April 2, 2018

Now we know.

Many TV local news stations are focusing more on national politics and have taken a rightward slant over the past year. And that move is stemming from ownership of the stations, not the demands of a local audience, conclude two Emory University researchers.

The study comes just as many are raising concerns about a coordinated effort by one major owner of TV stations that forces its anchors to record a segment about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”

After examining 7.5 million transcript segments from 743 local news stations, the two researchers saw huge differences between other stations and outlets owned by the nation’s largest local broadcasting chain, the Sinclair Broadcast Group. About 25 million Americans still view local TV news nightly, authors Gregory J. Martin and Josh McCrain write.

The authors found Sinclair stations, on average, carried about a third less local politics coverage and a quarter more national politics. That national allotment included commentaries the stations are forced to run by former Trump official Boris Epshteyn.

A summary of the findings by the Shorenstein Center’s Journalist’s Resource also noted the shift to the right of new Sinclair stations: “The ‘slant scores,’ based on repetition of ideologically linked phrases, increased by about one standard deviation after acquisition by Sinclair as compared to other stations in the same markets,” Chloe Reichel wrote.

The Emory researchers warn this programming could spur nationalistic and polarizing movements. “Given the decline of local print media,” they write, “local TV news is one of the few remaining sources of locally focused journalism. The substantial post-acquisition drop in local coverage at Sinclair-acquired stations can be expected to reduce viewers’ knowledge of the activities of local officials” — and hurt accountability.

How does this play out?

In Seattle, as in many Sinclair markets, trusted local TV anchors are being forced to read what several employees privately call “propaganda” — supporting their Trump-backing bosses and calling other fact-based media outlets “fake news.” Links for feedback have gone to Sinclair headquarters, cutting off the local stations.

Here’s a part of one of the prepared scripts for Seattle’s KOMO-TV, obtained and posted Friday by seattlepi.com:


Seattlepi.com noted a recent Sinclair “must-run” on KOMO was produced by a former employee of the Russian propaganda agency RT and featured disgraced former Trump official Sebastian Gorka parroting official policy. A recent Epshteyn commentary said other outlets were spending too much time reporting on Stormy Daniels, the porn star who was paid $130,000 in hush money before the election not to talk about her alleged sexual relationship with Trump.

Sinclair also forced anchors from its Pennsylvania stations to read a version of the same one-sided promo. Over the weekend, Deadspin made a mashup of anchors of some of the nearly 200 Sinclair stations reading the same script to local viewers throughout America.

A former Fox executive, Peter Chernin, called the move "insidious." "The first key to stopping it is to call on advertisers who support this propaganda and express your objections," he tweeted. CNN's Brian Stelter quoted one Sinclair reporter as saying, "It sickens me." 

An FCC watchdog is examining if Sinclair is getting preferential treatment by the agency, which is considering approving the acquisition of more stations from Tribune. The former FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, has said that the current FCC “bent” rules to help Sinclair, and that the proposed merger is not in the public interest. Here's where the current Sinclair stations are, and here are the stations it would acquire under the proposed Tribune deal.

If the deal is approved, Sinclair will reach 72 percent of American households, in an era where "the most important force shaping public opinion continues to be local, over-the-air television,” Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a senior attorney at Georgetown’s Communications and Technology Law Clinic, told Mother Jones.

Sinclair already has played ball with Trump: During the 2016 campaign, in exchange for access, Sinclair stations, many in swing states, broadcast Trump interviews without commentary, Jared Kushner told business executives in December 2016.

Celebrate the facts!

Today is International Fact-Checking Day, and in honor of the day, Poynter is launching a website with a lesson plan, tip sheets and other resources to help people learn basic fact-checking skills.

The International Fact-Checking Network, which is based at the Poynter Institute, coordinates the day worldwide and is also instrumental in helping create the special content that’s available to enlighten the public and highlight the benefits of fact-checking. You can read more about the day and the team behind it in this article.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Our lesson plan for high school students is here.

  • You can find various articles and tip sheets here

  • A cartoon for kids in English, French and Portuguese is here.

  • A reading list is here.

Help spread the word by tweeting with #FactCheckIt today.

Quick hits

FLEEING TRUMP: Unfit for office. Generally dishonest. Racist. Those are the views of President Trump by a majority of Americans 15-34 years old polled by the AP and MTV. Many have increased their diet of political news and have expressed eagerness to vote in November. “He doesn’t seem to be really for women. He doesn’t seem to be for Black Lives Matter. He doesn’t seem to be for DACA,” the AP quoted Meghan Carnes, 23, of New York as saying, referring to a program to allow young immigrants to stay in this country. “He doesn’t seem to be for the kids worried about guns. It’s extremely disappointing to have a president who doesn’t seem to care.”

