TV broadcasting board

Here’s what happens when one corporation owns countless TV stations

In a curious turn of events in March 2018, local television news stations across the United States witnessed a phenomenon that raised eyebrows among viewers and media observers alike. Anchors in cities from Seattle to Phoenix to Washington delivered an identical scripted message to their combined millions of viewers. This script has since been dubbed “Sinclair’s script”.

This scripted message, denouncing media bias and spreading fake news while emphasizing a commitment to fair and accurate reporting, might appear innocuous on the surface. However, it was anything but ordinary. All of these news anchors were part of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s largest broadcaster, which owns or operates a staggering 193 television stations.

A Changing Landscape of Local News

To understand the significance of Sinclair’s script, we must discuss the evolving landscape of local television stations in the United States. Gone are the days when these stations were predominantly independent, locally-owned businesses. The 1970s ushered in a new era where station groups, like Tribune Media, Nexstar, Tegna, and most notably, Sinclair, began acquiring multiple stations across different cities with varying network affiliations.2

The rationale behind this shift lies in the ability to capitalize on new technologies and achieve economies of scale. Centralizing tasks such as advertising management and graphics design became the norm, significantly altering local news operations. However, what Sinclair did with its scripted news segments diverged from this norm. Unlike other station groups, Sinclair provided news scripts and mandated local stations to deliver them, a practice that appeared to contravene U.S. broadcast policy.

Sinclair’s Script: Beyond Partisan Lines

While much of the controversy surrounding Sinclair’s script has centered on allegations of partisan bias, the heart of the matter goes deeper. Sinclair’s approach seemingly contradicts the principles enshrined in U.S. broadcast policy. The policy emphasizes the role of local stations in serving their geographic communities and provides them the latitude to reject content offered by national networks.

The debate about political leaning aside, Sinclair’s imposition of scripted messages from a national station group raises fundamental questions about the public good. It prompts concerns about a single corporate entity pushing a specific agenda to a significant portion of the country, undermining the principles U.S. broadcast policy was designed to safeguard.

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A Closer Look at Sinclair’s Script & Practices

Sinclair’s influence extends beyond scripted messages. The company regularly sends what it calls “must-run” segments to the stations it owns, covering a range of topics from terrorism updates to commentaries in support of President Trump. While the content may vary, the requirement for local newscasters to present this material themselves sets Sinclair apart from its peers.

However, it’s essential to note that Sinclair has defended its practices as a commitment to reporting facts and ensuring the integrity of information dissemination. The company argues that false stories can have dangerous consequences, citing the Pizzagate conspiracy as an example.

The Industry’s Response and Public Perception

The revelations about Sinclair’s script sparked public outrage and prompted reactions within the media industry. Critics accused the company of using its stations to advance a predominantly right-leaning agenda, a claim Sinclair has denied. Some news anchors were reportedly unhappy about the scripted message, but employees at certain stations felt constrained from discussing the matter with external news media.

In contrast to Sinclair, other media organizations have also used scripted messages for promotional purposes, albeit with varying degrees of partisanship. For instance, with nearly 100 million U.S. households in its viewership, CNN launched a self-promotional campaign making a similar point to Sinclair’s scripted message.3 Such campaigns emphasize the need for objective reporting and are commonplace in today’s media landscape.

The Debate over Media Ownership

Beyond the specific content of Sinclair’s script, the controversy highlights broader issues regarding media consolidation and ownership. Sinclair’s efforts to expand its reach, including a proposed $3.9 billion deal to acquire Tribune Media, have raised concerns about the concentration of media power and its potential consequences for democratic discourse.

The saga of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s scripted messages is a multifaceted reflection of the evolving media landscape in the United States. Beyond the partisan divides and controversies, it underscores fundamental questions about the role of local news stations, media conglomerates’ influence, and information dissemination’s integrity.

The intersection of media ownership, consolidation, and journalistic independence has come to the forefront of public discourse. Sinclair’s unprecedented approach, mandating local stations to deliver scripted content, raises concerns about corporate influence on local journalism and challenges the principles outlined in U.S. broadcast policy.

As we navigate an era marked by increasing polarization and technological advancements, it is crucial to scrutinize the dynamics shaping our media ecosystem. The Sinclair script serves as a stark reminder that the freedom of the press, a cornerstone of democracy, requires vigilant protection. In an era where information is power, ensuring that diverse voices and perspectives continue to thrive is paramount. The debate triggered by Sinclair’s scripted messages serves as a call to action for media organizations, regulators, and the public to reaffirm their commitment to a vibrant, unbiased free press.

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  1. Why Sinclair Made Dozens of Local News Anchors Recite the Same ScriptCNBC. Jacey Fortin( New York Times)
  2. Why are Sinclair’s scripted news segments such a big deal?.” The Conversation. April 4, 2018.
  3. Seriously? Don’t freak out about Sinclair Broadcasting.” USA Today. Jonah Goldberg. April 4, 2018.