EDITOR's Note: Kelly Hawes is a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
So is Sinclair Broadcast Group standing up for honest journalism? Or is it shilling for a president who likes to shout “fake news” every time he sees a story he doesn’t like?
Such was the debate inspired by a Deadspin video showing news anchors at Sinclair-owned stations repeating an identical message about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”
“The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media,” the message says. “More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”
Deadspin seemed to have little doubt about the message’s intent, headlining its feature, “How America’s Largest Local TV Owner Turned Its News Anchors Into Soldiers In Trump’s War On The Media.”
Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s senior vice president of news, offered a different take in an email to the Baltimore Sun, saying the message was aimed at unsubstantiated stories that “move quickly across social media.”
“We are focused on fact-based reporting,” Livingston said. “That’s our commitment to our communities. That’s the goal of these announcements: to reiterate our commitment to reporting facts in a pursuit of truth. We consider it our honor and privilege to deliver the news each night. We seek the truth and strive to be fair.”
Few in the news business would argue with that sentiment.
“Seek the truth and report it” is a cornerstone of the code of ethics put forward by one of the nation’s pre-eminent journalism organizations, the Society of Professional Journalists.
The problem is the message comes from the same organization whose executive chairman, David Smith, has expressed a lack of trust for all of print journalism.
“Appreciate the interest in your wanting to do a story,” Smith wrote in an email declining an interview with New York magazine last fall, “but we don’t talk to the print media as a general principal as we find them to be so devoid of reality and serving no real purpose.”
He described print publications as “so left wing as to be meaningless dribble.” I’m guessing he meant “drivel,” but you get the idea.
Sinclair is the same company the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, bragged about striking a deal with to secure better campaign coverage. Livingston denies any favoritism, though, saying Sinclair offered the same opportunity to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Nonetheless, Justin Simmons, a morning producer at a Sinclair station in Nebraska, resigned last month, objecting to the company’s “obvious bias” and citing the fake news message as the last straw.
“This is almost forcing local news anchors to lie to their viewers,” he told CNN.
Former CBS news anchor Dan Rather also weighed in.
“News anchors looking into a camera and reading a script handed down by a corporate overlord, words meant to obscure the truth not elucidate it, isn’t journalism,” he said. “It’s propaganda. It’s Orwellian. A slippery slope to how despots wrest power, silence dissent, and oppress the masses.”
And then there’s the president himself, who shared his thoughts on Twitter.
“So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” he wrote. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
So who’s right? Were those messages attacking actual fake news, or were they attacking the sort of watchdog journalism the president finds so infuriating?
In the end, it’s up to all of us to reach our own conclusions. We decide whom to trust and where to turn for our news.