MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Last month, local TV news anchors across the country turned to face the camera and share what appeared to be their personal concerns about journalism. They all had the same concerns.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The sharing of bias and false news has become all too common on social media.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: On social media. And more alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Publish these same fake stories without checking facts first.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Unfortunately, some members of the media use their...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5 AND UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: To control exactly what people think.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: And this is extremely dangerous to our democracy.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.
KELLY: Anchors at nearly 200 stations read those words because their station's owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group, told them to. To understand why the company made their journalists read the statement, we're joined by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hey, David.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So why did Sinclair order its anchors to do this? What's the message here?
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, the message isn't a dog whistle. It's more like a cannonball going off. They're at once attacking their competitors in service of ostensibly praising their own professionalism. And they're also saying, look; we're a safe home for those of you who, like strong devotees of President Trump, believe that much of the media is involving fake news, involved in personal bias, is involved in trying to distort what you're presented as supposedly objective, fair. Sinclair is contributing directly to that claim in hundreds of markets across the country.
KELLY: Right. So the message that was presented here was there's a lot of fake news out there; come to us for trusted reporting, which in fairness is a message a lot of news organizations put out there to promote themselves. We say, this is the place where facts are checked. How is what Sinclair is doing here so different?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, The Washington Post recently adopted the phrase democracy dies in darkness, talking about its accountability mission. The New York Times has over a century-old motto, all the news that's fit to print.
FOLKENFLIK: What Sinclair's engaging is negative campaigning in a sense. And it is different. It is not a journalistic impulse. It is an attempt to slam and denigrate other elements of the media. Rather than saying we do it differently, rather than saying we do it the very best we can, best of profession, they're saying the other guys don't do it well. And you see that in two pockets of society right now. You see that particularly among conservative Republicans. That's a tradition spanning back over a half century if you think of Joe McCarthy, Spiro Agnew. It's become part of the Republican mantra. You also see that at Fox News. Very successfully carved out an entirely new niche for itself - a conservatively identified media organization serving viewers. And now we're seeing it in local news with Sinclair.
KELLY: Is it absolutely clear, David, that the anchors had to read this script? Could they have said no?
FOLKENFLIK: We know this from a variety of sources. We know this from Sinclair's top news executive, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago, when he was talking about this, saying, yes, we are having everybody do this. We think this is part of our corporate news journalistic mandate to explain what it is we're up to. We see this from station managers who sent out memos to their people saying, you don't have a lot of choice in this, folks. We see this from Sinclair journalists who are saying privately, we don't have a lot of choice here. And we know this why? In part because think back a little over a dozen years ago or so. I interviewed their then-former Washington bureau chief who ventilated with me on the record concerns of Sinclair's bias. He was fired that day. But more to the point, they pursued his unemployment benefits, made him pay them back to the state of Maryland. That's the kind of reach Sinclair has.
KELLY: Well, tell us more about Sinclair. I mean, this is a broadcast organization not as well-known as some others, but it owns more local TV stations than any other company in the country.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, there are a couple of things worth knowing. It's owned by a quartet of conservative brothers, the Smith family. It's publicly traded, but they control the company. It's based outside Baltimore in Hunt Valley, Md. They've been strong supporters of various Republican figures, very sympathetic to President Trump both in certain kinds of stories they covered, the way they covered, their commentators, who include a former Trump adviser. They're also seeking to expand that reach. They're trying to buy several dozen more stations. The Trump-picked head of the Federal Communications Commission currently under investigation for his relationship with Sinclair and his effort to make that a bit easier for them to acquire.
KELLY: That's NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you, David.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.