Over the last month, viewers in dozens of local media markets across the country began to hear impassioned warnings from their trusted local anchors about the danger mainstream media outlets and "false news" posed to democracy.
It was soon discovered that these weren't genuine outpourings of principle or belief from the anchors, but scripted monologues mandated by their superiors, and repeated verbatim across the country. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the single largest owner of local television stations in the United States, had sent down marching orders; these were must-runs.
Must-runs are nothing new for Sinclair station employees; they've been happening for ages: prepackaged stories designed to be aired over a specific period of time during local newscasts, and very often politically charged.
They've included mandatory daily terrorism stories, hit pieces on Hillary Clinton, and forceful denunciations of "fake news," a term with which we are all by now deeply familiar. The past month's word-for-word diatribes are simply the latest example of this, and notably, have finally caught public notice.
While much of the commentary has focused on the message's right-leaning content, I'd much prefer to discuss something far more insidious: the fact that it happened at all. Regardless of where you stand, the merest existence of politically-motivated must-runs is troubling. Local news stations – and the news in general – bases its reputation for trustworthiness on a commitment to truth and thereby neutrality, a neutrality that has been a guiding principle of American journalism for generations, and which today's divided political environment has been sending to the dogs.
But while the bias of networks like Fox News or MSNBC is well-known, local stations are much less likely to be considered left or right. Which makes must-runs themselves incredibly dangerous, because they're coming out of the mouths of news anchors viewers know and trust, those they could very well run into at the supermarket or PTA meetings.
The consolidation of international media has been on the public consciousness for some time, but the consolidation at the local level has been something of a sleeper story. If Sinclair is allowed to complete its proposed merger with Tribune Media we would find ourselves in a situation where 70 percent of American households receive their local news from a Sinclair-run news station, a company which is actively meddling in local news coverage to give it a rightward tilt.
Had the company been even the slightest bit savvier and taken the time to draft original statements for each station, the depth of its interference wouldn't be on our minds, and millions of Americans would have received the message that the mainstream media is undemocratic uncritically. That it took a botched propaganda campaign to alert the public at large to this frightening reality is not entirely encouraging.
There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the fragmentation of the American audience, which has made it close to impossible to build a mass culture; a show like Roseanne drawing in eighteen million viewers is news in a media landscape where we are happy to settle for five.
But alongside that fragmentation, our news and entertainment has been gobbled up by rapacious businesses to the degree that fewer and fewer companies control more and more of what we expose ourselves to. In the era of Trump and "FAKE NEWS," we need to be increasingly and deliberately conscious of the fact that our media is not independent and hasn't been for a very long time.
The statement dozens of Sinclair anchors read in near-unison ended by calling the media landscape "dangerous to our democracy." This is true, but not in the way Sinclair meant it. The free press is a cornerstone of democratic culture, providing a public mechanism to call power to account and preserve liberty of thought.
But the mass commodification and monopolization of media has made it simpler and simpler for facts to be suppressed and denied and for polemic and propaganda to be forced into the mouths of people we trust. That, more than Fox News or MSNBC having an editorial slant, is dangerous to our democracy. And that's true whether you are liberal or conservative.
Our media exists, in a sense, as a public trust, and it is being viciously abused and manhandled. This ought to concern us more than it does.
Originally published on CNBC