Sinclair Broadcasting Group: A Brief Examination of Journalistic Ethics

By now, you’ve heard and read all about Deadspin’s expose of a script that Sinclair Broadcast Group required reporters or anchors in its various local stations to read on air.

Even if you’ve watched it a dozen times, you should watch the video again. One thing I learned during my undergraduate film and media studies courses is that embedded messages become more transparent with every view as long as the viewer knows what to watch for.

The 1:07 mark stands out to me particularly because it makes the message personal. There, we see Autria Godfrey of Washington, D.C.’s WJLA ABC-7 news station asserting to us us, “this is extremely dangerous for our democracy.” WJLA is the local Washington, D.C. affiliate station; ABC-7 news is one of my local news outlets. To imagine this city of all cities being under the influence of state-sanctioned propaganda is alarming. It’s not surprising, necessarily — I had a strong inclination (dismissed by a magazine editor as “hyperbolic” then) back in 2015 where our country was headed — but it is nevertheless shocking to experience the rapid transformation of a democratic republic to an autocracy with so many willing participants.

Here’s the reality: Donald Trump is the ringmaster of this circus. All he can do is stand in the spotlight with his megaphone soaking up the attention and directing our attention from ring one to ring two to thing three, as is useful to him. While we’re looking at two, we don’t see what’s happening in one or three. We don’t see the setups.

It takes a whole cast of nimble acrobats to make the show happen. It also takes an unseen crew of technicians rigging the lights and other backstage elements. It also takes a captivated audience; otherwise, there’d be no circus at all because there’d be no one to play to. We’re all being played to, and we’re all being played.

On Monday, the Washington Post wrote about “The real problem with Sinclair’s ‘Fake News’ script.” The article embeds the video embedded above, and it embeds this tweet from Donald Trump:

The Post article includes the Sinclair script template. It calls the script “a piece of garbage.” It offers this summary: “An editorial with no supporting evidence, no data, no argumentative beef. One hundred percent innuendo. No wonder Sinclair employees are freaking out about the thing.”

What the article does not do, to my surprise, is discuss basic journalistic ethics. And so I will do that here.

Journalistic Ethics

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ, whose tag line is “improving and protecting journalism since 1909) publishes a code of ethics to which journalists are beholden by virtue of their jobs. The United States Constitution provides for exceptional freedoms of the press because the press holds the power of public information, which can be used to protect the people of the nation from governmental tyranny, and which — we learned during World War II, and we are learning firsthand now — can be weaponized against the people by way of misinforming us. These are not complex, cumbersome bylaws written in trade-industry jargon; they are simple and straightforward, and limited to four principles.

1. Seek Truth and Report It

Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

2. Minimize Harm

Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

3. Act Independently

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.

4. Be Accountable and Transparent

Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.

Let’s look at what Sinclair told its affiliate stations to do with respect of each of these principles, and let’s look at how some of those stations and their employees’ public comments reflect them.

As the Washington Post notes, the Sinclair-mandated script offers “no supporting details, no data,” and so it would have been especially important for Sinclair stations to have sought out this information prior to instructing its staff to read the script on air. Stations should have verified that the information in the scripts is fact-based, accurate and fair. Stations should, despite their relationships to parent company Sinclair, act independently, as unlike other for-profit companies, journalistic entities’ loyalties are supposed to be to the public, even over and above their loyalties to stakeholders. And they should be transparent about where the information they relay comes from and, whenever known, what purpose the information they choose to relay serves.

One Dissenting Station Better Than Most — But Not Perfect

WMSN/FOX47 Madison, a Wisconsin Sinclair affiliate, has asserted that it refused to air the segment:

This is obviously to FOX 47 Madison’s credit, and the station indeed has been lauded for its adherence to journalistic ethics. I appreciate that FOX 47 Madison did better than most; however, I do wonder…wouldn’t true transparency and accountability necessitate the station informing viewers that journalists had been instructed to read a script that violated journalistic ethics? The free press is protected by the United States Constitution specifically because of journalism’s role in protecting democracy. Sometimes the news itself is news, and when it is, the journalistic enterprise should investigate itself — yes, itself — as a matter of ethical performance. In this regard, FOX 47 Madison participated in a cover up until its peers were called out for ethical violations. This, I would suggest, is a “teachable moment” even for the station that did better than most: The next time this happens (and we all know that it will happen again, and soon), the station shouldn’t wait for a public expose before telling the public what the public needs to know.

