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Matt Laslo Sinclair's 'fake news' script put its viewers' trust in their local news at risk

Americans have more faith their local news outlets than any source of information. Politicizing that is dangerous.

 / Updated 
Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.'s headquarters stands in Hunt Valley, Maryland on Oct. 12, 2004.Steve Ruark / AP file
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Local news outlets are trusted in part because of proximity: When your local anchor describes the world, it’s the world you know and see on a daily basis. That four alarm fire doesn’t grab your attention only because of the bright flames escaping the windows, licking the roof and threatening neighboring structures; it grabs your attention because there’s that taco joint you love just around the corner or you went to grade school in the same neighborhood.

And when local anchors discuss politics, they usually subscribe to former House Speaker Tip O'Neill’s oft-quoted bedrock principle: "All politics is local." That’s why when you flip on your local news, you know you’re going to hear about the competitive local congressional races in your area and the fight between the school board and the teachers union, or even the local sheriff or judicial contest that would never make national cable news but that will likely have a bigger impact on your day-to-day life than whatever happens in Washington in a given year.

Polls continuously reveal that, though Americans evince a deep mistrust in the nation’s increasingly partisan national media outlets, local news outlets remain some of the nation’s most trusted sources of information, seemingly because of their local focus and objective coverage.

 The web site Deadspin released a video of news anchors who work for stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group all reading a promo about fake news that is similar to lines used by the president. Deadspin

But the independent, hyper-local focus of more than 190 TV stations is under fire these days, because executives from the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns those outlets, are playing puppet master from their executive suites in Maryland and dictating that their anchors read or producers play some right-wing content in places as far away as Seattle, Palm Beach and Portland, Maine — and seemingly everywhere in between.

Sinclair has been getting negative press for their actions after Deadspin compiled a chilling video of anchors from around the country behaving more like robots than thinking, breathing local reporters as they recited the same corporate-approved script aimed at undermining trust in some of the nation’s other longstanding news organizations.

While Sinclair actions and broad reach are only turning some people's heads just now, they’ve been quietly amassing local stations for years. Their expansive reach now has them in some 40 percent of U.S. households, and they’ve proposed buying Tribune Media Group for $3.9 billion which would add about another 40 stations to its impressive roster of local TV stations.

Much like spiritual leaders are the backbones of their neighborhoods, local anchors bind their communities together.

The decidedly pro-Trump leaning of Sinclair and the other conservative commentaries they force their stations to run — including nightly terrorism alerts, even when there are no terrorist plots to which they can alert viewers — is suddenly turning viewers off from coast to coast.

But where do you turn when you can’t trust your local TV anchor? There aren’t a lot of options for the many people who have grown up with their local stations and who view those anchors as a part of their own family.

Much like spiritual leaders are the backbones of their neighborhoods, local anchors bind their communities together. They’re there with your family as you gather around to watch the local holiday extravaganza on Christmas Eve, or they’re with you for the Thanksgiving morning parade as your turkey is just starting to drip in the pan before your relatives arrive (when there’s still a semblance of sanity in your home).

No one wants to spend a holiday with a TV anchor who just the other day recited a script raising the false specter of "fake news" or who alerted you to some terrorism incident that never occurred.

Whether you’re a liberal, conservative or independent, you don’t want to have those sacred moments with family and friends bastardized by national politics. No one wants to spend a holiday with a TV anchor who just the other day recited a script raising the false specter of "fake news" or who alerted you to some terrorism incident that never occurred.

The scripts these anchors are being forced to read by their corporate bosses are turning these formerly-trusted anchors into the boys and girls who cried wolf, and the public is taking notice —which puts those reporters' personal credibility (and that of their stations) at risk.

By inserting politics into the mouths of some of the most trusted people in local communities, Sinclair is doing a disservice to the fabric of the nation. It’s like serving pumpkin pie on the Fourth of July: You just don’t do that in America. And local anchors just don’t (or shouldn’t) push a company's political agenda like ersatz lobbyists, even if they’re merely reciting the words being sent them by their ideological- and agenda-driven bosses.

People need their local news to remember that not everything should be viewed through the lens of a hyper-partisan, us-vs-them mentality.

The current public backlash against Sinclair will die down in a couple weeks, but they’ll surely be back in the national doghouse the next time they force-feed partisan talking points to their fleet of robotic anchors. It seems Sinclair’s executives would be wise to listen to their outraged viewers now and just halt the propaganda.

Let local anchors do what local anchors do best — which is to be their often quirky, informative and mostly trusted selves. The public is being driven to the extremes by the likes of partisan cable news outlets, and people need their local news to remember that not everything should be viewed through the lens of a hyper-partisan, us-vs-them mentality.

Sometimes local news should merely be that: Local and news. By allowing their anchors to stick to those foundational tenants of their mission, Sinclair may even see their viewership increase while also instilling more trust in the nation’s beleaguered media along the way.

Matt Laslo is a reporter who has written for NPR, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and VICE News, among others. He's also an adjunct professor teaching regularly at The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Boston University and The University of Maryland.

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