A Word From Sinclair, and Giggles from John Oliver

A Word From Sinclair, and Giggles from John Oliver
Chris Kane (KATV)

There he was, anchor Chris Kane of KATV’s “Daybreak,” smack in the middle of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” on HBO July 2.

It was an uncomfortable place to be, as it happened.

A video clip showed Kane uttering part of the same lead-in to a news report that was heard on Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.’s TV stations across the nation: “Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russia investigation of President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn?”

Anchors from Rochester, New York, to Fresno, California, were shown reciting precisely the same words in the centerpiece of Oliver’s remarkable 19-minute takedown of Sinclair. The complaint was that the company distributes tendentious “must-run” viewpoints and even news angles on the 173 local television stations that it owns.

Oliver’s argument, which can be seen on YouTube, is that privately owned Sinclair imposes its conservative worldview on all viewers. He ridiculed Boris Epshteyn, Sinclair’s chief political analyst who was a Trump administration adviser a few months ago. The broadcast group responded by announcing it would be sending even more of Epshteyn’s segments — nine a week — to its stations.

Oliver, who called Sinclair “the most influential media company that you’ve never heard of,” warned that a pending $3.9 billion deal could add Tribune Media’s 42 TV stations to Sinclair’s chain. Sinclair would be the largest single owner of TV stations in the nation, and KATV would get sister stations in Fort Smith (KFSM), Eureka Springs/Fayetteville (KXNW) and Memphis (WREG) — a “pipeline across the state,” as KATV News Director Nick Genty put it.

Oliver got some laughs out of the deal. “It’s a little disconcerting to learn that something you’ve only just heard of is throwing around $4 billion,” he jibed. “It’s like finding out that ExxonMobil has just been bought, and it was by the little twerp who plays the new Spider Man.”

The combined viewership of Sinclair’s top stations already eclipses programs on Fox News, Oliver said, including “That Guy From College Everybody Hated Has a Talk Show Now, With Tucker Carlson.” Carlson once watched KATV as a young man in Little Rock, where he wrote editorials for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“It’s easy for me to make fun, but local news fills an important role,” Oliver said. “Local news is trusted more than national news.” He said that trust suffers when Sinclair airs right-leaning reports and commentaries like this from Epshteyn’s colleague Mark Hyman:

“We’re threatened by a nasty cancer epidemic, and it’s a danger to our nation,” Hyman intoned. “It is political correctness and multiculturalism.” In one commentary, he railed against notion that only black people can legitimately have afros. “Someone should tell that to folk singer Art Garfunkel,” he said, deadpan. Oliver pounced: “As I believe Paul Simon once said, ‘There’s no need to involve Art Garfunkel in anything!’ ”

Seriously, Oliver said “the problem is there is real power in hearing your trusted local newscasters using ‘FBI’ and ‘personal vendetta’ in the same sentence.”

Sinclair defended its “must-run” segments in a statement: “While we appreciate John Oliver’s unique brand of humor, we stand by our approach to sharing content among our stations. ...”

Genty referred questions to Sinclair corporate officials, who did not immediately respond. Epshteyn said he was surprised by Oliver’s “broadside attack,” particularly on Sinclair’s “Terrorism Alert Desk.” He noted the horrendous casualty counts from the London killings, the Manchester arena bombing and the truck attack in Nice, France, and said Sinclair has a duty to inform and protect viewers. But Oliver wasn’t lampooning reports on real terror, but rather “Alert” items like a piece on French towns banning modest beachwear called burkinis.

“That’s not about terrorism, it’s just about Muslims!” Oliver said.

Steve Barnes of “Arkansas Week,” KATV’s top newsman in the 1980s and one of Arkansas’ most accomplished journalists, called cookie-cutter content “unfortunate, whether from left or right.”

A bigger issue is “one corporate giant” amassing “such a staggering number of once-independent voices.” Syndicated TV material never played well in Little Rock, he said. Even the right-leaning radio storyteller Paul Harvey failed to move the needle. What people want from local outlets “is, well, local news.”

But it’s a free country, especially when it comes to the press. “It’s their station, their property, and they can do what they damn well please with it,” Barnes said. “Of course, the viewer still has options. For now.”