I admit I was hesitant to criticize FOX 47 Madison at all because one wouldn’t want the decision makers at the station to feel that they “can’t win for losing,” and decide to join the herd as a delivery system for propaganda. But the ethics of journalism are pretty cut and dry, and the station did fail to disclose that it had been — alarmingly — told to deliver ‘fake news’ that would support both its parent company’s interests and the interests of a political regime.

Still, that station ultimately made the right decision not to do what so many of its peers did. And here we get to the really alarming details, in which many devils-in-denial are embedded.

What Happens When The Majority Sacrifices Ethics For Paychecks?

At least 36 independent local news affiliates are featured in the Deadspin video. This means that at least 36 disparate markets — including mine, Washington, D.C. — have received explicitly false, pre-scripted information that was delivered to viewers by ostensibly trusted reporters or news anchors, and all without any disclosure that the opinions delivered were not those of the individuals or their local stations. Viewers watching from their homes have seen and heard these individuals discussing, matter of factly, their supposed observations that “fake news” is prevalent and that “this is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

In George Orwell’s paradoxically too-often-quote-yet-not-quoted-often-enough 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four a federal “ministry of truth” systematically delivers false information to the public, emphasizing its supposed truth, and creating a mass effect of cognitive dissonance that leaves the public stunned.

Sinclair’s statement is Orwellian in the most literal sense. If you have not read Nineteen Eighty-Four since high school or college, go get the book and start rereading it today.

For those of us who are interested in discerning facts from fiction, Donald Trump is a reliable litmus test. His personality type was well understood by William Shakespeare, who wrote “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” — an pre-psychology understanding that some people’s insistent denials are in fact confessions of wrongdoing. Donald Trump does this reliably, and his tweet about Sinclair is, in my opinion, a clear admission that Sinclair is working on his behalf.

“We Bought Our Own Good News!”

Competent journalism from Politico supports this interpretation, with the outlet reporting in December of 2016 that Jared Kushner had boasted about a deal with the Sinclair Broadcast Network that would guarantee favorable coverage of Donald Trump.

Not only did that 2016 Politico story reveal that specific deal, but it also alleged that Sinclair’s unethical mandates to its local reporters are not new:

Sinclair, a Maryland-based company, has been labeled in some reports as a conservative-leaning local news network. Local stations in the past have been directed to air “must run” stories produced by Sinclair’s Washington bureau that were generally critical of Obama administration and offered perspectives primarily from conservative think tanks, The Washington Post reported in 2014.

Journalism is — or at least it should be — more than corporate directives. Even when corporations fail to observe ethical practices, journalists — news editors, reporters, and anchors or on-air news readers — should understand and practice standards of journalistic ethics, just as law-enforcement agents should. All of us should have learned the lesson after World War II that “I was just doing my job” is not a viable excuse for immoral, unethical or criminal behavior, and this excuse is not an acceptable means through which to absolve oneself of personal responsibility.

And yet…

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Above is a Facebook post by Norma Holland, an anchor from 13WHAM News in Rochester, New York. On one hand, I have to give her credit for saying something publicly, when Sinclair allegedly has told its employees to remain silent, not even responding to viewer complaints or inquiries into this scandal. Holland’s statement shows human vulnerability, and it makes her a likely target to take a lot of criticism that should be directed at her station, as well, and at all Sinclair stations and journalists who abide by these unethical mandates.

On the other hand, Holland’s statement is the statement of a hypocritical martyr: even as she offers an apology of sorts, she absolves herself of responsibility.

In responding to viewers on Facebook, she dug an even deeper hole:

When a viewer responded “I was just following orders…” a clear reference to the excuse offered by Nazi officials and soldiers during post-WWII trials for crimes against humanity, Holland responded “I was. I wasn’t given a choice…” It seems Holland didn’t get the reference. Or perhaps she did and just believes her defense to be valid anyway. Or perhaps she is just more honest than most an expects sympathy for the predicament in which she has found herself. Sadly, what this reveals is that for Holland, as an individual, it would have probably been wiser for her to follow Sinclair’s alleged mandate to keep her mouth shut in the aftermath of this scandal — because now she is taking a lot of heat that should be shared among many more people.

