We knew this was coming.
When Sinclair announced that all stations in the company’s network, including ours, would be required to roll out a “Journalistic Responsibility Promo,” the mood at our station darkened. Our anchors were told in an email that the script they would read was a straightforward public service announcement about the dangers of biased news stories. But after we actually laid eyes on the script, many of us felt uncomfortable.
“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think,’” the anchors recited. “This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”
We hated the way the PSA bashed other news outlets and the way it insinuated that we were the only truthful news source — despite the rightward tilt our network has taken over the years. Our anchors privately said they felt like corporate mouthpieces, especially when they found out no edits of the script were permitted. Yet bosses made it clear that reading the message wasn’t a suggestion but an order from above.
It seemed like everyone knew all of this was a bad idea. We expected fallout. But we didn’t know how viral the promo would get until Friday, when an edited Deadspin video featuring the robotic voices of Sinclair anchors reciting the same script word for word exploded on our Twitter feeds. Our station’s Facebook page was inundated with angry messages denouncing our journalism, our station, and our employees.
We are journalists at one of the 193 local television stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media corporation with conservative and pro-Trump ties. We are writing this essay because we’re disturbed by the editorial direction our leadership is taking, and we want people to know that many of us at Sinclair reject what our company is doing. We’re writing this anonymously because if we spoke out under our names, we could lose our jobs — and potentially owe money to Sinclair.
It’s already an uncertain, strange time for journalists. Trust in the media is low. Right now, journalists need all the support they can get. This promo, despite the lip service it pays to “journalistic integrity,” encourages the opposite.
And just when we thought the bad publicity over the on-air editorial couldn’t get any worse, Donald Trump tweeted:
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
For many of us, that was the death knell. The perception among much of the public was that Sinclair was Trump TV. Now it felt like that perception was a reality. Had Trump’s seal of approval put us in the same camp as Infowars and Fox News? This was a place many Sinclair journalists never expected, or wanted, to be in.
A station we’ve cared about for many years has been stripped of its credibility. The station lost longtime viewers — and respect from the community, its most important asset.
And we Sinclair employees have lost respect for our jobs.
Disconcerting content from the company didn’t start with this promo
Most of the time, we don’t feel like we work for Sinclair — we feel like local journalists who cover what’s going on in our communities. Our corporate leaders don’t influence our local stories.
They do feed us a stream of conservative-leaning nationally focused content. Sinclair recently produced a multi-part series on immigrants in Sweden, for instance, and the many alleged “issues” the country experienced as a result. Commentary by a former Trump aide, Boris Epshteyn, which runs under the title “Bottom Line With Boris,” now airs on many Sinclair stations multiple times a week, often boiling down topics to a simple message: “Donald Trump is right and Democrats are wrong.” When the Eagles won the Super Bowl, Epshteyn complained about athletes who refused to visit the White House.
Every time we have to hear Epshteyn’s catchphrase, “The bottom line is this,” we feel a little queasy. It makes us want to apologize to the people watching and tell them we wish we didn’t have to run this.
The tone of Sinclair’s national news stories has slowly become more slanted. We’ve gone from unusually aggressive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails to reporting on the so-called “deep state.” Sinclair pushes a daily segment that tracks terrorist-related incidents around the world. It feels like Sinclair management is turning up the heat on pro-Trump content, and we, the journalists at this station, are the frogs in the pot.
If we could escape that pot by quitting, we would do it tomorrow. But it isn’t that easy.
Under a clause that appears in many contracts (as Bloomberg News has reported), if an employee quits, he or she could end up owing the company thousands of dollars. The penalty for breaking a contract is a payment to Sinclair of part of the employee’s annual salary, based on a complex formula. That’s money most employees simply don’t have. It’s a decision between possibly going bankrupt or sticking it out for another X number of years. (When asked for comment by the Huffington Post, a Sinclair spokesperson said, “Liquidated damages are standard in our industry.”)
Faced with the choice between possible unemployment and staring into a camera to read this script, many chose to swallow hard and read it.
We feel for the dozens of anchors who appeared in the promo. We didn’t have to read the script on camera. Hardworking journalists, many of whom were beloved by their communities, are now picking up the pieces of their reputations. Their faces are plastered all over the Internet, people calling them shills, bobbleheads, and puppets.
We know some anchors tried to resist, but for many reasons, they felt pressured to read it. They had families to support. They literally couldn’t afford to quit. (A Sinclair spokesperson told the Huffington Post, “No one was told their job was on the line.”)
The fact that the editorial has gone viral probably makes many of them anxious and uncomfortable. While we’re sympathetic, we think anyone involved with the promo should feel uncomfortable. Maybe news directors, anchors, and producers did what they had to do, but now they should be asking themselves some questions. They should be questioning their values, as well as the industry they work in and the company that put them in this position.
So far, it doesn’t seem like Sinclair is backing down
We’d like to think Sinclair will learn something from this, that they will admit they made a mistake, apologize to their employees and viewers, and take actions to rebuild trust with both. We’d love to see a public pledge from Sinclair that no station in their network has to run anything it doesn’t want to.
But it doesn’t seem like that’s the plan.
In a response to the media, Sinclair wrote, “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.”
To them, everyone is wrong. Every media outlet who reports on them is out to get them. Right now, it looks like they’re just going to charge ahead, cry “fake news,” and hope this goes away.
We wonder who they got that from.