On Monday, I wrote about the ongoing battle between Sinclair Broadcasting and the 193 local television stations they own across U.S., including, in Seattle, KOMO.
Sinclair is bad news. It’s a massive, multi-billion dollar corporation that has been forcing local news stations to run pro-Trump talking points, with no context, comment, or opposition. These segments, called “must-runs,” are mandated by corporate, and they air during prime evening news hours, right between weather forecasts and human interest pieces about goats.
More recently, Sinclair gained tons of media attention after requiring evening news anchors at their stations to read a statement about the preponderance of “false news” in the media, which sounded like it was written by Trump himself. These statements were delivered by local news anchors, but it wasn’t reporting. It was fear-mongering about the media, something Trump excelled at well before he was in office, an attempt to discredit the institutions that are reporting on his administration.
You’ve likely seen the now-viral montage of Sinclair anchors reading the statement in unison. Here, watch it again.
Creepy, right? There’s more. Last year, Politico reported that Jared Kushner, Trump’s best boy, told business executives that the campaign cut a deal with Sinclair for access to Trump in exchange for running interviews on Sinclair stations. That’s a lot of viewers: In Ohio, a battleground state, Sinclair has an audience of 250,000 compared to CNN’s 30,000, as Politico notes. And all those viewers were treated to a softball interview with Trump presented with no rebuttal or even fact-checking from their local television new source.
Now, none of this is new. As NPR’s David Folkenflik reported last year, after 9/11, “Sinclair required the news and sports anchors and even weather forecasters to read editorial messages explicitly conveying full support for the Bush administration’s fight against terrorism.” Sinclair loved Bush, hated Kerry, hated Obama, hated Clinton, and (surprise) loves Trump now. And Sinclair's coverage reflects this, right there on the local news.
Sinclair, by the way, is a family-run business, currently headed by David Deniston Smith, a conservative who got his start in porn. After he was busted in a prostitution sting, he fulfilled his community service by making a Sinclair news station report on a local drug counseling program. His brother, Frederick—a vice president at Sinclair—was sued because a trailer park he owned was allegedly discriminating against African Americans. With an affinity for pornography and racism, it’s not hard to see why Trump, a fellow traveler, likes them. And his administration has been great for Sinclair by eliminating FCC regulations that don’t benefit the company. Last year, for instance, the FCC voted to eliminate a longstanding rule requiring that companies to maintain a studio in the communities in which they operate. Currently, the FCC is considering Sinclair’s bid to purchase Tribune, which would increase their market share to by dozens of stations and put them in 73 percent of American households.
Again, this isn’t entirely new. There were waves of deregulation in the 1980s, ‘90s, and 2000s—and not just during Republican administrations: Clinton and Obama revoked FCC rules, too. Before the ‘80s, however, the public airwaves—which is what Sinclair operates on—were required to work for public benefit, at least in part. The Fairness Doctrine, which was revoked in 1987, mandated that organizations with a broadcast license present different sides of controversial issues. In exchange, these companies got access to publicly owned airwaves—and massive local audiences—rent free.
Local news might not seem like a big deal to anyone under the age of 200, but it is. While audiences have certainly declined, in 2016, the combined average viewership of ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX affiliates in the evening was still 20 million. In the morning, it was 10 million. And people trust local news. As Pamela Vogel from the progressive media watchdog Media Matters told me, “Studies show people inherently trust local broadcast news more than they trust national news sources to give them the accurate information they need.”
People—voters—are absorbing Sinclair’s pro-Trump must-runs just like they would the actual news. This influences how people see the world, and how they vote. Just look at Fox News: A 2006 study found “a significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000,” as well as an increase in Republican vote share in the Senate.
“Our estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 28 percent of its viewers to vote Republican, depending on the audience measure,” the study authors wrote. “The Fox News effect could be a temporary learning effect for rational voters, or a permanent effect for nonrational voters subject to persuasion.”
"Nonrational" may be the key word here, as you may know if you’ve ever had a parent start tuning into Fox News and shortly after, experience a rapid political transition. I talked to a guy last year whose once-progressive mom became a Fox News viewer.
“It was mind-boggling,” he told me. “She began to live on a steady diet of Fox News. There were TVs in every room in her house, including the bathroom, and every one would be tuned to Fox News. It was like she was immersing herself into this environment of right wing discourse. It completely altered everything.” Within six months, she started referring to herself as a neo-con.
So, in light of all this, on Monday, I wrote a post called “It’s Time to Boycott Sinclair’s Propaganda Machine. But We Need Your Help to Do It.” Here’s the final passage:
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. Then, either email me or tweet me what you see. 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.
Then I went home, did my taxes, and forgot about it. While I was trying to figure out deductions, my inbox started filling up. KOMO’s nightly news was on, and people were sending me lists of advertisers. Long ones.
