Irony alert: Fear of conservative media bias made the front page of the New York Times. The front-page story in Saturday’s edition. featured media reporter Sydney Ember taking another bite out of Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns local television stations in many markets: “TV Titan’s Tilt On the News Roils Its Staff.” The Times, you see, is worried about political bias – not the obvious liberal tile of CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, etc., but the alleged right-tilt of Sinclair!
The text box is particularly rich, coming in a time when all the broadcast networks and all but one cable outlet are weighted heavily against the sitting Republican president: “Sinclair Requires TV Stations to Air Segments That Tilt to the Right.”
Ember even retweeted a sarcastic comment from former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau added while tweeting out Ember’s story: “They are about to buy enough local news stations to reach 70% of all households. Liberal media though.”
They are called “must-runs,” and they arrive every day at television stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group -- short video segments that are centrally produced by the company. Station managers around the country are directed to work them into the broadcast over a period of 24 or 48 hours.
Since November 2015, Sinclair has ordered its stations to run a daily segment from a “Terrorism Alert Desk” with updates on terrorism-related news around the world. During the election campaign last year, it sent out a package that suggested in part that voters should not support Hillary Clinton because the Democratic Party was historically pro-slavery. More recently, Sinclair asked stations to run a short segment in which Scott Livingston, the company’s vice president for news, accused the national news media of publishing “fake news stories.”
Critics of the deal also cite Sinclair’s willingness to use its stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda. That practice has stirred wariness among some of its journalists concerned about intrusive direction from headquarters.
That is what has happened in Seattle, a progressive city where Sinclair owns the KOMO broadcast station. In interviews over the past several days, eight current and former KOMO employees described a newsroom where some have chafed at Sinclair’s programming directives, especially the must-runs, which they view as too politically tilted and occasionally of poor quality. They also cited features like a daily poll, which they believe sometimes asks leading questions.
Ember sure found plenty of objective journalists to complain about right-wing bias.
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The journalists at KOMO described small acts of rebellion, like airing the segments at times of low viewership or immediately before or after commercial breaks so they blend in with paid spots. They all spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal from the company.
In a telephone interview on Thursday, Mr. Livingston rebuffed suggestions that Sinclair pushed right-leaning views. “We work very hard to be objective and fair and be in the middle,” he said. “I think maybe some other news organizations may be to the left of center, and we work very hard to be in the center.”
Ember outlined “the kinds of challenges the company would face with its news staffs in bigger cities like New York, Chicago and L.A. While accepting big city liberalism, Ember evaded the obvious corollary: Liberal journalists. That results in this howler:
Not only are cities like those more liberal, but the journalists who work there tend to be more experienced -- and resistant to what they might see as ideologically slanted content. While most viewers never know the corporate ownership of the stations they watch, audiences might notice politically-leaning commentary in the news cycle.
Ember eventually cited the media’s lack of credibility among conservatives, but again slid past the problem of liberal media bias.
But Sinclair also operates dozens of stations in smaller areas like Amarillo, Tex.; Steubenville, Ohio; and Hutchinson, Kan., where audiences are likely to be more conservative. And Sinclair’s expansion comes amid a stark divide in how Americans view the role of the press.
A Pew Research Center report this week showed that about 89 percent of Democrats believe that the news media played a watchdog role in holding political leaders to account; only 42 percent of Republicans said the same. The gap was the widest ever recorded in the Pew survey, which dates back more than 30 years.
Several of the current or former KOMO employees said they disapproved of the on-air commentary of Mark Hyman, a former Sinclair executive who provides conservative arguments that Sinclair pushes out to its stations. And employees bristled at a mandated segment that featured Mr. Livingston, which ran on Sinclair stations in March.
This came off as urban elitist:
The staff members thought the segment reinforced their frustration with Sinclair, saying it undercut their professionalism. They also suggested that the company did not understand KOMO’s progressive market.
Oh, Sinclair probbably understands Seattle at least as well as the reporters of the New York Times, a purportedly national newspaper, understand “ultraconservative” immigrant-hating red states like Texas.