I am inclined to offer Holland some sympathy among the heaps of criticism I have for her, for a couple of reasons. First, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Sinclair “…uses a liquidated damages clause for voluntary termination and also reserves the right to fire anchors for expressing political viewpoints or suffering disabilities that prevent a pleasant personal appearance.” In other words, it seems that Sinclair employees sign a sort of deal with the devil, conscripting their livelihoods to a “just following orders” type of agreement. If they don’t say what they’re told to say, there’s a high price to pay.

The other reason I have a little sympathy for Holland is that, although she couched her apology in a lot of excuses for why she did what she did, and in repeated assertions that she “had no choice,” she at least observed journalistic ethics in holding herself personally accountable, being at least somewhat transparent, and being honest. (Denial and self-pity are not inconsistent with honesty.)

By stark contrast, my own local Sinclair-operated news station, WJLA ABC-7, and the anchor who so eagerly read the prescribed statement, Autria Godfrey, to my knowledge have not publicly addressed their part in this. They continue to “just follow orders” and remain silent amid the controversy, ignoring their ethical obligations to be accountable, transparent and truthful given their enormous influence over public information. Godfrey has not addressed the scandal explicitly in any way, but she did issue a somewhat enigmatic, arguably passive aggressive sort of statement via Twitter, in response to a viewer’s observation that “she’s currently catching hell on Twitter”:

Godfrey, it seems, isn’t fazed by the scandal. That may be the most concerning part of the scandal.

A journalist who knowingly delivers false information to the public and then, when caught, lets that information roll off her back with barely a shrug, is no journalist. That’s a propagandist.

This is War. You and I, and Our Country, Are Collateral Damage.

Yesterday, New York reported that Sinclair Broadcast Group Executive Chairman David Smith told the magazine that the print media “serves no real purpose” and has “no credibility.” More:

“I must tell that in all the 45 plus years I have been in the media business I have never seen a single article about us that is reflective of reality especially in today’s world with the shameful political environment and generally complete lack of integrity. Facts and truth have been lost for a long time and likely to never return,” Smith said.

“The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility.”

The way this person speaks, he could run for president of the United States, or for president of Russia Today.

Some Amendments Matter, When Politically Expedient

Today, there is perhaps more of a heated debate than ever about the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which addresses citizens’ rights to bear arms. By and large, progressive-/liberal-minded people favor limiting access to military-style assault weapons following so many mass killings by perpetrators who use them; by and large, opponents to this fall on the conservative side. These opponents cite the U.S. Constitution as almost sacred, almost divine, and often argue that the Constitution and its amendments are essentially perfect and should be observed literally, as written, without regard for contemporary context.

The same people who argue in support of the Second Amendment are those who are the most likely today to hold news media that have not been formally endorsed by the Executive Office (specifically, this includes Fox News, Breitbart News, Infowars, TMZ and the National Enquirer — and, following the revelation about Sinclair Broadcast Group, Sinclair Broadcast Group) as ranging from unnecessary to undesirable. Trump White House officials have even suggested that certain reporters or networks should be banned from White House press briefings.

It’s curious that the party so beholden to the U.S. Constitution when it comes to gun ownership has so little regard — none in the case of the United States president — to the U.S. Constitution when it comes to the free press.

One notable member of that party, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), has stated that suppressing the free press “is how dictators get started.”

Pundits recently have been wont to say that “the United States is headed toward a Constitutional crisis.” Usually, this has been said with regard to the Second Amendment and school shootings.

These pundits are wrong. We are not headed toward a Constitutional crisis. We are in the midst of one.

This Is War. The Ammunition? Misinformation.

The federal government, which is to say the Trump family and Trump Corporation affiliates and profiteers, has waged an information war on the United States of America. Russian trolls need not even be brought into this conversation to see, plainly, that Donald Trump as president of the United States, has explicitly endorsed a number of media outlets — private companies — and has systematically, with the support of his affiliates — conscripted other media outlets to disseminate Trump-sanctioned messaging.

Some, like Sinclair journalist Norma Holland, have felt conflicted while “just following orders” (but followed orders just the same); others, like Autria Godfrey, are “doing just fine,” claiming no responsibility, acknowledging no wrongdoing, disclosing no information, and showing no remorse.

Washington, D.C.-based professional writer and unprofessional painter with many passions, including health, decency, Earth, asking questions and lots more.

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