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

Trump tweets away what's left of Sinclair's credibility

As media criticism of Sinclair Broadcast Group mounted in the wake of video showing anchors at its stations looking like automatons as they mouthed a centralized script on fake news, President Donald Trump came to the Baltimore-based broadcaster’s defense.

“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,” he tweeted Monday morning.

If he thought he was helping the beleaguered broadcaster, he was wrong. In fact, he offered what might be considered evidence of the White House having an unusual rooting interest in a news organization — and one whose expansion is now in his administration’s hands.

Between July and December, I wrote a series of columns about what looked to me like the rise of a right-wing messaging machine that extended from the Trump White House to Breitbart News in digital, Fox News in national cable, and possibly Sinclair at the local broadcast level.

The first three legs were firmly in place and fully operational, but the pièce de résistance would be a Sinclair group of more than 200 stations in cities nationwide. All that was needed to make that possible was Federal Communications Commission and Justice Department approval for the sale of Tribune Media to Sinclair. And it certainly looked like the Trump-appointed FCC chair, Ajit Pai, was working overtime to make that happen.

“The overall goal for Team Trump appears to be the creation of a media system that would allow it to craft a message at Trump Tower or the White House and distribute it instantly through this burgeoning media machine via national cable on Fox, Sinclair’s network of local TV stations, the president’s Twitter following, and videos spread throughout social media,” I wrote on Aug. 11.

“Such an information infrastructure would not only serve as a bulwark against criticism of Trump in the mainstream media today, it could also become a mighty force for right-wing messaging across the board. Conservative politicians and donors have long decried the lack of such a media apparatus beyond Fox News.”

The power of Sinclair would be in having local, hometown anchors, who were known and trusted in the communities they served, mouthing the centrally crafted messages in lockstep.

I think that’s why this Deadspin montage exploded through the media the way it did. It showed visually and aurally what that would look and sound like — and it wasn’t pretty.

Publications like Esquire and New York Magazine used the word “propaganda” in headlines today to describe it.

Back in July, when I became convinced that I was seeing a messaging machine rising before my eyes, I used that word to describe what I feared with Sinclair naming Trump White House aide Boris Epshteyn chief political analyst and forcing its news-producing stations to carry his commentaries.

“Since joining Sinclair in April, Epshteyn has consistently parroted Team Trump’s position in ‘Bottom Line With Boris’ segments,” I wrote. “Some of his commentary has come as close to classic propaganda as anything I have seen in broadcast television in the last 30 years.”

That’s not “so funny,” Mr. President. Not so funny at all, if you care about democracy.

Scott Livingston, senior vice president for news at Sinclair, responded Sunday to a Sun request for comment on the video that went viral of anchors reading a scripted message. You can read that here.

Sinclair issued a statement on PR Newswire this afternoon.

"We aren't sure of the motivation for the criticism, but find it curious that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media, which result in an ill-informed public with potentially dangerous consequences," Livingston said in the statement.

"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. Our local stations keep our audiences' trust by staying focused on fact-based reporting and clearly identifying commentary."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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