Media columnist David Zurawik on John Oliver take on local news owner Sinclair Broadcast Group. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)
John Oliver took on the Sinclair Broadcast Group Sunday night on his HBO show.
It wasn't his best work in terms of satire or the kind of outrage he can muster when some bit of hypocrisy or venality especially offends him. But the 18-minute segment deserves notice and the widest possible audience because Sinclair needs all the scrutiny we can give it. The company defines many of the sins of media consolidation, and it seems to be getting more aggressive than ever in injecting right-wing ideology into its newscasts.
I wasn't excited about Oliver introducing the segment by describing Sinclair as "maybe the most influential media company you never heard of."
There has been a lot of reporting on Sinclair over the years in this paper. That is surely due in part to Sinclair being based in Hunt Valley.
But in the last year or so, there has also been some solid reporting in publications like the Washington Post and New York Times, not exactly under-the-radar outlets. I am guessing quite a few people have heard of Sinclair in its rise to becoming one of the largest local station groups in the country. And there has been another flurry of coverage as it stands to get even bigger with the planned takeover of Tribune Media.
But maybe everyone overstates everything in the media these days, and I will acknowledge that many people don't know who owns the TV station they get their news from every night.
Whether you have or have not heard of Sinclair, there is still a lot to like in Oliver's report. His producers found the right clips to make some of his more important points come to life.
One of those points included a look at what Oliver said were "must-run" segments sent to all 173 Sinclair stations. There is a real power in seeing multiple clips of news anchors at several Sinclair stations voicing the same introduction on a report about former Trump cabinet official Michael Flynn, who resigned in the wake of revelations about his ties to Russia.
Anchor after anchor is shown asking, "Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russia investigation of President Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn?"
This is homogenization of the news with a heaping teaspoon of ideological slant.
Oliver's look at one story that appeared on a segment labeled "Terrorism Alert Desk" was also impressive. The story: Nine teenagers cut in half with a chainsaw by ISIS.
Oliver's researchers traced it to an anonymously sourced story on a service called Iraqi News. Oliver said his team could find no outlet that had independently confirmed it. Yet, there it was on a Sinclair station without any qualification, according to the clip in Oliver's report.