Thoughts on Sinclair, After Working for John Robert Starr

Thoughts on Sinclair, After Working for John Robert Starr

When I went to work at the Arkansas Democrat in the 1980s, the chief editor was John Robert Starr, a titan of bluster whose daily column mixed egotism, populism and opportunism. He was a punishing boss, yelling at underlings and blacklisting journalists for various offenses, including the disloyalty of choosing to work for someone else.

Starr, who died in 2000, often gave favor to news subjects on the basis of how much they confided in him. And sometimes he projected his columns’ viewpoints into the news report.

Staffers voiced ethical qualms, but very few quit their jobs. I certainly didn’t. Starr’s journalism was ferocious and sometimes brilliant, and he had his admirers, even though many of his troops would have preferred working for the rival Arkansas Gazette.

Before joining the Democrat, which became the Democrat-Gazette after winning the newspaper war, I was at the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. There, Publisher Frank E. Robins III ran a paper with great integrity. But as a board member for Conway Corp., he reviewed every word we published about the municipal utility, a level of scrutiny he didn’t apply to other topics. Again, journalists didn’t rush for the exits.

So I sympathized when I saw KATV anchor Chris May in Deadspin’s viral video compilation of Sinclair Broadcast Group TV journalists parroting a corporate “fake news” warning. May is a Little Rock boy who made good in Boston and Philadelphia before coming home in 2016. For much of 2016, May couldn’t speak about the KATV job until his contract with CBS-owned KYW-TV expired, even though he had been replaced on the air in Philly months earlier.

Strict contracts no doubt kept many journalists from quitting Sinclair, a 173-station giant based in Maryland, over its blatant adoption of Donald Trump’s anti-media rhetoric.

One worker who did quit, a morning news producer in Nebraska, told Brian Stelter of CNN that Sinclair was “almost forcing local news anchors to lie to their viewers.”

Sinclair sends stations “must-run” segments, including political commentary by former Trump campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn.

Trump tweeted that Sinclair was “far superior” to CNN and NBC, “which is a total joke.” But it’s Sinclair that’s been a punchline for everyone from John Oliver of HBO (Sinclair journalists are brainwashed cultists) to Andy Borowitz of the New Yorker (Sinclair anchor starts reading news in Russian) to The Onion.

No, local news folks shouldn’t be pledging their bosses’ allegiance to Trump in the media wars. But they are at financial gunpoint. “I’m sure they were given the option to not recite it and lose their jobs,” The Onion joked, a little too close to reality.

Sinclair, which acquired KATV in 2013, dismissed the criticism, finding it “curious that we would be attacked for asking our news people to remind their audiences that unsubstantiated stories exist on social media.” It denied any political agenda, and doubled down by accusing other news outlets, including CNN, of hypocrisy.

Fake stories have indeed taken flight on social media, and urging audiences to weigh their news sources is the same kind of advice my boss, Arkansas Business Editor Gwen Moritz, gives in presentations to civic groups.

But anyone familiar with Sinclair can read between the lines. Trump hurls “fake news” at any report he dislikes, even at demonstrably true reports. And by taking up his terminology, Sinclair cozies up to Trump, whose son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said in 2016 that the campaign had “struck a deal” with Sinclair to “secure better media coverage.” Sinclair described it as an agreement to “hear more directly from the candidate … instead of hearing all the spin and all the rhetoric,” according to Politico.

It’s one of many examples of a Trump-Sinclair symbiosis as the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission consider the TV chain’s proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Broadcasting, which could add more than 30 stations to Sinclair’s empire, including KFSM-TV, Channel 5, the CBS affiliate for Fort Smith/Fayetteville.

Colleagues and critics like David Simon, the former journalist who created “The Wire” for HBO, say no enforceable contract could require journalists to lie for their bosses. True, but at Channel 7 and other Sinclair stations, news pros face complex realities. Sinclair has an agenda, but local news is driven by local stories, and KATV’s newscasts dominate the ratings. Viewers, who vote with their eyeballs, respect the local journalism.

And like me, at least so far, they’re not inclined to shoot the messenger.