The next day, yesterday, I repeated on Slog that a list would be forthcoming, and gave our intern the dubious assignment of helping me verify the lists that had come in. It didn’t really work. Most of these businesses had no idea if they advertised on KOMO, and it ended up being a huge waste of our time (sorry about that). So, I went home and started watching KOMO. Hours of it. Every time a commercial came on, I entered it into a spreadsheet—and if you’ve never watched four hours of KOMO in a row, I can’t recommend it, but I can tell you all about the five-day forecast if you’re curious.
In the meantime, the emails kept coming, and I was alerted to a Google Doc someone had organized. A few people were collecting names of Sinclair advertisers and formulating a plan for a formal boycott. I looked at the Google Doc, and noticed a problem: Some of the advertisers listed as companies to target had bought ads on Sinclair websites. But, sometimes (frequently), ads you see on websites were placed there by a third party likes Google Ads. These ads are all over the internet, and you can sometimes tell when you see them because they have a little triangle and an “x” in the corner. Whoever paid for those ads may have no idea that they are advertising on a Sinclair platform. The same is true of commercials on nationally-syndicated shows: Big brands that advertise during shows, like, say, Roseanne, are more likely have agreements with ABC or NBC than with Sinclair or their affiliates.
So when I looked at the Google Doc and saw that some of these advertisers were wrongfully included, I started to get concerned. It should not have taken me as long as it did. I write about situations like this all the time: people, almost always well-meaning, start online campaigns against this business or that person, and then everything spirals out of control. Unfortunately, these campaigns are frequently based on faulty information (here, read about a few here, here, and here), and, I realized after the fifth Allegra commercial in my KOMO binge, by calling for a boycott of Sinclair advertisers without even giving people the tools to tell who Sinclair advertisers actually are, I’d potentially put a lot of companies in danger. I fucked up.
This was a problem. I emailed the owner of the Google doc, explained how web ads work, stressed how seriously people’s lives can be damaged from rumors and misinformation, and offered to talk him through it. We’re doing that later today.
Then, during a much-needed break from my KOMO binge, I listened to Madeleine Albright on Fresh Air. She has a new book out called Fascism: A Warning, and part of it is about how Trump has attempted to and succeeded in undermining public confidence in elections, the courts, and, especially, the media. And Sinclair is using their own employees—journalists—to do the very same thing. It’s egregious. Here, watch that montage one more time:
After listening to a former Secretary of State talk about how dangerous this administration is for democracy, I didn’t feel as bad anymore. I felt angry. Sinclair has been abusing the public airways for too long. And, as Bloomberg reported this week, they make it exceedingly difficult for their employees to stand up against corporate mandates. Employees who quit before their contracts are over may have to pay back 40 percent of their annual compensation, as Bloomberg noted. Some also have six-month non-compete clauses in their contracts, as well as forced arbitration. This isn’t because Sinclair needs the money—the company is worth many billions—but because they are, from all appearances, attempting to control the narrative of local news. And, for those journalists who do leave, Sinclair, as Mike Rosenberg of the Seattle Times pointed out on Monday, currently controls 64 percent of listings on the main website for journalism jobs.
Some Sinclair employees have pushed back. A TV station in Minnesota refused to air the mandatory warning about “false news,” and some employees, including a few at KOMO, have quit. But, as Bloomberg wrote, most just can’t afford it. Sinclair just has too much power.
But consumers have power, too, and when the government has allowed corporate behemoths to take over the public airwaves—again, rent free—without consideration of the public good, consumers must exercise what power we have. Now, I’m not an activist, but I said I would compile a list of local business advertising on Sinclair’s airwaves, and while my list of advertisers is in no way comprehensive, all of the companies listed below are verified advertisers on KOMO. Reach out to them if you feel compelled, but, please, don’t be an asshole. Most of these companies probably don’t even know that their dollars are going to support Sinclair. Just tell them how you feel about Sinclair’s stranglehold on KOMO and other local news sources, and say you were disappointed to see them advertising there. In Portland, it might be starting to work: Wilsonville Subaru announced they are pulling their ads from KATU, also a Sinclair station.
One last thing—and this is key: As more of these lists get passed around, remember to look to the source. As Sinclair’s anchors put it so memorably (all together now): “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.” I hate to say it, but they have a point. So make sure your source is legit, or, better yet, tune into KOMO yourself, take note of their advertisers, and give them a call.
Again: the goal here isn’t to put local advertisers out of business; it’s to send a message to Sinclair that we don’t want their must-runs and we don’t them interfering in local news. I will repeat myself: We're not asking you not to spend your money at these businesses, but to express your desire that they stop advertising with Sinclair.
Now, here’s your list:
Emerald Queen Casino
Bernard Law Group
Northwest Clinical Research Center
Kaiser Permanente of Washington
Seattle Cancer Care
5th Avenue Theatre
Bob's Heating and Air Conditioning
Pacific Heating and Cooling
Northwest Spa Show
Roy Robinson RV
Seattle Theatre Group
SHAG Tukwila Village
Fox Plumbing & Heating
Allen & Nolte PLLC
Western Washington Honda Dealers
Phillips Law Firm