The fake news reckoning appears to be exposing one of its guiltiest agents. Sinclair Broadcasting company has attracted increased scrutiny and heightened concern after Deadspin released a video compilation of dozens of local news anchors repeating the same script warning about so-called fake news. However, as a former Sinclair Broadcasting reporter revealed to Salon, the tactic of feeding centralized scripts to spread biased political propaganda existed long before Donald Trump’s presidency.
Jonathan Beaton, who worked at Sinclair station WPEC NEWS 12 in West Palm Beach, Fla., told Salon that there’s been a top-down manipulation going on at the right-wing broadcasting company for years.
“They were always running the must-runs at the end of every broadcast, it was basically an editorial from the head honcho at Sinclair,” Beaton said. “A lot of this goes on without you even realizing it. A lot of the copy that comes from corporate is only fed to one producer in the newsroom, and the producer sticks it on the end of the newscast, or somewhere in the middle, and the anchors are just reading what’s on the teleprompter.”
The script currently under scrutiny read, "the sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media,” "More alarming, national media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first,” it continued.
The news caught the attention of many public figures, like Jimmy Kimmel who tweeted, “this is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”
Beaton says he wasn’t surprised when the Deadspin story was published.
“My reaction was this is classic Sinclair,” Beaton told Salon. “No one affiliated or who works for the company should be shocked by it, and I can tell you that there are reporters and anchors who had to read that copy, handed down from Sinclair corporate verbatim, and they woke up the next day after seeing all the coverage feeling terribly depressed.”
Beaton said, while he hasn’t spoken to any of those anchors since leaving the company, most of them likely didn’t want to be in that position. He explained that what likely keeps them there are the contracts that Sinclair requires its employees to sign. According to Beaton, the Sinclair contracts require employees pay as much as 40 percent of their salary back to Sinclair Broadcasting if employees leave before the contract is over. Bloomberg reported on the contracts in more detail, noting that the former reporter was sued by Sinclair Broadcasting for breaking his to leave before the contract allowed.
“I’m sure they feel trapped because of that contract,” Beaton, who started at Sinclair in the summer of 2014 at age 22, told Salon.
As Bloomberg explained, such a contract in television journalism isn’t uncommon. It’s usually used as a mechanism to prevent talent from quickly moving to competing station. However, in Sinclair Broadcasting’s case, it’s especially dangerous when employees don’t know what they’re getting into; like Beaton said was the case for him.
Beaton, who’s a Republican, said the red flags were raised on day two of the job.
“Right off the bat there were some very troubling things,” he explained. “There was a lot of mismanagement, a lot of verbal abuse, the news director and a few other managers were openly xenophobic and misogynistic, and it was a very chaotic and abusive environment.”
He stayed for a year, and said in that time the right-wing conservative bias became “very evident.”
“I’m a Republican, I lean to the right and at the same time I was flabbergasted by what I saw in the culture at Sinclair,” he said. “It comes from the top-down.”
Beaton explained that the “higher-ups” in Baltimore would mandate what they want stories to look like and what the angles reporters were required to take. Those stories, in Beaton’s case, would be put up on a whiteboard every day, and reporters were asked to find angles within those parameters. Beaton said they received a list of topics they could--and couldn’t--report on, such as “anything that a liberal audience would be interested in--like LGBT, or anything related to the arts, or say lower-income area.”
The extreme push to report only through a far-right lens is indeed concerning considering Sinclair Broadcasting owns more than 200 local news stations across the country. In addition to its expansive reach, the FCC is nearing its final decision on Sinclair’s $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media, which could increase the number of Sinclair’s to a number as high as 233.
Not only is the Sinclair Effect discrediting legitimate news organizations, but it’s shrinking access local news, too, as two researchers from Emory University concluded:
Following the acquisition of Bonten Media Group by Sinclair, the former Bonten stations’ content shifted towards coverage of national politics at the expense of local politics, relative to other stations in the same media market. Acquired stations’ content also moved to the right on the ideological dimension, again relative to other stations in the same media markets