Last Week Tonight takes a look at Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the biggest and most powerful names in television and your local news.
This particular episode of Last Week Tonight may at first seem like a snooze fest. I mean, who wants to hear all about the “corporate consolidation of local news”, even if it is delivered by John Oliver?
As it turns out, however, this is potentially a big deal. First, more people watch local news than cable news on any given weeknight. More people tend to watch TV for their news, and more often do so via local news broadcasts than not. In addition, local news stations are more likely to gain the trust of their viewers than nearly any other source.
Plus, local news fills an important role. Do you think Anderson Cooper is going to report on that bear someone found in their yard last weekend? Or will Fox News cover your local city council election?
Hopefully, nothing that exciting is happening in your community elections to garner national attention. Still, it’s important to know what’s happening in your own neighborhood. Hence, the importance of local news.
So, what’s John Oliver’s problem? It’s not your friendly newscasters or the goofy human interest segments. It’s not even station management.
Rather, it’s a larger and less-recognized issue: Sinclair Broadcast Group.
“Sinclair may be the most influential media company that you’ve never heard of”, said Oliver. Right now, it’s the largest owner of local TV stations in the U.S.. It stands to get bigger sometimes soon, with Sinclair’s $4 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. Though this merger still needs regulatory approval, it’s almost certainly going to go through. Once it does, Sinclair will head the largest group of TV stations in the United States.
Political bias in your local news
This is an issue because Sinclair has no real pretensions to journalistic neutrality. Indeed, said Oliver, it has a “noticeably conservative” bend.
For example, Sinclair produces its own commentary segments and distributes them to local news. Mark Hyman, one such commentator, was featured on Oliver’s show, with gems such as “there is one step that is proven to dramatically reduce domestic violence: marriage”, “I am now a proud Washington Redskins fan”, and “the opinion that only black people can legitimately have an afro? Someone should tell that to American folk singer Art Garfunkel”.
“What are you talking about?,” exclaimed Oliver. “As Paul Simon once said: there’s no need to involve Art Garfunkel in any of this”.
It doesn’t stop with Hyman, however. Sinclair has also hired Boris Epstein, who’s a former Trump adviser, as a commentator. He’s got a segment called “Bottom Line with Boris”.
Even Sinclair’s ad breaks are questionable. The broadcasting group pulled an inaccurate ad produced by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Which is good, to be fair. If a claim is inaccurate, it should be retracted as soon as possible. That is simply good journalism.
Yet the same Pittsburgh station later aired a 25-minute attack ad on Democrats. This segment actually claimed that Obama’s campaign was funded by terrorist group Hamas. This occurred all while desaturated images played over some seriously cloying soap opera music.
So, while Sinclair isn’t ostensibly Fox News, it is often “injecting Fox-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors”. While practically everyone knows what they’re getting into when they turn on the conservative cable channel, local news is another issue altogether.
Perhaps most surprising is the reveal of “must-run” segments. These are scripts and segments produced directly by Sinclair, which stations are obligated to run. Both Hyman and Epstein’s segments are mandatory “must-runs”, as are a series of polls and a feature called “Terrorism Alert Desk”.
By the way, Terrorism Alert Desk runs daily and apparently doesn’t have the budget or interest for fact checkers. One segment featured a story about a frankly horrifying claim that young adults were being killed with chainsaws in Mosul, Iraq.
Last Week Tonight tried to track down the story, only finding it in an unverified source called “Iraqi News”. No individual or recognized news source has independently verified the story. Even Breitbart had used the word “reportedly” when talking about it. Yet, Terrorism Alert Desk reported the story as if it were unassailable fact.
Now, some Sinclair stations are fighting back however they can. The Seattle KOMO station airs Terrorism Alert Desk at times like 4:54 a.m. “But,” said Oliver, “the truth is, if you work at a Sinclair station, there is only so much you can do”.
What can you, the potential viewer, do? You could do a little investigating yourself and learn just who owns your local station. Beyond that, it’s not entirely clear. Right now, it may be that your best defense is being aware of bias of any political bent in your local news.
Quick reminder: this will be the last Last Week Tonight until July 30. Be sure to tune back in here for more coverage at the end of this month.