Viewers of Seattle local television station KOMO may have recently noticed an odd sight on the nightly news: Anchors, standing apart from their usual desk, looking at the camera, and reading from a teleprompter as though it were a ransom note.
"Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities,” their script begins. “We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that KOMO News produces." And then the tone shifts. Sounding like talking-points at a Trump rally, the anchors begin discussing "false news," and "the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country." And they aren't talking about Fox News.
I caught it one evening last week, sandwiched between the weather and human interest stories. At first, I thought maybe it was a subtle rebellion against KOMO’s parent company, the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair—which is controlled by David Denison Smith, the son of the company’s founder—is an arch-conservative media giant. The company currently owns and operates 193 television stations that reach into 40 percent of households across the U.S., and their empire could soon grow much larger: The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering a nearly $4 billion dollar bid from Sinclair to purchase the Tribune Media Company, which would increase Sinclair’s market share to 233 television stations in 108 U.S. markets. That’s 73 percent of U.S. households, and the merger would include Q13, a KOMO rival in Seattle. If the merger is approved, KOMO may not even survive: Q13 is cheaper to run; unlike KOMO, its workers aren’t unionized; and the station hasn’t attracted national attention.
One of Sinclair’s more egregious oversteps as of late is forcing local television stations, including KOMO, to air “must-runs”: conservative talking points from people like Boris Epshteyn (a former senior advisor to the Trump campaign) disguised as news. In a recent segment, Epshteyn pronounced that the media gives too much coverage to Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who claims she was paid off to keep silent about an alleged affair with Donald Trump. In others, Epshteyn pontificates about gun control (he’s against it), work requirements for food stamps (he’s for them), and the midterm Senate elections, which, he says, favor Republicans. All of this is delivered as though it's not merely one man’s opinion, but actual fact.
Last month, KOMO was forced to run a segment on the "Deep State," a conspiracy theory that a clandestine group of U.S government and military officials are trying to undermine the federal government. That segment was produced by Sinclair's Kristine Frazao, a former reporter for state-run Russian propaganda network, RT.
Editorializing may be common on Fox News (and, for that matter, The Stranger), but KOMO is on the public airwaves, and theoretically non-partisan. Yet Sinclair—which was fined $13.3 million by the FCC last December for airing over 1,700 commercials designed to look like news broadcasts, as the Seattle P-I reports—has written bias into local anchors' scripts.
Sinclair’s tight hold on KOMO was made famous last year by John Oliver, who aired a segment about KOMO after its staffers attempted to work around Sinclair’s rules by airing must-runs in the middle of the night.
There was clearly some resistance inside KOMO, and so, last week, when I caught a KOMO anchor reading the script about “false news,” I thought, maybe this is the in-house opposition, telling their audiences, “We are captive. Do not believe what you see.”
I was wrong. As the Seattle P-I, Deadspin, the New York Times, and others have reported, these segments are the latest must-runs from KOMO’s corporate overlords. And KOMO is hardly alone: Deadspin put together an eerie montage of news anchors from around the U.S. repeating the following must-run in unison: “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.” The anchors offer no evidence for this claim. It’s as though Invasion of the Body Snatchers were set in a news studio.
This montage was spread around widely, and on Sunday, was featured in a second John Oliver segment about Sinclair.
“Nothing says we value independent media like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult," Oliver commented. But while outcry from some in the media and government has been swift—even one former Fox executive, Peter Chernin, called the move "insidious”—President Trump, naturally, took to Twitter to defend Sinclair Monday morning.
So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased. Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 2, 2018
Mary Nam, a KOMO news anchor who also read the script on-air, wasn’t having it.
Actually, this isn't funny at all.
None of it.
When media giants gobble up local news stations, there are repercussions. And since you brought it up first this morning, will your admin green light the Tribune buyout? https://t.co/9Udm54LLOx
— Mary Nam (@Mary_Nam) April 2, 2018
Another anchor told CNN, “I felt like a POW recording a message.”
