American journalism is in a strange state these days. We all (readers, editors, and writers) know it. We all have been grappling with the seismic changes that have shaped media in recent years—technological, ideological, economic, and geographical. But we don’t all agree on what’s wrong with journalism and we can’t figure out what the profession ought to look like going forward.
This has become exceedingly clear over the last few days as a video montage of several local broadcast stations belonging to Sinclair Broadcast Group went viral. Sinclair owns nearly 200 television stations in the United States, more than any other media company, and is seeking to acquire more. In the words of NPR, the company has “long been criticized for pushing conservative coverage and commentary onto local airwaves.”
Much of this criticism remained out of the national spotlight, until news anchors were required by Sinclair to read a particular script on air, one that sought to rebuke the national news media and the spread of fake news:
I’m [we are] extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that [proper news brand name of local station] produces. But I’m [we are] concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country.
The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, national media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’ … This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.
We understand Truth is neither politically “left or right.” Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.
Some of the statements in the above script seem obvious and uncontroversial. The sharing of biased or false news on social media has become a problem, as any who have followed Facebook’s 2016 election struggles can attest. Many news stories get published that are irresponsible and one-sided. This tendency toward bias isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon; it’s something journalists have struggled with since the dawn of time. But as news becomes a 24/7 cycle of hot takes and quick write-ups, it does seem to be growing ever more present in—and perhaps influential upon—Americans’ minds.
Nonetheless, a couple sentences in the above script are incendiary and concerning—particularly the bit that alleges “some members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’” Statements such as these are two-edged swords, which condemn the accuser even as they are in the act of accusation: when you say that unnamed members of the national media are seeking to control what their consumers think, isn’t that a way of controlling what your own audience thinks or believes about the national media? “Some members” becomes an opaque, stereotyping blanket, spread indiscriminately over thousands of well-intentioned and hardworking journalists. What’s more, because this accusation is lobbed at the underlying intentions of the reporter instead of at specific actions or the quality of the product, it’s extremely difficult to verify, defend, or refute.
This sort of rhetoric is by no means new. It has lived on talk radio shows for years, employed by hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage to remind their listeners that there is no one who is trustworthy—outside of their own immaculately reliable programs, of course. The danger of this rhetoric is that it doesn’t urge listeners to “trust, but verify,” or even to verify then trust. Instead, it suggests that the national media are too cunning and crafty to be entertained or trusted at all.
There seem to be two primary camps of thought when it comes to the state of American news media. The first sees the nation’s leading news outlets—such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Time—as credible and reliable sources of information in a dark political time (“democracy dies in darkness”). American journalism’s greatest problem in the minds of these critics lies in the rise of grassroots media that publish incendiary stories for the masses, such as Breitbart and Drudge Report. This camp disapproves of social media’s tendency to enclave humanity within ideological bubbles, but that disapproval primarily targets those whose political bubbles involve Russian fake news stories about Pope Francis and Hillary Clinton, and is less condemning towards its own online sociopolitical echo chamber.
The second camp allies itself with Donald Trump in seeing “fake news” as a proper descriptor for nearly all national media outlets: from broadcast stations like MSNBC and CNN, to the Gray Lady and the Los Angeles Times. To these skeptics, decentralized grassroots outlets offer more truth than their elitist counterparts in Washington, D.C. and New York City.
This second camp holds less elite credibility or support, but its complaints aren’t entirely unfounded. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver and Politico both reported last year, the national news media is largely clustered in bubbles throughout the United States. “Concentrated heavily along the coasts, the bubble is both geographic and political,” Politico’s Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty report. “If you’re a working journalist, odds aren’t just that you work in a pro-Clinton county—odds are that you reside in one of the nation’s most pro-Clinton counties. …So when your conservative friends use ‘media’ as a synonym for ‘coastal’ and ‘liberal,’ they’re not far off the mark.”
Is this consolidation resulting in poorer—or at least less balanced—reporting? It could be. In a piece published last week for The Week, Matthew Walther suggests that breathless national coverage of Donald Trump—on everything from “covfefe” to the Russia investigation to Stormy Daniels—has failed to offer readers any sense of perspective or scale. It’s not that these stories aren’t important; it’s that some are more important than others, but all get painted with the same intensely dramatic brush. It’s also that some (less sensational) stories get buried when they don’t easily feature Trump as the villain. As a result, many news consumers are tuning out, while many others are growing increasingly suspicious of the whole spectacle.
“It is just possible, I suppose, that members of my profession could have exercised their reasoning faculties to decide what in the administration was good, what was bad, what was unremarkable or indistinguishable…what was painfully idiotic, what was, perhaps, evil,” Walther writes. “We chose not to exercise this responsibility. Instead we decided to indulge in our live-action roleplaying fantasies about being brave selfless journos taking on a mean demagogue because we love the Constitution so much.”
In many ways, this media battle—left versus right, establishment versus populist, city versus rural—reflects our growing political divide. Only one arena of consensus has appeared to remain amidst this vitriolic battle: most of us have continued to cite our confidence in local news media.
The reasons for this are pretty obvious. Local news can get messy and divisive, but it’s usually quite practical. It’s grounded in fact and circumstance, to a degree the abstracted nature of our national political conversations cannot be. What’s more, a lot of local news stations and newspapers feel a deep sense of responsibility to their communities. They get regular feedback from readers and watchers, and spend time out on the street talking to people and reporting on stories. There is less separation between them and their audience than there might be between the average Politico correspondent and his or her readership. This helps grow a sense of trust and accountability.
But what happens as small to midsize newspapers and media stations go out of business, or look to groups like Sinclair for financial backing? It seems that the primary problem with Sinclair is not any attempt to influence local stories, but rather in its trying to refocus our attention—once again—on the national and on the partisan.
While all of us in the media struggle with bias—something we’ve struggled with for generations—we are also increasingly grappling with a lack of independence, the potential impact of which is far from obvious. It is depressing to think that all these news stations, whose audiences probably believe them to be independent, were handed scripts by sponsors with strong national partisan ties. In so doing, Sinclair threatened the one journalistic arena in which some confidence and hope remained.
Independence isn’t just a local problem, however. It’s a national one, too. Sinclair has become a monolithic force in the local broadcasting world because of the collapse of independently owned local and midsize institutions. At the national level, publications are looking to wealthy donors or owners (such as Jeff Bezos) to keep themselves afloat. The best such benefactors will prize their publications’ independence. Some, however, are likely to use their financial clout to suggest—or even enforce—a certain editorial line. (What’s more, the bubble-intensive nature of national news media makes them much more susceptible to self-policing and groupthink enforcement.)
Personal bias is almost impossible to eliminate. I think most Americans have accepted this, and understand that the news they read will be (at least somewhat) influenced by the context, background, and beliefs of the reporters and editors involved.
But what about media independence: the ability of a reporter or publication to step away from some partisan, publication, or company line? Will that also disappear?
Hopefully not. Hopefully Sinclair scrutiny will prompt us to ask deeper questions about the independence and fairness of multiple media outlets, not just the ones that suit our ideological proclivities. Hopefully it will urge us to seek out (and encourage) more thoughtful, practical, and local conversations. Hopefully it will give us a greater understanding of the perils of political and geographical bubbles, large and small.
Because if not, we could devolve into a “fake news” battle that never ends.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.