Interrogation

The Scariest Part of the Sinclair Story

CNN’s Brian Stelter on how local news is expanding “the alternative universe of information” that our president just loves.

Brian Stelter of CNN.
Brian Stelter
Screengrab from CNN.

Last month, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that Sinclair Broadcast Group, a telecom company that operates more stations than any other in the United States, was having its local news anchors read scripted promos bashing “fake news,” and mimicking some of President Trump’s complaints about the mainstream media. The story blew up over the weekend when Deadspin spliced together clips of various Sinclair anchors mouthing the same lines from corporate. This has led to pushback from local anchors, predictable support from the president, and concern about Sinclair’s reach and the future of local media.

To discuss the controversy, I recently spoke by phone with Stelter, CNN’s senior media correspondent and the host of the network’s Reliable Sources. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the scariest part of the Sinclair story, why he is skeptical about advertiser boycotts of cable news personalities, and whether Fox News has any standards.

Isaac Chotiner: What do you think is the most important part of all this, and what do you think the people that you talk to at Sinclair think is the most important part of it?

Brian Stelter: I think this topic is coming to a boiling point. The temperature has been rising for a while and it’s now very hot. Look at the history of Sinclair, going back decades. There were stories 15 years ago about the conservative bent of Sinclair’s management, but in the past year there’s been a lot more attention, and I think local staffers feel there’s been a lot more pressure to color the news a certain way.

In the past year [there have been] pro-Trump commentaries, national political segments, town-hall events produced by corporate and now these promos. With each of these the temperature has been rising and rising, creating more and more tension within newsrooms, creating more and more tension with management, and I think for some local journalists, these promos were a breaking point. Certainly a boiling point, and for some of these journalists a breaking point.

Is this a story about media consolidation? About propaganda and the news? About local news becoming part of the larger culture war? What is most interesting to you?

I think in some corners, there’s probably been an overreaction to Sinclair for the past year or so. There are some outlets that treat Sinclair like a huge boogeyman. But I’m more interested in what the staffers are saying: how they feel about the company, as opposed to what outsiders are feeling. So, to me, that’s where the story really lies.

So that does have to do with consolidation, and it has to do with what the company’s owners believe their mission is. I think what’s been lost in some of the coverage is that these are broadcast stations with public licenses to broadcast on the public airwaves. We’re not talking about a cable channel like Fox News. We’re talking about local stations that are licensed by the government. And as a result, I think many of us growing up were taught that companies with broadcast licenses have special responsibilities, special obligations. And it’s fair to ask if these stations are meeting these responsibilities.

What is your response to people who don’t think this is a huge deal and say, essentially, “Well, you can just change the channel.”

Yes, viewers can change the channel, but staffers of these stations can’t necessarily change jobs. They cannot necessarily jump to another station tomorrow. Some of them can, but if you’re a local anchor with a contract, and you feel like the mandates from management are becoming more and more inappropriate, you can’t just change your channel.

I think the other point about changing the channel is that in some of these markets, Sinclair owns two or three stations out of only a handful that are on the airwaves. The “change the channel” attitude, which I understand, is much more realistic in a big city like Washington than it is in a small market like … I’m afraid to say a market name because I don’t want to imply that’s where sources are coming from, so I’ll avoid that.

So, just to turn the subject a little bit: You spoke out against a boycott of Laura Ingraham after her interactions with one of the Parkland students, and you said that resolving all of our disputes this way is problematic. Why do you think that?

I’m not claiming to have all the answers on this. I just want us to consider the slippery slope of these boycotts. It’s as simple as that. I’d much rather hear what other people will have to say about it, but I do think this gets really messy really quickly. I would rather, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of thoughts about it. [Laughs.]

What is the slippery slope that you’re worried about, essentially? That we start taking extreme measures for political content we don’t like?

I don’t think it’s healthy for … I think it’s obvious where this goes, where this leads. Any liberal group tries to boycott a conservative news outlet’s advertisers. Then a conservative group does the same thing to a liberal network’s advertisers. So it’s Laura Ingraham today, it’s Lawrence O’Donnell tomorrow. Do we really want to end up with advertisers that only pitch their products to the left and other advertisers that only pitch their products to the right? Is that really where we want to end up? I don’t know, but I think it’s concerning.

I sort of agree with you but when you have a company like Fox News, where the normal checks and balances that would apply to a news organization don’t apply, this seems like one of the few avenues as opposed to writing a letter to the editor, or the other ways in which we approach a news organization, which I imagine would be operative at CNN or MSNBC or even the Wall Street Journal.

Fox has standards. Period. We may not like the standards, but Fox has standards. Just like every other outlet has standards. Laura Ingraham posted a stupid tweet. Twitter is not a Fox News product. She mouthed off. She made a mistake. She apologized. Is the right answer to have half her advertisers withdraw from her show? I guess David Hogg says yes.

I would say that if that was the only thing she did, then no. But if she were not—

But that is the prompt of the ad boycott.

I think it’s very hard to take that out of the context of what her show is every night. And you may say she has some standards, but the standards of accuracy and honesty on her show are not the same that I, for one, would like to see in a news organization. I don’t think you can separate out that larger conversation.

Fox’s primetime shows are a form of entertainment.

You’re making my point.

