When President Donald J. Trump tweeted out his endorsement of the Sinclair Broadcast Group on Tuesday, the pundit class duly noted that Sinclair’s news and commentary has a pro-Trump bent.
The president’s tweet came in response to a chilling video from the website Deadspin, which showed local news anchors at Sinclair stations across the country parroting a script decrying “fake stories” and “false news” allegedly disseminated by other networks and news outlets. The script could have been written by Trump himself, except for the grammar and spelling. As reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (h/t ThinkProgress), the script reads in part:
(A): But we’re 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.
(B): More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories … stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.
(A): Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control “exactly what people think.” … This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.
The president compared Sinclair to the networks Trump sees as his nemeses: “So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” Trump tweeted. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
During the presidential campaign, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and boy Friday, struck a deal with Sinclair for special access to the candidate. But I digress. (For more, see my December 2017 essay on Sinclair for The Baffler.)
For the thing here isn’t simply the coziness of the president with the nation’s largest owner of local television stations—its reach currently extends to 80 media markets—or that it has a deal pending before the Trump administration for the purchase of even more stations. (Should the deal go through, Sinclair would reach into 73 percent of U.S. households.)
The thing is authoritarianism. It’s not on our doorstep. It’s in the foyer, making its way toward the living room.
In a June 2017 report, Arch Puddington, resident scholar at Freedom House, distinguished between modern authoritarianism and the authoritarianism of yore by, in part, the way in which information warfare is waged. Using the example of media under Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Puddington writes, “This is not just normal political spin or public diplomacy, but sheer, raw propaganda that deliberately crosses the line between interpretation of facts and outright mendacity. The aim is both to stir up belligerence at home and to isolate, confuse, and demoralize the enemy.”
“Central to the modern authoritarian strategy is the capture of institutions that undergird political pluralism,” he explains. In the United States, outright capture of media on a massive scale is a little more complicated. But where capture is too difficult, undermining public perception of the trustworthiness of a given outlet will do.
Sinclair’s news operation isn’t a mere Fox News imitator. Fox News Channel is a cable outlet that people who already muck around in right-wing fever swamps self-select for confirmation of their biases. Sinclair’s propaganda is delivered through the television news operations most Americans rely on for their local news.
In the United States, people trust their local television news outlets at a higher level than they do national news networks. If Sinclair comes to enjoy a virtual monopoly in those markets, a wide swath of your basic low-information voters is ripe for the duping.
If you take the president’s tweet and the mandatory reading of the fake-news script by its local anchors in tandem with other authoritarian actions taken lately by either the Trump administration or its followers—the ICE raids of convenience stores and motels; the five-year sentence given a black woman who mistakenly thought she had the right to vote in an election and did so; the Salvadoran FBI informant who is now slated for deportation back to the country where his life is now in danger because he reported on MS-13 gang activity; attempts in the states to end abortion rights; the rise in hate crimes; demonization of Muslims; encouragement of law enforcement to get rough with suspects—you can see where we are.
We have an authoritarian leading the executive branch with a shrinking circle of advisers and agency heads, many of whom are simply rent-seekers. We have a Congress whose majority is fully aligned with the authoritarian leader, refusing to fulfill its constitutional duty as a check on his authority. We see the authoritarian even manipulating stock prices to punish his opponents.
Sinclair is but one part of the equation, but an important one. Elections will not be enough to overcome the changes in our political structure that have been wrought by this government. In every way possible, the people must express their unwillingness to go along with it.
Where are we? It will take only one disaster, only one declaration of a national emergency, for the jig to be up. (See Reichstag fire decree.)
It’s time to start calling this what it is: neo-fascism. And to take all responsible measures to defy it.