Watching from Australia, it’s easy to dismiss the mandatory comment read by US newsreaders of stations of the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group as just another bizarre chapter in the era of “fake news” wars.
It should, however, feel somewhat familiar. Our very own News Corp has employed these strategies: using local voices to push a national (or international) agenda, the treatment of other media as the enemy and market penetration built on a politically aligned brand. And having learnt from Murdoch, Sinclair is now testing just how far it can push.
In typical Murdoch style, the mandatory commentary (read from an identical script by anchors across multiple Sinclair-owned news organisations) met twin goals: it advanced the company’s political agenda while gently elbowing the Republican regulators whose favour they seek.
The moment indicates the point when the political influence of local station owners threatens to become more significant than the national networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox), as local TV becomes the dominant voice for local news, in both old and new media. It comes as a major Knight Foundation report concluded that small TV news stations are becoming dominant in local news — both on the air and through their websites — particularly in smaller communities.
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Ownership in the US has consolidated. With almost 200 stations, Sinclair is already the largest and is seeking approval (from largely Republican appointees) to finalise the purchase of a further 45 stations from Tribune Media (currently the fifth largest).
This will position Sinclair almost unchallenged in free-to-air, broadcasting to three-quarters of Americans, even though the US Federal Communications Commission rules restrict ownership reach to no more than 39%. In filings with the FCC, Sinclair proposes pulling from the Murdoch playbook by selling ownership of about ten stations (reportedly to the Fox Remnant Co) while keeping control through operating agreements.
Although station ownership and network affiliation is not necessarily aligned (unlike Australia), more Sinclair stations are affiliated with Fox than with any of the other three networks. The same with the Tribune stations.
Sinclair has always been open about its politics. It has long provided conservative “editorials” for inclusion in local news, and was a strong supporter of Trump in the 2016 election. In 2004, it associated itself with Stolen Honour, a “documentary” attacking the war record of Democrat John Kerry.
Its governance is more undemocratic than the Murdoch companies: the four sons of founder Julian Sinclair Smith own 97% of the unlisted A stock, giving them absolute control, even though they only own one third of the economic equity. The Murdochs own 39% of voting shares in News Corp and 17% of equity.
The union representing the anchors required to read the script, SAG-AFTRA, criticised Sinclair for the directive. However, the contractual arrangements for anchors under US law significantly restrain them from refusing the directive. Breach of contract can bring far heavier financial penalties than would be possible under Australian law and they would be blocked from working for other organisations.
Nonetheless, the gossip is that the anchors are angry at the way their credibility was used (and mocked in the Deadspin mash-up) and that line managers are privately apologising.
Murdoch watchers would not have been surprised by the use of local voices to promote a national and corporate agenda (Iraq war, anyone?). Back in the 1970s in Australia, and in the UK in the 1980s, a rising News Corp fractured the charming conceit of a more gentile age encapsulated in that old Fleet Street belief that “dog don’t eat dog”.
In seeking market advantage by promoting a conservative — even Trumpian — voice, Fox has always spoke in a “Fair and Balanced” code. Sinclair shows that’s old hat, picking up the Trumpet to replace the dog whistle.