise that Mark Zuckerberg, when facing criticism of Facebook’s dissemination of fake news and divisive stories, announced that the company would be emphasizing local news stories in its News Feed.
Speaking to Ezra Klein earlier this week, Zuckerberg reiterated his faith in local news: “A big part of what I actually think about when I’m thinking about high-quality journalism is local news,” he said, citing the fact that it made people more “informed” and “civically active.”
Sinclair also seems to be paying attention to these numbers. In response to the Morning Consult/Politico poll, Sinclair’s Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump administration official who forces Sinclair affiliates to run his editorials about liberal media bias, was ebullient. “Local news is at the heart of American communities,” Epshteyn said. “Viewers trust their local news sources because their content serves their communities. ... I’m proud to be able to build on the great work of local reporters and share my political analysis, offer insight and commentary to stories in the news cycle each week.”
Epshteyn’s comments last summer serve as a kind of grace note to Sinclair’s response to the criticism it has received in the wake of the Deadspin video. In a statement released on Monday, the company used the quality of its local reporting as a shield, acting as if criticism of its overbearing politics was actually aimed at the reporters and anchors who are doing their jobs at stations across the country.
“We aren’t sure of the motivation for the criticism, but find it curious that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media, which result in an ill-informed public with potentially dangerous consequences,” Scott Livingston told BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg in a statement. “It is ironic that we would be attacked for messages promoting our journalistic initiative for fair and objective reporting, and for specifically asking the public to hold our newsrooms accountable. Our local stations keep our audiences’ trust by staying focused on fact-based reporting and clearly identifying commentary.”
Epshteyn and Sinclair are right that the quality of Sinclair’s local reporting is generally good. Sinclair’s stations are well-funded, especially compared to most other local news entities. But if the cost of that funding is regular Orwellian editorials, which are narrated by the very anchors who are supposed to represent the organization’s dedication to presenting the news without fear or favor, that very well might be too high.
“It sickens me the way this company is encroaching upon trusted news brands in rural markets,” one reporter at a Sinclair-owned station told CNN’s Brian Stelter. Another local reporter concurred: “I try everyday to do fair, local stories, some Trump-related, but it’s always washed out by this stuff they do at a national level.”
Local news has been facing an extinction-level event for the past two decades, but it has somehow managed to preserve a reputation for fairness, even as its reach and quality have decreased. Sinclair taking over stations across the country is a final indignity: Local journalism has bled hundreds of thousands of jobs, and now Sinclair is taking its integrity, too.