CNN and MSNBC have put themselves in the curious position of attacking a rival broadcasting group for speaking out against the spread of phony news and propaganda that masquerades as well-researched journalism.
Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 173 local TV stations across America, recently asked its anchors to read a commentary condemning the pervasion of politically charged propaganda on social media. "The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media," the local anchors said. "More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories … stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first."
"Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever," they concluded.
For this, hosts and anchors on MSNBC and CNN spent much of Monday likening (privately held) Sinclair to the state-run media in the Soviet Union, China, and Venezuela.
MSNBC's Joe Scarborough likened the company to the Soviet Union:
SCARBOROUGH: “We conservatives mocked forever the Soviets and the fact that the state would type out their scripts and they would read news scripts that were obviously repeated —“
SCARBOROUGH: “— yeah, like robots were reading them and now that you have ‘conservatives’ and this is not conservative but people will say, ‘Oh, look at the conservatives reading their scripts,’ it’s nothing to do with conservatives, it’s Trumpian and it does — it does smack of like what — sort of state run media for an autocrat.”
CNN's Chris Cillizza said reporters reading scripted commentaries is "dangerous."
"This is a big deal," Cillizza said Monday. "Take President Trump out of it for a second. A large-scale media company, as you pointed out, of 170-plus stations, demanding that anchors across all of those stations read a pre-prepared document, statement. Whatever that statement is should be a little bit concerning, particularly when it echoes what we know is one of Donald Trump’s hobby horses which is the news is fake and people — there’s too much falsity out there. What’s false? What’s fake? Absolutely something local and national television should cover, but allegations and then just repeating this word for word I think is somewhat dangerous.”
MSNBC contributor Jon Meacham said the Sinclair broadcast was "an unapologetic assault on truth" and an "assault on reason and an assault on the democratic -- lower case D -- norms that helped us build a country that people wanted to come to and built a society that conquered the communistic one in the most existential struggle in human history." Historians, he added, will judge harshly those who did not condemn Sinclair.
CNN's media reporter Brian Stelter said that despite the commentary's seemingly inocuous messaging, its intent is actually meant to undermine the media industry itself:
"It's a little bit like the 'Make America great' slogan. Hey, that sounds great, let's make America great again. President Trump used that slogan during the campaign. But when you say that and then you attack immigrants, people start to wonder what you mean by making America great. There is something very similar going on here with Sinclair’s promos. They’re saying, 'Trust us, we're fair, we’re the ones that are honest, don’t believe the others.' That’s sort of an echo of President Trump’s anti-media messaging.
MSNBC contributor and New York Times journalist Jeremy Peters called the commentary "chilling to democracy": "What Trump and what now Sinclair is doing is conflating this idea of fake news, which is the purposeful manipulation and fabrication of fact with stories that they find somehow unflattering. And that is really what’s chilling to democracy.”
Mika Brzezinski, calling this a “really embarrassing moment for journalism,” also read a sexist angle in the story, suggesting the male anchors who participated are paid more than their female counterparts: “In many cases those were the journalists who are the highest paid in the market. I noticed a lot of men who were maybe in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Those are the highest-paid journalists in the market by far compared to the women sitting next to them. I can tell you that for sure. And they should know better.”
“This is a really embarrassing moment for journalism,” she added. “At this point, we can’t afford to be anything less than perfect. We have to try and strive for perfection and fairness everyday and this was a massive failure.”
The actual script is remarkable only for its plain-spoken appeal for accuracy in reporting:
Hi, I’m(A) ____________, and I’m (B) _________________…
(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our [local] communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that [station] produces.
(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.
(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories … stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.
(A) 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 a democracy.
(B) At [station] it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically "left nor right." Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.
Checking facts ... pursuing unbiased reporting ... accuracy being the foundation to credibility ... That this commentary aroused an almost all-day onslaught against the broadcasting company is confusing decision for networks that frequently tout themselves as fighting on the front-lines of intrepid, truth-telling journalism.