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Parker: A free nation only remains so with a vibrant fourth estate

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Thursday, April 5, 2018 5:45 PM
Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON – When fake news blasts traditional media for being “fake news,” how does one respond?

Do you shout, I’m not fake, you are? Do you ignore the charge? If you don’t fight back, are you affirming the fool? If you do, doth thou protest too much?

The risk of doing nothing, of course, is to go crazy, too.

Call me crazy, but when a local news station is required to have its anchor read propaganda created by its master – in this case Sinclair Broadcast Group – it is not to be taken seriously. Indeed, it is to be feared.

Sinclair recently became the news story when it ordered its 193 local television stations across the country to read an identical script on the air denouncing other traditional news organizations as producers of “fake news,” an accusation popularized by the fakest newsy himself, Donald Trump.

Though many even in the news industry were surprised to learn of Sinclair’s existence, the family-owned company has been around since 1971. With stations in 89 markets, it is certainly not new. The company has been quietly consuming small- to medium-sized markets for decades and today controls more local news than any other media organization. Sinclair also has affiliations with all the major alphabet and cable networks. Today, it probably has greater reach than any other single cable or broadcast company.

It’s a big deal, in other words. And it’s about to get bigger. The company is now poised to expand even further with a pending $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media, which owns 42 other stations, including some in the largest markets – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Although Sinclair’s “fake news” campaign, which seemed aimed at boosting Trump, caught the media world’s attention, the company has long been a content creator of “must-runs” – editorial and other segments that its broadcast family members were expected to add to their daily run of local news. Injecting opinion into millions of homes, pre-packaged and then delivered by stations that have earned their audience’s trust, isn’t a one-off but is actually a long-standing part of the company’s defining template.

It is ironic that in an era when fake news from outside sources (see Russia) is a legitimate worry – and while important journalism is being conducted at some of the very institutions Sinclair has chosen to criticize – that this mega-multiplatform media conglomerate is directly imposing its own agenda on unwitting audiences.

The obvious concern should be that once you have hundreds of stations regurgitating the same message to millions of people – how do neutral, third-party entities combat the disinformation?

It’s a serious question and it wasn’t always thus. Warring media factions where fact and fiction compete for attention is both self-congratulatory and self-defeating. No one wins in the end. Do the media bear some of the blame? Absolutely. Instances of obvious media bias have contributed to the lack of faith that Trump has so masterfully nurtured. But there’s a vast difference between editorials and news – or should be – and most traditional news organizations work diligently to protect this essential separation, which is as sacrosanct as that between church and state. Credibility is the only coin of the realm.

Sinclair, by contrast, seems to consider its news stations, mostly in those markets where Trump is still popular, to be personal editorial outlets. With few exceptions, most Sinclair-owned stations had their anchors read the statement, which, reportedly, made many of them squirm. After all, some of those same anchors no doubt hope someday to move up to larger markets and to some of these traditional “fake news” outlets.

In its defense, Sinclair issued a statement Monday expressing surprise that anyone would object to their trying to remind viewers of their high standards compared to traditional, as well as social, media. The statement referred to a recent Monmouth University survey that found that more than 75 percent of Americans believe that traditional TV and newspaper outlets report “fake news.”

This is the real and disheartening danger. How does a free nation remain free without a vibrant Fourth Estate? When a media company as vast and penetrating as Sinclair can claim the moral high road while molding and marshaling public thought essentially against a free press it seems not irrational to fear a future featuring a Soviet-style propagandist state.

There is some good news in all of this, however. The same Monmouth survey found that most Americans still find President Trump to be a less-trusted source of information than they do the major cable news outlets. That may be only a pewter lining, but it’s something.

Kathleen Parker writes a twice-weekly column on politics and culture for The Washington Post. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary In 2010. Reach her at kathleenparker@washpost.com. © 2018 The Washington Post Writers Group

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