THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Talking Heads

Sinclair and rising conservative influence in RI media

by Alina Kulman

Illustration by Ella Rosenblatt

published December 7, 2018


Last March, Frank Coletta and Alison Bologna, anchors at WJAR, the NBC affiliate station in Rhode Island, gave a speech on air decrying “false news” as a national threat. Meanwhile, people around the country—in Seattle, Baltimore, San Antonio, and many other cities—watched anchors make an identical statements. All of the anchors worked for stations owned by Sinclair, the largest television station operator in America (Sinclair purchased WJAR in 2014). Sinclair called the script an “anchor-delivered journalistic responsibility message,” and mandated that anchors at each station read the script on air.

Sinclair management wrote a script telling the anchors to introduce themselves and then say they were “extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that [proper news brand name of local station] produces.” The speech then launched into criticism of the media, echoing comments from President Trump: “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media…Unfortunately, some members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think.”

In April, the sports-news blog Deadspin published a disorienting and eerie video that layered clips of dozens of local news anchors reading the same lines over each other—the only differences were in their emphasis and speech patterns. Coletta, who’s been at WJAR since 1978, gets a close-up at the end of the video. As the second-to-last anchor featured, he delivers the script’s final blow: “this [fake news] is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

The video set off a firestorm of criticism on social media. Nearly every major news outlet covered the video; former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called it “Orwellian” in a tweet. While discourse about “fake news” has been taken up by both liberals and conservatives, the Sinclair script’s focus on the “agenda” of  the national media intensified existing accusations that Sinclair was using its authority to push conservative messaging through its local stations. Allied Progress, a media watchdog organization, used the video in an ad to encourage opposition to Sinclair’s proposed merger with Tribune Media, which would have meant that Sinclair stations would have reached three-quarters of television-watching Americans. (Ajit Pai, the current Federal Communications Commission Chairman, decided to block the proposed merger this past summer.)

On the whole, Americans still trust and watch local news. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, about half of the country still gets most of their news from television. The Poynter Institute released a study this summer that found that 76 percent of Americans trust their local news stations. As the criticism of Sinclair’s influence on local journalism intensified this spring, Adam Bagni, who had worked at WJAR for six years—starting in 2011 as a sports reporter—decided to speak out. He wrote an op-ed in the Providence Journal in April, stating that Sinclair was “attempting to use its local stations like NBC 10 to advance its own political agenda.” The article was retweeted thousands of times, including by well-known journalists like Jake Tapper and Katy Tur. “People were telling me that I was really brave, some people were saying I was a hero, which is ridiculous,” Bagni told the College Hill Independent.

After writing the op-ed, Bagni fielded dozens of interview requests from national and international outlets, including CNN and Fox. The media conglomerate Tegna that owns the station where he currently works, KPNX in Phoenix, Arizona, asked him to decline those interviews to keep their organization out of the Sinclair debate. In November, Bagni said that to support student journalism in Rhode Island, he was willing to discuss his Sinclair experience at WJAR with the Independent.

 

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When Bagni started at WJAR, the station had a fairly typical newsroom. “We reported the news in Southern New England, just kind of as we saw fit, put our newsroom together as we saw fit, and put our newscast together as we saw fit,” Bagni said.

After a few years, things began to change. Media General, a Virginia-based company that owns dozens of local newspapers and television affiliates, had owned WJAR since 2006. In 2014, Media General announced a $1.6 billion dollar merger with LIN Media, which owned another 43 television stations around the country. LIN Media’s portfolio included two local stations in Rhode Island—the CBS and Fox affiliates. To comply with FCC regulations about market ownership, Media General decided to sell WJAR to the Sinclair Broadcast Group.         

Sinclair owns or operates nearly 200 stations in 100 media markets, and their newscasts reach some 40 percent of American households. Unlike other operators, Sinclair requires ‘must-run’ segments—national political commentary clips that are up to three minutes long, produced at the corporate headquarters in Maryland. The ‘must-runs’ have included monologues from conservative commentator Mark Hyman, in which he insinuated that the Affordable Care Act was killing people, criticized anti-Trump media bias, and accused the New York Times of reverse racism. There are also daily updates from Sinclair’s “Terrorism Alert Desk,” which is often quick to associate ISIS with breaking news about bombs or attacks without confirmation, and runs regardless of whether there were any terrorist incidents that day. Lately, all Sinclair stations devote nine slots a week to “Bottom Line with Boris,” which features President Trump’s senior campaign advisor Boris Epshteyn.