BEHIND THE NEWS: The poll is the first in a series surveying the group of Americans who could make up the biggest chunk of voters in the 2020 presidential elections. “What motivates young Americans, what drives them and what might lead them to vote — or choose not to vote — is what we’re looking to identify,” says David Scott, AP deputy manager for operations.

INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW: How a tabloid mogul protected Trump and traded on his friendship as he sought Saudi cash.

MORE INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW: How does anyone buy the fairly ridiculous Trump take on Stormy Daniels (nothing happened, but the hush money, and oh, I didn’t know about THAT.)? Joshua Holland explains.

LOCALIZE THIS: How deportation-happy are judges in your county? This database looks at outcomes on immigrant cases brought before the courts, by county. The lowest percentage of deportations was ordered in Queens County, N.Y.; the highest in Cameron County, Texas. Hat-tip to Gary Price of Library Journal.

WHEN LOCAL GETS BIGGER: With the severe shrinkage of the big city paper, the Fort Collins Coloradan has to think a little more broadly, Nieman Lab’s Christine Schmidt reports.

THE ADULTS IN THE ROOM: They vape. They play drinking games. One leader is a college dropout with arrests for drunken driving and bad checks. Another has arrests for assault, disorderly conduct and fleeing an officer. They vet the Trump administration's appointments, the Washington Post reports.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE NOTE: John and Laura Arnold are billionaires. They’re also putting cash into campaigns of candidates committed to lowering drug prices and to fighting Big Pharma. Rebecca Robbins figures out why.

KEEPING IT POSITIVE: The Beijing-friendly owner of Hong Kong’s once-scrappy South China Morning Post has been pumping money into it — with a goal of producing "positive" stories of China for worldwide consumption. Will the world believe the stories of a vastly expanded news organization if readers suspect its news is compromised?

FAVORITE APRIL FOOLS’ JOKE: Was this “post” from the Kruger National Park in South Africa on its @LatestKruger page on Twitter. (Note the nice detail of the photo credit.) Seems like a perfect example to help promote Fact-Checking Day, based on the retweets of people who fell in love with it and thought it was real.

What we're reading

REMEMBERING MLK: 14 days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, his last cause — getting better wages for Memphis' sanitation workers — triumphed. But the city's business leaders have in the 50 years since perpetuated low wages that result in hardship, writes Wendi C. Thomas. Rep. John Lewis, in an essay for Time, talks of his first meeting with King and writes that the slain civil rights leader’s greatest gift to America is the “belief in society's ability to change.” The anniversary of his death is Wednesday.

THE WEIGEL RULE: If you’re a celebrity in 2018, you can get the media to cover poverty and corruption. So says the Washington Post’s David Weigel, on the campaign trail with “Sex in the City” actress and New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon. Their stops included the subway and a crumbling housing complex in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. Nixon’s candidacy has unnerved the incumbent governor, Andrew Cuomo; a Cuomo surrogate called her an “unqualified lesbian.” Nixon responded by having campaign buttons made with that phrase — and selling them for $5.

TIRED OF WEBSITES BLARING AUDIO?: Here’s information on the Chrome extension that silences every site, via Lifehacker. (No, I’m not talking about the F10 key). Related: another cautionary story on Alexa and Google Home use: “Hey Alexa, What Can You Hear?” The four-word answer: More than you think.

STRESS: They make unethical requests. They want no mention of climate change or America’s history of immigration. They view civil servants — and perhaps even the notion of serving the public — with disdain. That’s the view dozens of public servants interviewed by Politico have of Trump appointees. As one says, “I’m the frog in the pot that’s boiling along.”

POOR TO PRIVILEGE: These brilliant children of house cleaners and bus drivers have a lot to reconcile after moving through the Ivy League. “I am trying to work through what it means to be who I am,” says Chantal Brown, who exceeded “teen mom” expectations of her in rural North Carolina, went to Brown and now works for a consulting group in Boston. By Laura Pappano for the Hechinger Report.

ACTIVISM?: A comment by a Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school newspaper editor set Danielle Tcholakian on a thoughtful 4,000-word quest to answer this question: Is journalism a form of activism? From Longreads.

A MYSTERY: She would be “lost” for weeks at a time, one time found floating face down, sunburned and bloody after a day and night in the East River. Medical professionals were puzzled. Will Hannah Upp be found? An engrossing story by Rachel Aviv in the New Yorker.

AND FINALLY: The WSJ's Te-Ping Chen grew up in Oakland not knowing anything about her mother's family. Through a series of chance events, the Beijing correspondent discovered the vibrant, witty, poetic life of her ancestors, including a 1930s newspaper reporter, that centered on a home just over a mile away from her current apartment. This thread is stirring.

(Photos via Te-Ping Chen)

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