This is hardly the first time a major media group has used propaganda to spread a political message. But when that message comes beamed into your home on the public airwaves, the effect is more insidious, according to Pam Vogel of progressive media watchdog group, Media Matters. “The most dangerous aspect of Sinclair’s local news propaganda is exactly that—it’s local,” Vogel says. “Local broadcasters are expected to devote a substantial portion of their daily news coverage to issues of local importance. Instead, Sinclair forced its local anchors to film and air this promotional segment dictated by Sinclair’s corporate offices and regularly requires its local stations to regularly devote airtime to other segments that have little to do with their communities but are instead focused on underscoring a Trump agenda. Sinclair is depriving local audiences of the information they actually need about their communities in favor of videos promoting xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and attacks against the press.”
Using these tactics, Sinclair has turned a valued local news source into a propaganda machine for the Trump administration, and, if the FCC approves the company’s bid for Tribune Media—and in all likelihood, it will—their control over what we see and absorb on the local news will only grow stronger. This is a problem. While younger audiences may have given up on local TV news, older people still watch it. And they vote.
Of course, while Sinclair may be forcing their staffers to read their propaganda live, they can’t make anyone work there. Sinclair’s on-air employees are union, represented by SAG-AFTRA, but, according to one union member I spoke to, there are no plans to strike. The same is true of IATSE Local 600, the union that represents off-screen staff. Sure, the staffers could always quit, but, as the Seattle Times' Mike Rosenberg pointed out, currently, 64 percent of open jobs on the primary job resources market for journalists are for Sinclair. Yes, by reading these scripts on-air, the anchors are complicit, but aside from changing industries, they don’t have many options left.
The lack of opportunities in journalism are part of the general downturn in the news industry thanks to the rise of the internet and the death of on-air and in-print ads. But it’s also a direct effect of media deregulation, which, under the Trump administration is only getting worse: For nearly 80 years, the FCC required that TV and radio stations actually be physically located in the communities they served. In October last year, the Republican-led FCC eliminated that rule. Now, “local” news can come from anywhere. At the time, Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the agency was “paving the way for broadcast station groups, large and small, to terminate studio staff and abandon the communities they are obligated to serve.”
As a reporter, I cannot personally imagine myself reading a mandated, pro-Trump script on air (not that KOMO would ever hire me). It’s antithetical to everything I would have learned in journalism school had I actually gone to journalism school. But I don’t have kids or a mortgage or a disabled spouse or anything of the other things that might compel someone to stay in a job that they know is corrupt. And while some people are calling for KOMO staffers to quit, Sinclair would just replace them with people who have less moral compunction, or, if the Tribune merger is approved, simply shut KOMO down. That may still happen.
But that doesn’t mean KOMO and other Sinclair stations are a lost cause.
KOMO staffers may not be able to publicly speak out without fear of losing their jobs, but Sinclair survives on advertising. Local and national companies alike pay for on-air commercials as well as space on the KOMO website. And if companies decide they are no longer willing to advertise on a propaganda platform, this could have an impact. Look at Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host and alleged serial sexual abuser who was fired after an advertiser boycott last year. In the midst of the boycott, O’Reilly went on Easter vacation with his family and never reappeared on air. It’s happening at Fox again now: Currently, Laura Ingraham, the Fox New host whose show was dropped by at least 15 advertisers after she attacked Parkland shooting survivors, is also on “Easter vacation” with her family. We’ll see if she ever comes back.
Peter Chernin, a former News Corp. executive, has also called for a Sinclair boycott.
Sinclair's distribution structure makes it more difficult to organize a boycott. It's just harder to figure out who is giving them money. But, still, we can try. And we’re going to need your help. I’m compiling a list of KOMO advertisers, both on-air and online, and you can take part. This evening or tomorrow or whenever you sit down to watch TV, turn to KOMO and stay for the ads. Those inside KOMO might be captive, but the rest of us are still free to watch, listen, and complain—loudly, and with our wallets—about the lies, propaganda, and "false news" that we see.
Update: KOMO anchor Molly Shen, who was featured in the Deadspin montage, released a statement on Facebook.