I wish they were properly labeled, but I think most members of the public recognize these are opinion talk shows that are designed to promote the Trump administration and entertain viewers with a clear point of view. Fox has standards. People may not like those standards. I don’t know. I really don’t have any interesting thoughts on this.

No, these are interesting thoughts.

They’re not at all. They’re not at all. I just—[Laughs]. I don’t want to end up in a marketplace where some advertisers only speak to MSNBC viewers and other advertisers only speak to Fox viewers because they’re afraid of ad boycotts. That is not a healthy thing. There’s so much about this marketplace that’s unhealthy already.

Like?

I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be frustrating, but we all know what’s unhealthy. Extreme polarization, negative partisanship, that’s what I mean.

I was going to say Fox not having standards, but I see your point.

I mean, of course Fox has standards. They have a news division. I mean, that’s silly to pretend like they don’t have a news division.

I’m not saying there are no standards on the network, but like Sean Hannity doesn’t really have standards.

I thought we were here to talk about Sinclair.

Well, we did talk about Sinclair. But let’s just go back to Sinclair for a second. I think that there’s this kind of fear that you see among people, particularly on the left right now, that we’re all going to become zombies following the propaganda from various networks. You seem less sympathetic to that argument. Is that in part about you having a television show, and how it has let you interact with viewers?

Your question makes me picture a buffet. I think news consumers are in front of a buffet, and they’re consuming all sorts of information from all sorts of places. What I try to encourage is a well-rounded diet, a well-balanced meal. I don’t think folks are starved for information. I think it’s the opposite, where we have so much access to so many sources. What we’re starved for is understanding of what’s true and what’s not true, what’s reliable and unreliable. So within that context, if you’re watching a Sinclair-owned station, or any other station, you want to know what you’re watching. It’s no different than a nutrition label.

Before you eat that Big Mac, you want to know what’s in it and how many calories it is. And the issue with Sinclair and these promos is that these local anchors are having to read the words of management and pretend like it’s their own message, pretend they believe it. And that’s the opposite of knowing what you’re watching, knowing where it’s coming from, and knowing if it’s high quality or not.

To bring this conversation full-circle, you said a lot of people know Fox’s television programs, or nightly news programs, are entertainment and they can appreciate it that way. Whereas, when you’re watching your local newscast on the public airwaves with your friendly local correspondent and they do a little promo read at the end of the show, that feels different than watching an hour of Sean Hannity or some other opinionated host.

Yeah, definitely. Definitely. That is why Sinclair is newsworthy right now. The commentaries by Boris Epshteyn, the weird segments about the deep state, the town halls, this is encroaching on local news time. And what I hear over and over again from staffers is that these dictates are chewing up local news time. If we only get 22 minutes for local news, and we have to spend some of it listening to Boris Epshteyn, is that really good for the local viewer in Nebraska, or Ohio, or Washington?

I go back to labeling. I go back to transparency. If Sinclair wants to position itself as the local version of Fox News, they should say so. But instead, these promos talk about trust and truth and accuracy and fact-checking. That’s why it’s a 2018 version of “fair and balanced.” A seemingly innocuous [phrase] that’s actually quite cynical. I guess they deserve points for being clever. I don’t know.

So, I was going to ask you what it’s like to be a news anchor when you might be chosen for a Cabinet spot at any moment.

Well, I would like to be assistant to the president for fact-checking.

The president’s fact-checker?

I’ll just proofread his tweets, just to make sure there are no more sorry mistakes and errors. But seriously on Sinclair and Trump, I mean I think one of the most important things this week is that Trump sided with Sinclair. Publicly gave his endorsement. He had not done that before. He had not given Sinclair a presidential thumbs up until this week. And of course he did it as a reaction to the news coverage of this controversy, but as we head into the midterm, and as Robert Mueller’s probe closes in on his inner circle, the president is pointing at certain outlets and saying, “You’re with me. You’re on my side.”

And I think it’ll have serious consequences. I mean, to me, that’s the most interesting thing about this is that this alternative universe of information is growing. It’s expanding. It’s not just Fox. It’s not just Hannity’s show. It’s Sinclair stations. He’s telling his fans which outlets to trust and which to reject.

The only reason the Sinclair message freaked people out, or resonated, or does whatever it does, is because we’ve already heard a version of it. That’s why it’s interesting. I mean, it’s funny the script that they read, if you read that completely out of context, it wouldn’t even be clear what the anchors are talking about.

It’s “Make America Great Again,” an innocuous phrase that everybody can get on board with, but when you pair “Make America Great Again” with immigrant-bashing, it has a different connotation.

You don’t even have to pair it right then. If the person who’s saying, “Make America Great Again” is, at different times, also bashing immigrants, then the whole thing takes on a different context.

And that’s one of the challenges of public life right now. And one of the challenges of journalism right now, is to understand the message behind the message, is to point out the … you’re smarter than me, what do you call that? I mean, there’s probably an academic term for this. I didn’t want to say it’s a dog whistle because this is so much bigger than just that particular concept. I guess it’s coded language, right? Coded language?

Well, it’s not that coded.

Well, right.

And not subtle. This isn’t like reading James Joyce and looking for the hidden meanings of something.

Right.

Thanks, Brian.

I was just getting warmed up.

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Isaac Chotiner is a Slate staff writer.