The lower-budget aspects of local news may be endearing, as John Oliver noted at the beginning of last night’s main segment of Last Week Tonight. Using a cardboard bear recreation of a bear attack, for example, is a visible form of corner-cutting that gave one local news program that special, somewhat retro DIY flavor. And those comforting qualities can also lead people to develop trusting loyalties to local news anchors; in fact, Oliver says local news is trusted more than actual news, citing a Pew Study conducted last year. But these days, there’s a lot more below the surface of local news — namely, the political agendas that accompany corporate consolidation. John Oliver devoted 20 minutes to examining this trend’s impact on local news, and its serious impact on its trustworthiness.
As Oliver stresses, though some of the cheap aesthetics of local news may be amusing, local news channels are also an indispensable source of information — reporting on stories that wouldn’t be of national interest (though it’s not infrequent, of course, that local news stories end up getting national and even international attention). What’s dangerous now is that more and more channels are beholden to skewed agendas, as Oliver exemplifies through a company called Sinclair Broadcast Group’s likely imminent acquisition of Tribune Media. Oliver explains, “Sinclair may be the most influential media company that you’ve never heard of,” as they would become “the largest single group of TV stations in the nation” when they buy Tribune media – adding 42 new channels, giving them 215 in total.
Unlike other owners of local news channels, Sinclair has a pretty imposing strategy with their individual channels: they produce segments of conservative commentary themselves — and then necessitate their usage by their affiliates. Oliver shows clips of two commentary segments regularly given to local channels as “must runs”: one by a man named Mark Hyman, the Vice President for Corporate Relations at Sinclair, and who also goes on diatribes about liberal “snowflakes” across Sinclair’s many channels, and another from Boris Epshteyn, who was one of the Trump campaign’s senior advisors, and is also the Chief Political Analyst for Sinclair. The “must runs” are various: as both Oliver and the New York Times before him note, prior to Trump’s election, the company had channels air a segment “that suggested in part that voters should not support Hillary Clinton because the Democratic Party was historically pro-slavery.”
Beyond these commentary segments by these two bloviating conservatives, even the ad breaks that Sinclair runs “can skew conservative,” says Oliver, and the company can actually dictate some of the the content of a newscast. In one of the most impactful parts of the story, Oliver shows how a script was used across local news channels to introduce a story about Michael Flynn — seeing every local newscaster delivering the conservative-leaning script with their own personal tonal spin is particularly unsettling. Also troubling: their fear-mongering nightly terrorism alert desk, with affiliates reporting on terrorism every single day, “whether there is something to report on or not.”
So, as Oliver suggests, check to see who owns your local news channel before becoming too enchanted by the by the personalities who may be being given no other choice than to read off conservative-tinged scripts by a mega-corporation that’s actually making local news anything but local.