There’s been a lot of talk this week about the script that news anchors, at stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, have been forced to read decrying “fake stories” and “biased reporting,” by their corporate overlords in Baltimore County, Md.
From cable news to social media, there’s been justifiable scorn heaped on this Orwellian exercise by a broadcasting behemoth that’s made no secret of its attempts to out-fox Fox News, and to curry favor with federal regulators as it attempts to expand its grasp nationwide.
If you’ve seen President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, you’ll know this effort has been a complete successful.
The videos are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s been widely reported that Sinclair-owned stations are often ordered to air “must-run” stories that have a decidedly rightward tilt.
Sinclair also provides a nationwide bully pulpit to former Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn, whose nakedly conservative commentaries are laughably branded “Bottom Line with Boris,” as if they’re free of partisan politics.
The scorn that’s been heaped on Sinclair this week has been entirely justified. But what largely is not justified is some of the heat that’s been directed at the broadcast journalists, who often look like they’re starring in a hostage video as they parrot beliefs they may not necessarily share.
The controversy has hit home in Harrisburg. Local station CBS-21 is a Sinclair-owned property.
There, anchors Robb Hanrahan and Jasmine Brooks were among the hundreds of local news journalists who, as Deadspin so aptly put it, have forcibly become foot soldiers in a Trumpian war on the press.
Like their colleagues nationwide, Brooks and Hanrahan hammered “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” even as they accused “some members of the media [of using] their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’ “
It’s painful to watch.
Now for some full disclosure: For the last 10 years, I’ve contributed regular commentary and analysis to “Face the State,” which is CBS-21’s Sunday morning news and public affairs show.
It’s a position that’s brought me into contact with some of Pennsylvania’s most important policy-makers. And it’s allowed me to offer my own take on the issues affecting Pennsylvania voters. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity.
And I’ve watched as Hanrahan, whose political beliefs I do not know, has probed Republican, Democratic and independent policymakers alike with equal intensity. None have skated because of the capital letter after their last names.
Over that decade, I’ve become good friends with the on-screen reporters and anchors, as well as with the off-screen video journalists and others, whose names you never see, but who still work long hours to bring you your local news every night.
Journalism, like most professions, is a painfully small business. It doesn’t take long before colleagues, and occasional competitive rivals, are cracking beers after work and laughing at the same jokes.
It’s the same as any other line of work.
So it’s been particularly painful and galling to watch as my friends, whom I know to be fiercely professional, and whom I know pride themselves on actually calling balls and strikes on public officials, get dragged into a controversy not of their making.
And I know that these professionals, inwardly, are recoiling from having to recite blather about “independence” and “fake stories” that actually serves to undermine their own independence as journalists.
It’s entirely justified to ask why these reporters aren’t refusing to participate and simply walking away from Sinclair-owned stations.
The answer, of course, is that they have contracts - and mortgages and bills and responsibilities just like the rest of us - that severely constrain their flexibility to act.
Still, don’t be surprised if you start seeing some new faces on Sinclair-owned outlets as reporters and anchors, bristling under the edicts of their employer, seek greener pastures elsewhere.
So judge Sinclair corporate harshly, if you want. And you should.
But also try to remember that these reporters, like my friends in Harrisburg, are now collateral damage in a larger fight.
And we as a profession, and, you, the audience of news consumers, loses as a result.