Sinclair’s executive chairman, David D. Smith, defended these segments to the New York Times, saying that they are clearly identified as opinion. Every local news station has an equivalent of ‘must-runs’ with various political stances, he said, citing late-night comedy as an example on other stations. It’s hard to consider Smith impartial on the subject, however. According to the New Yorker, during Donald Trump's campaign, Smith told the candidate, “We [Sinclair] are here to deliver your message. Period.”

    

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On a typical weekday, WJAR airs about six hours of its own shows, covering typical local news—weather, traffic, politics, and crime. The ‘must-runs,’ along with Sinclair’s Sunday morning political news show hosted by Sharyl Attkisson (who left CBS in 2014, amidst accusations of conservative bias), represent a minority of WJAR programming. Bagni said he wasn’t sure what audience Sinclair was trying to target with their content in Rhode Island, which is consistently a blue state—there are nearly four registered Democrats for every registered Republican in the state.

However, Bagni grew uncomfortable with the presence of the Sinclair-sponsored content, which he described as “clearly biased and right wing,” alongside what he saw as balanced reporting from him and his colleagues. He felt it was sowing distrust in the community by pushing conservative viewpoints onto viewers in Southern New England and could make the audience suspicious of the objectivity of WJAR’s coverage. As a fill-in anchor, he had to introduce these segments with promotional lines directly from Sinclair headquarters. “They didn’t allow us to change them. Corporate, we were told, did monitor that sort of stuff. So in one instance, I read it almost comically fast just to sort of rush through it and get onto the next thing,” Bagni told the Independent.

Bagni was not the only person at WJAR disturbed by Sinclair’s ‘must-run’ segments, he told the Independent. He remembers the former news director scheduling them at 4:30 AM, before local programming even began, “so it would almost seem as though the commentary was outside of the broadcast.” To Bagni, the most upsetting part of Sinclair’s management of WJAR was that it damaged the reputation for fairness and impartiality that he and his colleagues had worked to develop. He and another reporter who remains at WJAR (and who agreed to be interviewed but requested anonymity) both emphasized that Sinclair had never asked them to change their story angles or influenced their news coverage in any way. But that did not shield the station from accusations of conservative bias, especially after the anchors appeared in the Deadpsin video. The reporter at WJAR said people on the street have occasionally shouted “fake news” or expletives at him once they realize he’s from the Sinclair-owned station.

Bagni is one of few people working in television news who has publicly criticized Sinclair, and he said he may be the only one who is currently working as a broadcast journalist (certainly, the only one who has ever worked for WJAR). For current Sinclair employees, denouncing their employer would mean breaking their contracts, and would result in tens of thousands of dollars in fines owed to the corporation. For other broadcast journalists, speaking out might alienate potential future employers, since Sinclair controls so much of the market.

Bagni says he understands why colleagues have not made public statements: “I struggle to point fingers and stand on my high horse and say, ‘everybody should stand up against Sinclair,’ because a lot of these journalists, they have jobs that they need to feed their family. They don’t have a lot of other opportunities. If you don’t work for one television station in town, there’s only two other places you can work, unless you want to get up and move your entire family elsewhere. A lot of times, there just aren’t other opportunities for people.”

 

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Some in Rhode Island, however, are able to publicly denounce Sinclair. The Rhode Island ReSisters, a group of activists formed in the wake of the 2017 Women's March, are vocally opposing the company’s presence in the state. After focusing on various other causes like voter registration, they’ve recently decided to devote themselves to protesting Sinclair and Channel 10. They call their campaign “Turn Off 10,” referencing WJAR’s slogan “Turn to 10.”

A dozen or so members (mostly older women) meet every other Tuesday night in the back room of the Main Street Café in East Greenwich. At last Tuesday’s gathering, they drank tea on leather couches and discussed the latest Sinclair ‘must-run’—Boris Epshteyn defending American authorities’ use of tear gas on migrant children at the US-Mexico border. (Sinclair has since released a statement that Epshteyn’s comments “do not reflect the views of Sinclair Broadcast Group.”)

The Turn Off 10 campaigners weren’t necessarily activists before 2016; they say they occupied their time with careers and parenting. Now, with the luxury of resources and mostly grown children, they attend meetings of activist groups and take part in protests over issues like reproductive rights and immigration. They have chosen opposing Sinclair
as their group’s main cause because it serves as a tangible local way to channel some of their anger towards the Trump Administration. “It’s horrible what [Sinclair is] feeding to local viewers. It’s part of the destruction of our democracy,” their unofficial spokeswoman, Dr. Patricia Ricci, told the Independent.

