Reader’s note: As though they were reading my mind, the FCC declined to investigate Sinclair at the request of eleven senators, citing the First Amendment.
“I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts, but I can hardly think of an action more chilling of free speech than the federal government investigating a broadcast station because of disagreement with its news coverage,” Pai wrote.
He added that the FCC “does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”
Even though the commissioner stole my thunder (as he should considering I don’t get to crank out articles as quickly as I’d like), feel free to read my opinion on this.
Who remembers when the FCC wanted to study how the news industry selected stories for public consumption? While some of the resulting hysteria was hyperbolic, there was plenty of concern that allowing government researchers into newsrooms to witness the editorial process could return disagreeable results. Fortunately, we have the First Amendment that protects the media from retaliatory action should they strike a nerve.
In a story that went viral, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, a station whose news coverage is reportedly right-of-center, required their anchors to read a script whose sentiments reflected President Trump’s frequent criticism on what he perceives to be “fake news.”
One tweet from the president summed up his feelings on Sinclair as compared to the rest of the networks:
The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The “Fakers” at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2018
Between Sinclair’s massive media portfolio and its pending acquisition of Tribune Media, there is concern that Sinclair and it’s pro-Trump bias would influence the quality of coverage, especially since one of core purposes of the free press is to cover government and call it out when it goes awry. Given this president’s temper and his allergy to disfavorable and critical coverage of him, the last thing a news anchor or reporter would want to do is anger the man they’re supposed to cover. It’s worth noting that that every news outlet in the nation has their own bias and as long as journalistic integrity is maintained, it shouldn’t be a cause for alarm.
All of this has prompted a body of senators to ask the FCC to investigate the script that those anchors were required to read, as well as a request to put the Sinclair-Tribute acquisition on hold. These senators fear that Sinclair is distorting news reporting, potentially disseminating fake news, and misleading the public. What these senators either fail to understand or are willfully ignoring is that Sinclair, as a private media channel, isn’t obligated to present a favorable viewpoint of news. To maintain credibility, they do have an obligation to the viewers to get the news right and present facts based on verified sources, but it’s impossible to cover every story within the timeframe they have.
It would be one thing if the FCC was investigating actual crimes committed by Sinclair, but this is a case of government disagreeing with the viewpoint expressed by the station. Fortunately, the First Amendment protects the right of a private entity to express whatever viewpoint(s) or agenda(s) it wishes. All consumers have a choice of where to get their news and the choices of media outlets have increased over time to make it far easier to become informed.
Many protest that Sinclair’s attempted acquisition of Tribune will turn them into a news monopoly. Those same people want the FCC to block the proposed acquisition. While there are rules to prevent a monopoly in a given industry, there’s nothing stopping other private news agencies from setting up shop to give viewers some competition. There’s also nothing stopping freelance journalists from getting a story and presenting it to people, but consumers should also research who they get their news from to determine legitimacy. Ultimately, the free market will weed out illegitimate journalists and news agencies as viewership and advertising revenue declines.
On and offline, I’m a frequent critic of the quality of the news being broadcast, though I am fortunate to live in a nation where we have a free press that can criticize and call out the government when necessary.