This post originally appeared at The Nation.
On July 17, the Idaho television station KBOI tweeted a story about a would-be robber who allegedly “arrives early at banks to find doors locked.” Even more confusing than the indecipherable English was the photo it ran: that of Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson being arrested at a protest in Baton Rouge (the robbery suspect was not even black). Having had the mistake called to their attention, the station apologized, although another story on KBOI’s website used the same image of Mckesson beneath the headline “Officer wounded in deadly ambush sues Black Lives Matter.”
That KBOI is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group should surprise no one who has ever paid attention to the company — a category, alas, that includes precious few people. Sinclair is a far-right media operation that until recently has flown under the radar of all but the most studious media critics. It received brief scrutiny in December, when it was revealed that Jared Kushner had struck a deal with the company to give it special access to Donald Trump in exchange for a promise to run Trump interviews across the country without commentary. These were especially important to the campaign in swing states like Ohio, where Sinclair reaches many more viewers than networks like CNN. More recently, the station made news when its vice president and director, Frederick G. Smith, whose family owns the company, made a $1,000 donation to Greg Gianforte’s House campaign the day after he assaulted Ben Jacobs of The Guardian for the crime of asking a question about Trumpcare. Now the company is poised to take over Tribune Media in a $3.9 billion deal. Add Tribune’s 42 stations to the 173 that Sinclair already owns, and you’ve got the single biggest conglomerate of TV stations in America, reaching 70 percent of all households in the nation.
Though it receives a fraction of the attention lavished on Fox News, Sinclair is, in its own way, every bit as awful. It forces its affiliates to run regular segments by a former Sinclair executive, Mark Hyman, along with those of Boris Epshteyn, who, until recently, was a “senior adviser” to Trump and is now a full-time apologist for anything and everything the president says and does. In an impressive recent segment on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver noted that Sinclair sends scripts to its local news anchors to be delivered verbatim together with the clips it wants shown. Among these are “questions” like “Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russian investigation against President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn?” When the Trump administration approves Sinclair’s merger — which it certainly will, despite the fact that the merger violates current rules about concentration of ownership — local television news will be further delocalized as it grows simultaneously more right-wing and Trump-friendly.
A similar fate awaits Time Inc. if it is sold to either of what are reported to be its most energetic suitors. The first of these is American Media, which, run by David Pecker, might as well be run by Trump himself. Earlier in the year, Kushner offered to kill a story about Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski’s then-secret romance in Pecker’s flagship tabloid, the National Enquirer, if the Morning Joe co-hosts would personally apologize to Trump for their critical coverage. This extraordinary collusion was only recently revealed by Scarborough and Brzezinski in The Washington Post, after our idiot president went after Brzezinski for allegedly “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” Pecker denies all this, but it is entirely consistent with the tone of the coverage that Pecker has given his friend since Trump first announced his presidential campaign. (Representative headlines: “Donald Trump — His Revenge on Hillary & Her Puppets” and “Top Secret Plan Inside: How Trump Will Win Debate!”)
It’s hard to imagine a worse combination than a terrible tabloid tied to Trump and right-wing extremism, but if you were forced to find one, it would be the billionaire father-daughter combination of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who infamously bankrolled Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway and are the moneybags behind Breitbart News. The Mercers’ Renaissance Technologies recently snapped up nearly 2.5 million shares of Time Inc., creating speculation that they, too, were angling to buy the publisher of TIME, Peopleand Fortune, among other titles.
So on the one hand, far-right extremists with next to no commitment to traditional journalistic standards are seeking to expand their empire to the point where their version of “reality” will soon overwhelm the reporting from what remains of the mainstream media. On the other hand, those institutions — under intense financial and political pressure — are increasingly caving in to demands that they tailor their coverage to make it more consistent with the fantasy world promoted by Trump and his acolytes. CNN head Jeff Zucker, recently profiled in The New York Times Magazine as a lonely defender of truth under fire from a hostile White House, not only guided Trump’s career at NBC, he practically turned CNN over to the huckster during the campaign. In addition to all the free airtime he gave Trump, Zucker hired both the hapless Jeffrey Lord to act as Trump’s de facto on-air surrogate and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was simultaneously being paid by the campaign and enjoined by a nondisclosure agreement from telling the truth at the time of his hiring. Zucker’s defense? Lord and Lewandowski, far from informing CNN viewers regarding facts and evidence, are instead acting as “characters in a drama,” as if news programming were no different than The Sopranos.
MSNBC, meanwhile, has been on a hiring spree of right-wing hacks like Hugh Hewitt, Charlie Sykes, Greta Van Susteren (since fired) and George Will, who will join Elise Jordan, Steve Schmidt, Michael Steele, Rick Tyler, Nicolle Wallace, Scarborough and the execrable Mark Halperin on this allegedly “liberal” counterpart to Fox. Meanwhile, Fox is still Fox, despite the departures of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, among other sexual predators formerly in the station’s employ.
And yet, where are you reading about this? Who besides a British comedian with a weekly show on pay cable is raising this particular alarm? Almost no one. The frog is in the water and the heat is turned up high. But it’s not a frog; it’s the possibility of truth even entering our political discourse and determining the fate of our democracy that’s dying a slow death.