Deb Cole, one of the group’s organizers, explained that since they can’t control who owns WJAR, they instead are targeting local businesses that advertise on the network. They hope to hurt the station economically and educate the public about Sinclair’s conservatism. Once every four to six weeks, the group has held protests outside businesses that advertise on WJAR. So far, the group has protested at Yorker Shoes in Johnston, local car dealerships (Speedcraft and Tasca), and furniture stores (Jordan’s Furniture and Cardi’s). “My goal is to have a furniture company drop Channel 10, so I can finally buy a bed,” joked Risa Kornwitz, a member of the group.

Turn Off 10 has also traveled to WJAR headquarters in Cranston, holding up handwritten signs with slogans: “Balanced news not Sinclair views,” “WJAR shreds the truth,” “Think while it’s still legal.” So far, they have not convinced any advertisers to cancel deals with WJAR, but they say they are slowly changing the climate around local news in Rhode Island. “We know we’re ruffling feathers. For a small group, we’ve been able to spread the word quite a bit,” Cole told the Independent.

Their next steps will include paying for a set of anti-Channel 10 signs on buses for at least a month—they’ve been saving money collected from group dues, and from sales of “Turn Off 10” bumper stickers and pens. Turn Off 10 hopes these signs can increase awareness amongst Rhode Islanders of why they are seeing conservative commentary peppered between local stories told by reporters and anchors they trust on WJAR, even though those journalists do not have control over who owns their station.

 

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When asked about the ideal future for WJAR, Dr. Ricci from Turn Off 10 mentioned a potential benevolent philanthropist with “progressive values” who could buy the station from Sinclair. (It is not clear, though, if such a philanthropist actually exists, or would ever buy the station.)

As long as Sinclair owns WJAR, the station has no choice but to air the ‘must-run’ segments. The anonymous reporter at WJAR said the station has done their best to find a “home” for these clips in evening broadcasts. As for the criticism the station faces, the reporter claimed to not think about it too much. “I just go out and try to do the job the way I’ve done it the whole time, and it’s worked for me so far,” the reporter told the Independent.

Some people at WJAR may not feel like their coverage has been directly altered since Sinclair came in, but reporters at other stations have raised concerns. Jonathan Beaton, who had quit his job as a reporter at CBS12, a Sinclair-owned station in West Palm Beach, Florida, wrote in the Huffington Post about the conservatism that had descended on their newsroom. He was told that many of his stories had to have a religious tie-in and that he could not report on the LGBTQ community.

In Rhode Island, WJAR is one of the largest and most influential news sources. Nielsen ratings show that WJAR is the most popular local news station in the state. Viewers consistently turn to Frank Coletta and Alison Bologna, over newscasts at stations like WLNE and WPRI. WJAR provides extensive coverage of local news while other outlets have been shrinking. GateHouse Media, one of the largest publishers of local newspapers, purchased the Providence Journal in 2014. Circulation of the ProJo continues to fall, and dozens of reporters have been laid off or offered buyouts. Other Rhode Island newspapers, like the Newport Daily News (also owned by GateHouse), have recently announced rounds of layoffs.

As these news sources are passed around between media conglomerates, it becomes less clear who has a vested interest in preserving unbiased local coverage. Many of the journalists at WJAR started working there before Sinclair purchased the station, and the reporter there said that he feels he and his colleagues continue to be committed to providing objective coverage of local news. But the most troublesome aspect of Sinclair’s ownership is not limited to ‘must-runs’; it is instead the company’s potential to use their authority to control the content of local news. Adam Bagni says Sinclair’s control of WJAR potentially represents a slippery slope: “Every journalist should absolutely be worried about the company creeping closer to that line,” meaning that deep political bias could creep into local Rhode Island news, amplifying the conservative message in the ‘must-runs.’

There are no easy answers here. As WJAR continues to pursue extensive local coverage while other outlets dwindle, Rhode Islanders keep watching. Sinclair currently takes advantage of the station’s respected status to distribute its conservative commentary to a larger audience, and, in the future, could potentially use it to impose their chairman’s conservatism onto local coverage. Bagni told the Independent he hopes more people become aware of the risk Sinclair poses to WJAR’s impartiality: “This affects literally every person in the state of Rhode Island. This is where you get your news.”

 

ALINA KULMAN B'21 is glad Brown didn’t interrupt this article with a ‘must-run’