In a four-minute YouTube video linked at the top of the websites of several of its local television stations, Sinclair accuses CNN of “dishonesty and hypocrisy.” (Watch it below.) The cable network was one of the first to report on a script blasting media bias that Sinclair pressured its local news anchors to read on air.
Sinclair’s video, however, is fraught with misleading statements about the shifting concept of “fake news,” sending a disingenuous message to its viewers ― of which there are many. The broadcaster currently reaches around 40 percent of U.S. homes and is gearing up to acquire more stations, which would increase its reach to around 70 percent.
Much of the video focuses its attack on Brian Stelter, CNN’s senior media correspondent. It begins with a March 7 clip in which Stelter said Sinclair had taken “a page out of Trump’s playbook” by forcing its journalists to read the controversial script, which criticized “false news” stories and reporters who “use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda.”
Patching together CNN segments, the video attempts to show that Sinclair’s message to viewers about “false news” and Stelter’s warnings about “fake news” amount to the same thing ― and that CNN’s criticisms of Sinclair are thus dishonest.
“Does CNN really think a warning about ‘Fake News’ is Trump’s rhetoric?” Sinclair asks.
But the broadcaster’s video clearly ignores a whole lot of recent history and context.
Sinclair begins by pointing out that Stelter and CNN warned viewers about fake news repeatedly in 2016 and 2017. As anyone with internet access can easily confirm, this is accurate. Many major media outlets began talking about made-up “news” stories as the 2016 election was heating up ― and particularly after BuzzFeed discovered a cabal of Macedonian teens who were churning out fake pro-Trump stories for the advertising revenue. (Pope Francis did not, for example, endorse Trump for president.)
Sinclair suggests that this coverage was “a lot like what Sinclair anchors talked about in 2018” ― or what Sinclair made its anchors talk about in 2018 ― and, on the surface, it all does sound similar.
But the larger picture is that the term “fake news” has been politicized since it was first used by journalists to describe objectively false stories made up by writers foreign and domestic. Today it is repeatedly applied to reporting on well-documented real events, such as the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, that some readers don’t want to believe ― often for partisan reasons ― and to news analysis that readers don’t agree with.
This twist has been driven by Trump, who routinely slurs stories ― from crowd size to White House dysfunction ― that displease him. The president has even used the term on a human being, telling a CNN reporter, “You are fake news.”
To Stelter, Sinclair’s on-air warning about “false news” is particularly troubling because the anchors were ordered to read it or risk their jobs ― a threat to press freedom.
“Here’s the thing: These promos became a story because Sinclair staffers spoke up and said they were uncomfortable,” Stelter tweeted on Tuesday. “They said they’d never seen anything like this before.”
Other journalists were quick to push back against Sinclair’s latest defense on Twitter, too.
“Trump appropriated ‘fake news’ after the election to dismiss critical or unflattering coverage from legit news orgs,” Politico media reporter Michael Calderone wrote. “And he’s used the term throughout his presidency to suggest the public should trust him and not the press.”
“It’s disingenuous to act like the ‘fake news’ [Stelter] was warning viewers about in 2016 and early 2017 is the same ‘fake news’ Sinclair is railing against today,” wrote Mediaite’s Justin Baragona.
By now, “fake news” has become a slippery term with multiple definitions. In the script it made its employees recite, Sinclair doesn’t distinguish between the objectively false and the critically true, between genuine disagreements about the meaning of events and deliberate attempts to spin the truth ― and that’s the problem.