‘Fake news’ blues

Sinclair scripts stoke concerns about local news media consolidation

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Text of the Sinclair Script

Last month, a controversial video created by the sports blog Deadspin went viral.

In the video, dozens of anchors from small local news stations all over the country read from an identical script that criticized media outlets for publishing “irresponsible, one-sided news stories.” All the anchors in the video are employees of Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Maryland-based media organization that currently owns 193 TV news networks across the United States, including KVAL in Eugene (KTMR in Springfield has a content distribution deal with Sinclair, but is not formally owned by the company). The video incited widespread controversy and sparked debates about the role of local news media in the current age of social media and “fake news.” Many people were outraged and called for a boycott of Sinclair-owned TV stations. In Eugene, the reaction was similar to news of the Register-Guard’s sale to GateHouse Media, a New York-based newspaper conglomerate.

“I don’t see how these people can call themselves local news anymore,” Greta Cappelmann, a first-term Lane student with aspirations of a career in broadcasting, said. “How can someone from Baltimore or Chicago or wherever know what’s best for Eugene?”

As the controversy about the so-called “Sinclair script” spread, so did reports that some anchors had refused to read the statement. Lauren Lapka and Cameron Walker, morning news anchors for KVAL, said that they weren’t “comfortable” with the statement and declined to read it. Both journalists declined to comment further about their refusal, but Lapka released a statement via Facebook addressing concerns about her continued employment at KVAL.

“In light of recent events, I just want to take this time to say that I will always be here for you, the viewers,” Lapka said.  “whether it’s Chicago, southwest Missouri, Oregon — or wherever my future takes me.”

KVAL’s Jackie Garrity and David Walker read the Sinclair script, as did KTMR’s Alan Matthews.

The renewed controversy over Sinclair’s consolidation of local media comes at a crucial moment in the company’s expansion. The Federal Communications Commission will soon reach a decision about Sinclair’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media Company, which owns 39 TV stations across the United States, including KRCW in Salem and Portland. If the sale is approved — which the U.S. Department of Justice has signaled is likely, according to the Wall Street Journal — Sinclair could potentially reach over 70 percent of American households, an unprecedented share of the national media landscape. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that the company would be forced to sell “12 to 13 television stations” to comply with antitrust laws, but has also expressed a desire to remove those regulations prior to the approval.

Despite the seemingly overwhelming public criticism of Sinclair’s content distribution practices, some Eugene-area residents feel that the company’s warning about “fake news spread on social media sites” is warranted.

“I honestly don’t see why everyone is so against local news right now,” Greg Davis, who managed a radio station in Indiana before retiring and moving to Springfield. “I thought it was a perfectly legitimate criticism of the mainstream media’s bias problem, one that’s only gotten worse in the last few years.”

Davis says he watches the local news “every single night,” often flipping between different evening news programs to find interesting stories, though he believes that KVAL is “the most honest.”

“I think local news is far superior to the national networks,” Davis said. “I don’t really mind that they’re owned by a big company because that means they’ll have the resources to keep doing good journalism.”

Others are less concerned about Sinclair’s reach because they simply don’t have access to broadcast news.

“I get why people might be upset, but I literally don’t own a TV,” Lane student Macy Potter said. “I didn’t even know what Sinclair was a couple of weeks ago, and now it seems to be on everyone’s mind.”

To Potter, the solution to Sinclair’s growing influence on local news is clear.

“If you don’t like what you’re watching, don’t watch it.”