I started my television news career at a small chain of stations in central Nebraska. I covered Grand Island.
The station’s general manager fancied himself a man of the people. Each night he would take two minutes of newstime to offer pre-recorded commentary on the stories of the day.
The topics were predictable: the evils of big government and big taxes. Creeping socialism. The rugged self-reliance of rural America.
At one point, though, Grand Island considered a tax increase for local programs. I suggested to the GM that he write an editorial about the proposal — he could be for it or against it, I said, but voters would like to hear his views.
Oh, I can’t do that, the GM replied. That would make someone mad.
I thought of that early lesson in priorities this week, as social and mainstream media wrestled with two stories: a boycott of conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham’s advertisers and a dog-whistle message aired by stations in the Sinclair Broadcasting television group.
Most of the outrage was directed at Sinclair. The company told its anchors to read a script lambasting “biased and false” news reporting.
Without irony or any self-awareness, the script adds: “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 our democracy.”
Well, yes it is. Which is why Sinclair shouldn’t do it.
(Full disclosure: Sinclair owns no stations in Kansas City, but it is trying to buy Tribune Media, which includes WDAF-TV. I provide analysis at the station.)
Let’s be clear. The First Amendment is important, even for fringe opinions. William Randolph Hearst told his newspaper editors what to say and do, and the republic survived.
And in almost every city where Sinclair owns a station, there are viewing alternatives.
Televisions also include an off switch, which is what should worry Sinclair.
Ingraham, a Fox News host, recently tweeted a nasty comment at Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor and anti-gun activist David Hogg.
He responded by calling for a boycott of her advertisers. Several companies say they’re dropping the show.
Conservatives have howled, claiming dangerous censorship. It is nothing of the sort. The “marketplace of ideas” is more than a metaphor, a fact Ingraham and Fox may learn in the days ahead.
But Ingraham’s success or failure ultimately won’t mean much. She and her cohorts aren’t selling news. They’re selling a weird hybrid of commentary and carnival-barker humor.
Reporters working at Sinclair, on the other hand, are selling trust: an implied promise that the news is gathered as aggressively and impartially as possible. That trust is critical, and highly fragile. If it’s broken, careers are at stake, and journalism suffers.
Almost all reporters understand this. That’s why the industry has reacted so aggressively to Sinclair. At a time of eroding trust in all media, the company may be turning its news programs into shout-fests.
If that continues, more erosion is inevitable. But there’s another possibility.
It could be that Americans are smart enough to see Sinclair’s message as Nebraskans saw the editorials from my Nebraska boss: bland wallpaper, not to be taken seriously.
If that turns out to be true, the news will win, and reporters can go back to work.