Sinclair Bashing: Talking Points Attacking the First Amendment or Merely Competitive Mudslinging?

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“It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead.”

Ernie Pyle wrote those lines in his column describing D-Day in 1944. He was the most popular – and memorable – war correspondent during World War II. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. The following year, with the European Theater of Operations coming to a close, Pyle relocated to the Pacific Theater of Operations. There, on April 18, 1945, on the island of le Shima, Ernie Pyle’s pen fell forever silent. Covering the Battle of Okinawa – the last major battle of the War – the 44-year-old journalist was killed instantly in a hail of Japanese machine-gun fire.

President Harry S. Truman eulogized Pyle saying of the columnist, “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.” Truman added, “More than any other man, he became the spokesman of the ordinary American in arms doing so many extraordinary things… Nobody knows how many individuals in our forces and at home he helped with his writings. But all Americans understand now how wisely, how warm heartedly, how honestly he served his country and his profession.”

Ironically, Pyle’s final columns, published posthumously on April 28, 1945, was, in his own words, “a column about Fred Painton, the war correspondent who dropped dead on Guam a short time ago.”

Since 1995, we’ve been celebrating April 18th as “National Columnist Day.” Sponsored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC), the day celebrates Ernie Pyle and his fellow-travelers. In the inaugural event, the NSNC said, “The anniversary of the April 18, 1945 death of the great Ernie Pyle is a time to reflect on the way newspaper columnists connect, educate, comfort, encourage, celebrate, outrage and occasionally even amuse readers and a time to express appreciation for them for their hard work.”

Sadly, for all the glory that Pyle gave to the uncensored yet judiciously written word, today we find the precious first amendment under whose flag he flew subject to enemy fire. And you’d be surprised at who’s firing the shots.

Consider this: Would you not agree with any of the following statements?

  • “I’m 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.”
  • “More alarming, national media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first.”
  • “Unfortunately, some members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’ … This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”
  • “We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left or right.’”
  • “Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.”

Chances are, if you’re paying attention to today’s headlines and were fortunate enough to be educated properly in American history, you agree with all six statements.

The first three statements deal with the proliferation of what’s been called “fake news.” Certainly, there’s no question people – on both sides of the political aisle – have come to realize the dark side of social media. Those familiar with the work of Robert Cialdini saw this coming years before Scott Adams became an internet wunderkind on the tactics of persuasion. That people are beginning to leave Facebook and Twitter shows the magnitude of this concern.

The latter three statements attest to the journalism ideal – objective reporting that restates what happened without color commentary. Truth be told, the audience likes to believe they want just the facts, but it’s the color commentary that keeps them coming back for more. Color commentary, however, doesn’t need to reflect opinion. You need look no further than Pyle’s description of D-Day above (or the extract from the 1941 Buffalo Evening News article I used as an example in my column “The Difference Between a Reporter and a Columnist,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, April 4, 2018).

Still, given the choice, the audience would prefer the honest truth. When it comes to which side of an issue to support, the audience is confident it can decide on its own.

For all the common-sense consensus and support behind those six statements, why is it that, in a rush to judgment, almost every major mass media outlet came out against them? The attack was brutal. The usual suspects called for the usual boycotts. It was as if the very fabric of the American soul had been torn asunder. “Truth, free speech, and honesty be damned,” you could hear them say (in so many words). “If the audience doesn’t like our bias, they’re free to change the channel. If you criticize us, you’re un-American!”

Who said these words? Why, it was Sinclair Broadcast Group, “one of the largest and most diversified television broadcasting companies in the country” (according to its website). Locally, it owns Channel 13 and Fox Rochester. Immediately upon broadcasting these statements (read by local anchors to local audiences), their competitors began bashing the company. Almost all the stories referred to similar talking points. They “shamed” Sinclair as “conservative” or “pro-Trump” (as if these were bad things) and quoted anonymous insiders who complained about being “forced” to read something they didn’t agree with.

So, is this a concerted attack on our constitutional right to a free press? Are we beginning to see a civil war where the mass media colludes to restrict free speech? Are we on some Orwellian brink that ends with the first amendment being repealed? (I supposed if it ever came to this, we can always rely on the second amendment to counter any attempt to curb the first amendment.)

Or is this simply par for the course competition. After all, Sinclair is in the process of buying Tribune. Such a combination would give it the corporate heft to threaten such media mainstays, as ABC (“Trump defends Sinclair as media company takes fire for ‘false news’ scripts”), CBS (“Trump defends Sinclair Broadcast after Deadspin video), NBC (“TV anchors decrying ‘fake’ news put spotlight on Sinclair Broadcast Group”), CNN (“Sinclair tells stations to air media-bashing promos – and the criticism goes viral”), The New York Times (“Sinclair Made Dozens of Local News Anchors Recite the Same Script”), The Washington Post (“The real problem with Sinclair’s ‘fake’ news script”), and perhaps even PBS (“How Sinclair Broadcasting puts a partisan tilt on trusted local news”).

See how this game is played?

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As we stroll along the beach of life and our reflection on Ernie Pyle continues beyond National Columnists Day, let us ponder how he might feel about this ongoing media fratricide.

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