Sinclair Broadcast puppet show: Corporate parents not always champions of journalistic independence

Sinclair montage
The Deadspin montage of local news anchors reciting the Sinclair Broadcast group “fake news” mandate

GARRY — In 2004, a Michigan publisher sold his collection of about 80 profitable suburban and rural newspapers to a New Jersey-based corporation for $415 million.

Cue the thunder. Storm clouds gathered on the horizon.

The sale included the daily paper in Pontiac where I was editor in chief. During the previous eight years, the paper was six times named best in it class by the Michigan Press Association.

“Who … who … who is our new owner?” I worried.

I valued local ownership. Local control and independence is almost always a good thing for news organizations. Nobody wants to be told how to do their job by owners 1,000 miles away who don’t know your history, your market and your subscribers.

It didn’t take long to learn that our new corporate parent didn’t trust me to make coverage and endorsement decisions.

A presidential election was swiftly approaching, and I was told by my new boss, “By the way, we will be endorsing George W. Bush for re-election.”

I sputtered something about the time-honored tradition at our newspaper for endorsing candidates. We had an editorial board that included reader representatives from the community. Board members researched and reviewed politicians running for positions ranging from mayor of Pontiac to the president of the U.S., and would reach consensus on making recommendations to local readers.

You can talk all you want, I was told, but this newspaper will endorse Bush. All this company’s newspapers will. Bush is good for business.

I swallowed hard and followed orders. Bottom line: My job — like most jobs —was to make my boss happy. I had a family, a mortgage, and my youngest son was planning to go to college.

This dark memory popped into my brain this week when a story broke about the Sinclair Broadcast Group ordering news anchors at its 190-plus TV stations to read on the air a company-produced script.

The message warned viewers to be wary of unverified, fake news spreading on social and other news media, which seemed like an orchestrated attack on Sinclair’s competitors.

Deadspin created a video montage of Sinclair’s anchors reading their anti-media scripts — and the comparisons to George Orwell’s “1984” seemed crystal clear.

President Donald Trump later tweeted praise for Sinclair — and criticism for CNN and NBC News — which immediately ignited questions about the Sinclair’s political independence.

What’s the big deal? Why does this matter? WJR’s Guy Gordon invited Josh Landon of Fox 2 Detroit and me to hash out the issues this week. Here’s a recording of that spirited discussion. I hope you’ll listen and share your thoughts.

GARRY GILBERT ON WJR PART ONE

GARRY GILBERT ON WJR PART TWO

 

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