There's been lots of uproar over the story about Sinclair Broadcast Group requiring dozens of local news journalists around the country to read a script about fake and biased news. Much of the debate revolves around the connection to President Donald Trump's long-running campaign against the press.
Trump has long abused the term "fake news" to describe not stories that are fabricated, but fact-based coverage that is somehow unfavorable to him. To a large degree, he has succeeded. Just look at polls about trust in the national news media.
So when the nation's largest owner of local television stations, which also has a clear pro-Trump agenda, dictates that its on-air talent read a script that bashes other media using the same generic language that the president routinely employs, it's easy to see the purpose.
For many observers, these are the most relevant and troubling lines from this script:
We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that (insert station name) produces.
But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.
More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories … stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.
Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’ … This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.
Any cursory review of Trump's statements and Tweets will find this same kind of rhetoric — lots of bluster but zero specifics.
But as obvious as the connection is to that passage and the media-bashing strategy of the president, the message itself is not what troubles me the most.
Instead, it's the very first words of the script:
"Hi, I’m(A) ____________, and I’m (B) _________________"
Those blanks have been filled with the names of the local journalists forced to read these lines, including some in the central New York market. These journalists did not get a choice of whether they wanted to express these opinions about the state of the industry in which they work. Instead, their corporate owner exploited the trust these men and women have established with their viewers, and in the process they have damaged the most important tool for all journalists: their credibility.
Consider this newspaper. Like Sinclair has done, we have also published opinions for consideration by our readers. But we do it on our clearly-labeled opinion page in print and opinion section online. And we identify who is expressing those opinions: the author of a column, the members of the editorial board, the signatures of the editorial cartoonists, the identities of letter writers.
What we and our parent company, Lee Enterprises, would never do is force one of our staff members to put his or her name to a pre-written opinion piece and pass it off as their own thoughts and words.
That's journalistic malpractice. And it's something that should make viewers extremely wary of any news coming from a Sinclair station.