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Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

How that Deadspin video shredded Sinclair

It has been almost a week since it appeared, and I still can’t stop thinking about the Deadspin video that blew up Sinclair’s ill-fated attempt to have its anchors at stations around the country read a centralized script on “fake” news.

I have not been this blown away by the impact of a video since seeing the arrest of Freddie Gray three years ago this month thanks to the videography of Kevin Moore.

The two videos could hardly be more different. Moore was a Baltimore resident filming with his cell phone after being awakened during Gray’s arrest — documentary-style journalism showing viewers the unvarnished reality of what was happening on the streets of Baltimore. Deadspin’s video was the work of skilled, professional editing — an eye-popping, razzle-dazzle video reality tailor-made for today’s social media.

As a hardcore believer in fact-based, down-the-middle, legacy journalism, it’s easy for me to love the Gray video — something I did the second I saw it and rushed into print saying I thought it would rock Baltimore.

But I also feel like I should be having deeper concerns about the artifice involved in the Deadspin production.

Only I don’t.

I don’t love it the way I do the citizen journalism of Moore, but I am absolutely dazzled by its impact. Video is taking on a dominant role in digital journalism, and this piece shows why. In one minute and 40 seconds, it woke up millions of people to what has been going on at Sinclair and what its proposed acquisition of dozens more local stations might mean in a way that months of conventional reporting did not.

I and other journalists have been writing about the dangers of Sinclair’s potential for centralized messaging at least since last summer after the Baltimore-based broadcaster named Donald Trump aide Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst and forced stations to carry his commentaries.

“Sinclair is exploiting the credibility or trust that people have invested in their local stations by injecting a political message into it,” I told Mother Jones for a piece it did on Sinclair. “Boris Epshteyn is wrapped in the packaging of the trusted local newsperson.”

I have been hammering away at that message since July, saying it looked like Sinclair was about to become the final piece in a massive right-wing messaging machine that ran from the White House and President Trump’s huge social media audiences to Breitbart News in digital, Fox News in national cable, and potentially Sinclair’s nearly 200 stations in markets throughout the country.

And the point I hit hardest was that Sinclair’ s greatest value to that machine was the familiarity and credibility that many of its hometown anchorpersons had built up sometimes over decades in their markets.

These weren’t people in New York or Washington, these were the anchorpersons you saw at your kids’ soccer game or at the local supermarket. These are people who live in your community — people you trust.

And it wasn’t just journalists putting the spotlight on Sinclair. John Oliver did all he could in a July broadcast on HBO to warn about the broadcaster’s rise. And consumer advocate groups like Allied Progress and Free Press have been and still are going all out.

Yet, for all the tens of thousands of words written by me, Mother Jones, The News York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg, CNN digital and reporters and critics at many other platforms, it never really seemed to register with audiences to the extent that I hoped it would.

And then came this video on Deadspin on March 31 ,and the danger of such centralized messaging by Sinclair seemed like it was apparent to everyone. The video did what all the words didn’t. Its power was in showing what it would look like to have all the local, hometown anchors mouthing a centrally crafted message in lockstep.

“Orwellian” was the word used most often in the scores of posts about the video.

You might have heard recent protest marchers chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.”

The Deadspin video shows what totalitarianism might look and sound like when you sit down to watch the local evening news.

It’s a dark, deadening feeling.

Deadspin described the video as “dozens upon dozens of local news anchors looking like hostages in proof-of-life videos, trying their hardest to spit out words attacking the industry they’d chosen as a life vocation.”

But the video cuts even deeper and sharper than that in what it suggests about Sinclair’s handling of its greatest asset: the anchors and the credibility and trust they’ve established during their careers.

By showing dozens upon dozens of these anchors reading this script like automatons, Deadspin shredded their credibility and, perhaps the trust with their local audience that it took years to build. As much as you might sympathize with someone having to do something odious to keep her or his job, you are not going to respect or trust them to tell you the truth anymore about what’s happening at city hall, the cop shop or the school board, are you?

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Maybe you’ll even start watching the hometown folks on another channel who have not been so publicly compromised by management and successfully skewered by a Deadspin video.

On Sunday, Scott Livingston, senior vice president for news at Sinclair, said in an email to The Sun that the “goal of these announcements” was “to reiterate our commitment to reporting facts in a pursuit of truth.”

On Monday, Livingston said in a statement on PR Newswire that, "It is ironic that we would be attacked for messages promoting our journalistic initiative for fair and objective reporting, and for specifically asking the public to hold our newsrooms accountable.”

Many of the country’s media critics don’t buy that because of how closely the language the anchors spoke parroted the talking points of the Trump White House and because of how often “must air” segments from Sinclair corporate have done the same. But for the average viewer in scores of local markets, it boils down to this simple realization: the words coming out of the anchorpersons’ mouths are not what they believe but what they are being forced to say. The irony here isn’t that Sinclair is being attacked for proclaiming journalistic integrity, it’s that the station’s greatest asset, the credibility of its anchorpersons, was put at risk in these promotional videos by having one after another echoing in lockstep the disingenuous “fake” news rhetoric of President Trump.

And it was a video that communicated the deeper truth about Sinclair’s videos in a way that none of our many words could.

Video rules right now in the world of digital journalism. Deadspin gets it. And Sinclair gets burned — badly.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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