On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver gave an update on one of his deep dives from 2017: a look at conservative local TV station owner Sinclair Broadcasting. In July, Oliver accused the company of bringing "troubling" right-wing bias to local newscasts. But what Sinclair Broadcast Group is doing now ups the questionable journalism ante, the host argued. Oliver played clips of local news hosts reading the exact same message, which attacked other news organizations.
The gist of the hosts' statement is that the national media is pushing a biased agenda, and you can only trust local news stations. Oliver didn't buy it.
"Yeah. Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult,” Oliver said. “I guess what I’m saying here, Sinclair, is that as a news organization, I believe you make no sense.”
The statement is worth reading in its entirety. CNN reported earlier in March that local journalists were being forced to read the statement and felt extremely uncomfortable doing so. Sinclair Broadcast Group has not yet spoken publicly on the reports. Bustle has reached out to the company for comment.
Here's what local news anchors were sent to read on air:
I’m [we are] extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that [proper news brand name of local station] produces. But I’m [we are] 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.
Oliver played a clip of many different stations reading that very script, mashed up in a way that truly does sound like a brain-washing seance. "Sinclair took their game to a new level,” Oliver said. “That statement is creepy enough, but when you see just how many local stations were forced to read it and you watch them together, as many have been doing online in the last couple of days, you begin to realize the true effect of Sinclair’s reach and power.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group is currently the largest owner of local television stations in the country, and it's trying to grow even bigger. Its $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media's news channels is on hold as federal regulators at the Federal Communications Commission consider the deal.
The company came under scrutiny during the 2016 presidential election for its reported "agreement" with the Trump Campaign. It traded access to the campaign in exchange for increased coverage on the channels the company owned. Jared Kushner reportedly explained to executives in New York that it was "math" because the company reached more viewers in places like Ohio than CNN or other cable networks.
Oliver, in his deep dive into the piece, criticized the size of the company and its coverage, focusing on its "terrorism" coverage. "They report on terror every single day, whether there is something major to report on or not," Oliver said, playing a segment about a burkini. "That is not about terrorism,” Oliver said. “It’s just about Muslims. By that definition, terrorism is anything a Muslim does."
The fact that this comes from the corporate office, which isn't always clear to viewers, Oliver found even more troubling. Viewers assume it's the views of the local anchors, "the two people who you know, and who you trust, and whose on-screen chemistry can usually best be described as two people."
Sunday's Last Week Tonight segment shows clearer than ever — with dozens of anchors speaking in sync — that Sinclair's corporate-led coverage is still airing.