Driving home in a snow squall the other day, I stopped behind a van adorned with bumper stickers pasted to every square inch of the tailgate.
Really, the van was a rolling relic of the Montana Democratic Party and its wreckage of political candidates – names dating back to old campaigns that never overcame that peculiar date in November called Election Day.
Perhaps by coincidence, that same night after work, I turned on the local news just in time for the commercial break. I was set to walk away and grab a beer before it came on. The news anchors at KECI – the NBC affiliate – had done it.
Standing tall in their studio, they turned their eyes to the teleprompter and did the very unjournalistic bidding of their corporate owner – Sinclair Broadcast Group – by warning us all about “fake news.”
“We’re concerned about a troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” Laura Staples and Steve Fetveit read. “Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”
This Trump-speak now used by politicians any time they’re questioned by the media is the same script, basically, read by Sinclair news anchors across the country over the past month. And while the news is supposed to report the news, not make it, this twist has generated its share of headlines.
In case you missed it, on its way to becoming the nation’s largest broadcaster, Sinclair purchased KECI and a handful of other stations from Bonten Media Group one year ago this month for $240 million.
While that may not be extraordinary in a world shaped by media consolidation and corporate buyouts (or sellouts), Sinclair’s undisputed reputation as a conservative propagandist did come as news, and it got the attention of local viewers across the country.
In positioning itself as the next Fox News, Sinclair hired President Donald Trump’s former spokesman to serve as its chief political analyst, noting that he would appear on the 170-plus stations Sinclair owns and operates.
The company also struck a deal to broadcast Trump interviews without any commentary or political analysis – a deal reportedly struck to ensure that Sinclair received greater access to then-candidate Trump.
If that doesn’t sound like a political shill just yet, there’s more. In so-called “must runs,” Sinclair sends out short video segments that local stations around the country – including KECI – must work into their broadcast.
These politically motivated must-runs have made it easy for critics and media watchdogs to accuse Sinclair of pushing a right-leaning agenda, then cloaking its “fake news” warning as some sort of public service announcement intended to achieve some higher good.
But as one news analyst said, “Nothing says we value independent media like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over like members of a brainwashed cult.”
Boil it all down and this KECI-Sinclair love affair shines as another example of why corporate media may pose one of the greatest dangers to America’s democracy, and while the state of the media in Missoula resembles the wreckage that was the back of that mini-van.
On one hand – and in a bow to shareholders – Missoula’s corporate newspaper has cut its staff to the bones in hopes of rebuilding its stock to levels not seen in 16 years. On the other, KECI has become a conservative mouthpiece, forced to do the bidding of a politically-motivated corporation hidden away on the East Coast.
The good news is, independently owned and locally responsive news companies continue to take root in cities across the country – including Missoula. The bad news is, readers and viewers have grown wary and distrustful of corporate news and the hidden agenda that comes with it.
Whether it’s financial or political, it’s still an agenda, and having to mention “agenda” and “news” in the same sentence doesn’t do anybody any good. The media is supposed to question, not defend political hacks who use “fake news” as a battle cry every time they’re questioned in the public realm.
As they once said in the newspaper industry, the morning paper is “under the cat’s ass by noon.” It’s just too bad that you can’t put a television station in the litter box.