In his 2007 essay “The Braindead Megaphone,” George Saunders describes a gathering of average folks—discussing topics of interest to them with openness and intelligence—who are suddenly drowned out by a man with a megaphone. “He’s not the smartest person at the party,” Saunders writes, “or the most experienced, or the most articulate. But he’s got that megaphone.” Soon everyone at the party is talking about whatever megaphone-guy brings up instead of their own interests, beliefs, and ideas. “His rhetoric becomes the central rhetoric because of its unavoidability,” Saunders explains. People begin to use his diction; their thinking turns as limited as his. “This yammering guy has, by forcibly putting his restricted language into the heads of the guests, affected the quality and coloration of the thoughts going on in there,” Saunders writes. “He has, in effect, put an intelligence-ceiling on the party.”
Saunders’ parable, though written a decade ago, chillingly depicts the impact conservative media (and 45’s rhetoric) has had on many American citizens. The majority of Americans, after all, do not receive their news from reputable print publications that monitor the credibility of their sources. No, according to the Pew Research Center, 57% of Americans prefer to consume news spouted by the megaphone man himself: evening television broadcasts whose content is dictated far more by ratings than by fact and reason. What’s more, the nation’s largest local news provider, Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 173 broadcast television stations across the country, has a track record of dictating stories and segments that their news stations must report—and their mandated content leans far to the right, often spouting pro-Trump propaganda and mongering fear and bigotry towards people of color, Muslims, and other minority groups. To make matters worse, Sinclair is about to claim control over the information broadcast to even more American citizens by acquiring Tribune Media Company and, as a result, another 42 stations. This not only will lead to more severely slanted stories being reported as “news” in seven out of ten American households but also could dramatically help Trump’s reelection efforts—after all, the Tribune stations are in big cities and swing states where Sinclair has yet to claim a foothold. (For more information on Sinclair’s disturbing tactics, take a look at this video.)
Even those television stations not owned by Sinclair are chained by the demand to entertain—above the call to educate or inform. In her article “Media Malpractice 2016,” The Nation publisher Katrina van den Heuvel explained the extent which what is aired on local and cable news stations is dictated by ratings rather than by actual events or, during election season, actual proposed policies. She notes that this reality is “the result of corrosive structural changes—the collapse of local newspapers, excessive conglomeration, the obliteration of lines between news and entertainment, the rise of right-wing ‘news’—that are making it harder for the media to keep the public informed on the issues that demand our attention.” Indeed, over the last decade, several hundred daily local newspapers—once the primary source for local news—have closed their doors, merged, or moved to weekly instead of daily publication. This shift has led Americans to depend even more heavily on local television news.
The reality is that people who believe that they are thoughtfully informing themselves by tuning into the evening news are in fact often being fed sensationalist exaggerations, severely slanted reporting, and, in some cases, outright lies. And so we find that members of our families and communities accuse peaceful counter-protesters of inciting the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, call Black Lives Matter a hate group, and blame the counter-protestors themselves for the fact that a car accelerated into them, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people. “Truth” has instead come to mean the argument touted by whoever has the biggest megaphone—and those holding the megaphone today crave power and ratings—not education and justice.
We must demand nuanced, precise, and informed journalism—not only in our trusted print and online publications, but also in the news outlets that the majority of Americans use. We cannot allow a situation to persist in which Americans who believe they are simply staying informed are in fact being fed propaganda.
1. Spread the Word.
One of the scariest aspects of the media megaphone is that many folks don’t realize that it’s all they can hear.
- Look up which stations Sinclair already owns in your area and which ones they will soon own if the Sinclair-Tribune merger goes through.
- Educate yourself about Sinclair’s scary tactics and spread the word—to friends, to family members, to your wider community. If people understand that their local television news is biased, they will be more likely to turn to more reputable outlets like public radio and/or credible online journals.
2. Denounce the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit V. Pai, for loosening regulations on media consolidation and thereby enabling Sinclair Broadcast Group to bias and slant the news consumed by even more Americans.
- Twitter: @AjitPaiFCC
- Email: Ajit.Pai@fcc.gov
- Script: “The recent rollbacks of the Federal Communications Commissions’ media consolidation regulations go against the mission of the commission to protect diversity, competition, and local control in broadcast television. They enable media behemoths like Sinclair Broadcast Group to air conservative-slanted news broadcasts to viewers who don’t realize that their news-source is biased. Will you commit to protecting local control of broadcast television, especially local news, by preventing the merger of Sinclair and Tribune?”
From Free Press: “Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune should never be allowed to merge. If this deal goes through, a single company would own more than 200 local-TV stations reaching more than 70 percent of the country. That’s far beyond the legal limits on media ownership and far too much power in the hands of a single company. Sinclair has evaded FCC rules, received FCC fines for airing propaganda, and drawn wide criticism for airing politically slanted content on its stations. The FCC should block this merger and restore policies that encourage a diversity of local media owners and a wide range of viewpoints.”
4. Denounce Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s Right-Wing “Must-Run” Propaganda
So far, Sinclair has responded to the criticism of its must-run segments by doubling down and claiming that “terrorism is not nonsense,” despite the fact that many of their daily Terrorism Alert Desk reports do little more than stir up fear and Islamophobia. For example, a Terrorism Alert Desk segment from last summer reported on Muslim women wearing burkinis in France—because we all know what a terrible threat to our safety and security women’s beach-fashion choices are. And, of course, the must-runs go far beyond the Terrorism Alert Desk; they also include pro-Trump commentaries from former Trump staffer Boris Epshteyn and right-wing rants from commentator Mark Hyman. Let the group know how you feel about their tactics. Let’s flood their contact form with comments about the importance of honest and just reporting—and the danger of propaganda and bias.
5. Monitor your own media consumption
Make sure that your sources for news are reputable and fact-based. Some of the most reputable and unbiased news outlets include The New York Times, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Economist, BBC, Bloomberg, NPR, C-SPAN, PBS, The Washington Post (known to be slightly left-leaning), and The Hill (known to be slightly right-leaning). You can purchase online subscriptions to journals like The New York Times and The Washington Post for as little as ten dollars a month—far less than the cost of cable television.