Liberal Column

Why nonpartisan local TV is crucial for healthy public discourse in the Sinclair era

Casey Russell | Head Illustrator

Liberal columnist Kyle Smith argues that local television stations may seem irrelevant in the internet age but are still prominent media sources that should be free form partisan influence.

Boris Epshteyn is a journalist to the naked eye. He stands with the stature and authority of an anchorman, and is labeled as Sinclair Broadcast Group’s chief political analyst. But he’s not the news anchor he appears to be. He’s President Donald Trump’s former campaign adviser.

Epshteyn’s made his mark by spreading right-wing propaganda on Sinclair’s television waves, which reach more people in the United States than any other broadcast company. He’s just one small chunk of Sinclair’s “news” machine. From terrorism alert desks to outright “fake news,” Sinclair is crafting a growing web of propaganda, and Syracuse is just one of its victims.

If a proposed merger with Tribune Media is approved, Sinclair — which currently owns or operates 173 television stations across the country, according to The New York Times — would add 42 stations in spots across the country.

In the internet age, local news broadcasts often seem irrelevant — a constant broadcast for just the eyes of the elderly and indifferent. But these channels have historically served as the workplace for experienced, community-oriented journalists to share locally relevant information not found on a national broadcast.

And Americans are still watching. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, 46 percent of people watch the local television — a larger percentage than those watching cable or network newscasts. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Pew reported that 7 percent of all voters used local television as their main campaign news source, coming in fourth to Fox News (19 percent), CNN (13 percent) and Facebook (8 percent).

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Andy Mendes | Digital Design Editor

Sinclair executives knew the power of local news, and manipulated it into a stream of misinformation used to further Trump’s campaign message. That campaign proved successful.

Sinclair’s rise has been a concern for Keren Henderson, an assistant professor of broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Henderson’s concern stems from Sinclair’s requirement that local news teams air segments created by Sinclair representatives themselves. This content often has a remarkable conservative bias. This practice, Henderson said, is unlike anything she has seen in her career as a local news producer.

“Newsrooms have traditionally been independent of the company that owns them in terms of what they produce,” she said. “Never once did a news director say to me, ‘Here are the words to use in your broadcast.’”

Henderson emphasized just how dangerous it is for corporate ownership to push politically motivated content. National media can outline Sinclair’s far-right agenda all it wants, but the average viewer will likely still see it as fact.

Out of the four major networks in the Syracuse region, Sinclair operates two: CBS 5 and NBC 3. It also owns CW 6. “Operates” is a key word, as Federal Communications Commission regulations prevent Sinclair from owning all these stations and theoretically dominating all the stations in one area. Unfortunately, there’s an easy loophole to those regulations Sinclair has been pioneering since 1991.

“They can make a business agreement with another company, which is that the other company on paper owns the station but Sinclair will operate their product,” Henderson said.

In this case, operating its product means operating its content.

These problems are a result of a cascade of FCC deregulation over the past several decades.

Deregulation has allowed Sinclair to expand to its current nation-spanning breadth. But Sinclair’s reach wouldn’t be so problematic if it didn’t blatantly disregard the journalistic integrity of local TV newscasts.

We live in a time of unprecedented political partisanship, with radical ideologies seeping into public discourse. And Syracuse is no stranger to this hateful dialogue. In June, a large group organized a “March Against Sharia, which was essentially an anti-Muslim rally, in front of the downtown James M. Hanley Federal Building.

Sinclair’s broadcasts only further these radical ideas. To combat the bias and the hatred it incites, we must treat those who hold these ideas not as fools to be shamed, but rather as the victims of manipulation by a company that projected anger and fear to make them think — and vote — in the way that company desired.

Epshteyn, the man on the monitor, found his way to Syracuse airwaves after he befriended Eric Trump in college, per the Times, abruptly resigned from the White House communications office in March, and was subsequently hired by Sinclair as its senior political analyst. Now, Epshteyn is under investigation as part of the congressional probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

In 2016, Trump’s son-in-law and political aide, Jared Kushner, said the Trump campaign struck a deal with Sinclair that expanded Sinclair’s access to the campaign and granted the campaign more positive coverage. Sinclair has denied these claims.

Just a few minutes of these broadcasts reveal Sinclair’s obvious pro-Trump agenda, but maybe it isn’t that way for everyone.

According to Pew, those who are most likely to vote in local elections and engage in civic life have a strong connection to local news, including television. That means they’re getting helping after helping of “fake news” and believing it. False information displayed as truth warps our understanding of political issues, distorts our democracy and may even influence presidential campaigns.

Local television is still very important to the way our country speaks to itself. Local journalists must still be viewed as the pillars of their communities, and not agents of manipulation by our government. Certainly, if we desire a return to a healthy community dialogue, Americans must start as a community to retake control of their shared public airwaves.

Kyle Smith is a third-year environmental studies major. His column appears biweekly. You can reach him at kasmi102@syr.edu.

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