California Forum

With a free press under siege, propaganda is rising. Bring back the Fairness Doctrine

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which this month made local affiliates air a segment echoing President Donald Trump’s anti-media rhetoric, owns some 200 stations, including some in California. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS)
Sinclair Broadcast Group, which this month made local affiliates air a segment echoing President Donald Trump’s anti-media rhetoric, owns some 200 stations, including some in California. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS) TNS

The American press has been financially under siege for nearly 25 years, as the internet continues to lure readers, viewers and advertisers away from traditional print and broadcast outlets. This is more than a problem for unemployed reporters, withering university journalism programs, and shareholders in legacy media.

We are experiencing a moment of profound national crisis, with multiple investigations and lawsuits swirling around the White House, American foreign and domestic policy in virtual chaos and a powerful and determined foreign adversary bent on undermining our most precious democratic institutions. The times cry out for reassurance from our political leadership – and a renewed commitment to core journalistic principles and values from a robust and independent news industry, on which we all depend for vital information.

Unfortunately, recent developments only give us new cause for alarm.

While they all crave publicity and attention, many candidates and probably most incumbents regard the press as a nuisance at best and a potential threat at worst. But during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump found great profit in running not just against his political opponents, but directly against the American press.

At his very first press conference as president, he denounced the “fake news media” – by which he specifically meant ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and the New York Times – roughly 20 times, calling them “the enemy of the American People.” For a candidate, it was a successful, if cynical tactic; in a president, it’s an abuse of power and a potential threat to democracy itself.

In a January speech on Senate floor, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, compared Trump’s attacks on the press to those of Russian dictator Josef Stalin, who also employed the phrase “enemy of the people” to attack and marginalize his critics.

“Of course, the president has it precisely backward,” Flake said. “Despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy.”

This president relies for both information and policy advice on Fox News, which has long been synonymous with the most conservatively biased and hysterical reporting and commentary ever seen on a major American news network.

And Sinclair Broadcast Group – which owns or operates nearly 200 TV stations, including in Fresno, Bakersfield, Eureka and Redding, (and is bidding for 40 more, including major markets like L.A., New York and Chicago) – seems to be emerging as a national hard-right propaganda mill.

The company, notorious for its practice of demanding that its local stations carry “must-run” conservative commentaries by former Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn, carried a segment last month on the purported threat from the so-called deep state with former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka. It was produced by a former anchor/correspondent for Russia Today, which the Columbia Journalism Review calls “the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet.”

Set aside for a moment the head-spinning dichotomy of an arch-conservative American media company compelling its outlets to carry propaganda that literally follow the Moscow line, produced by a one-time employee of a Russian government-funded network.

Sinclair has now taken things one step further, ordering its news personnel across the country to deliver the same scripted message denouncing “fake news,” asserting that “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias,” and warning darkly that “this is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

The president’s tweeted response to widespread denunciation of Sinclair’s Stalinoid campaign? “The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The ‘Fakers’ at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!”

There was a time when the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine helped keep its radio and TV licensees responsible, and responsive, to their communities by requiring them to “offer contrasting views on issues of public importance.” But after the Reagan administration dropped the policy in 1987, most stations quickly shed any pretense of covering substantive issues, or making any effort to do so in a truly fair and balanced manner.

And so today we have Fox and Sinclair running news divisions whose ideological bias and indifference to basic journalistic ethics would have once been inconceivable.

It now seems possible that the economic collapse of the traditional news industry could end with the complete political collapse of a free and independent press. If you’re not alarmed at that prospect, you haven’t been paying attention.

Former congressman Mel Levine serves on the executive committee of Jews United For Democracy and Justice (JUDJ), a Los Angeles coalition defending civil rights and civil liberties. Joel Bellman chairs JUDJ’s strategic response committee. Reach them at mlevine@gibsondunn.com and jbellman@ca.rr.com.

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