America’s Very Own Pravda

By now, most readers of this blog have probably read about Sinclair Media’s latest excursion into disinformation: the company required the local anchors of its stations to deliver an identical “editorial” warning viewers to be aware of “biased news.”

On local news stations across the United States last month, dozens of anchors gave the same speech to their combined millions of viewers.

It included a warning about fake news, a promise to report fairly and accurately and a request that viewers go to the station’s website and comment “if you believe our coverage is unfair.

Seemingly innocuous. But the video director at Deadspin had read a report from CNN that quoted local station anchors uncomfortable with the speech. (I initially wondered none of them objected or refused–then Doug Masson posted a provision from the standard, punitive Sinclair employment contract…)

Deadspin stitched together the broadcasts, creating a tapestry of anchors reciting the same lines in unison: it was eery.

Most Americans had never previously heard of Sinclair. Unlike Fox, which is well-known to be a propaganda arm for the GOP and Donald Trump, Sinclair has flown beneath the radar. As the Guardian put it,

Most Americans don’t know it exists. Primetime US news refers to it as an “under-the-radar company”. Unlike Fox News and Rupert Murdoch, virtually no one outside of business circles could name its CEO. And yet, Sinclair Media Group is the owner of the largest number of TV stations in America.

“Sinclair’s probably the most dangerous company most people have never heard of,” said Michael Copps, the George W Bush-appointed former chairman of Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the top US broadcast regulator….

More recently, Sinclair has added a website, Circa, to its portfolio. But not any old website. Circa has been described as “the new Breitbart” and a favorite among White House aides who wish to platform news to a friendly source (a process otherwise known as “leaking”). As the US news site the Root put it: “What if Breitbart and Fox News had a couple of babies? What if they grew up to be a cool, slicker version of their parents and started becoming more powerful? Meet Sinclair and Circa –Donald Trump’s new besties.”

Sinclair is a major media presence, and it is trying to become even more influential by acquiring another 42 stations from Tribune Media. If the FCC approves that 3.9 billion dollar purchase, Sinclair will reach nearly three-quarters of Americans. The current head of the FCC, the former Verizon executive who led the repeal of Net Neutrality, is an obedient Trump henchman, seen as likely to bend the rules that would otherwise disallow the sale.

Sinclair makes no bones about its political agenda. It forces its local stations to run pro-Trump “news” segments. Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign spokesman, is Sinclair’s chief political analyst., and the “must-run” political commentary segments echo Trump.

The news and analysis website Slate, referring to Epshteyn’s contributions, said: “As far as propaganda goes, this is pure, industrial-strength stuff.”

In a recent column for the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg compared Trump’s unremitting attacks on the mainstream press and his characterizations of uncongenial reporting as “fake news”  to similar behaviors by autocrats in Turkey and Russia.

Meanwhile, Trump uses his platform to praise obsequious outlets like Sinclair Broadcast Group, which ordered news anchors on its nearly 200 local television stations to record Trump-style warnings about fake news: “Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’” After Deadspin produced a creepy viral video of Sinclair anchors reading their script in totalitarian unison, Trump came to the company’s defense, tweeting, “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

Sinclair’s regime-friendly propaganda, which seems meant to erode trust in competing sources of information, is also familiar from other nations that have slid into authoritarianism.

Those of us who live in Indiana still remember Mike Pence’s effort to establish an “official” state news bureau–an effort that collapsed after critics dubbed it “Pravda on the Prairie.”

Propaganda and efforts to control the news are at the very core of the rot that infects this administration. Outlets like Fox and Sinclair are the willing tools through which they disseminate their Newspeak.