Local media is dead silent on one key issue: Its own health.
If you’re an avid watcher of local television news, you may have noticed some intriguingly worded national stories interspersed among the gratuitous crime scene footage and from-the-scene events coverage that typically occupy the airwaves for a half hour at 5 and 11.
Last week if – instead of watching the news – you watched the liberal infotainment stylings of Comedy Central’s John Oliver, you may have caught a piece highlighting the practice a large national media organization, Sinclair Media Group. Carried out in markets such as on Syracuse’s popular news show, CNY Central, Oliver outlined a practice of running something called “must-run” segments, something that stations across the country are required to air by corporate decree handed down from up top, the content of which often featuring right-leaning political commentary taking away valuable programming minutes for local stories. Oliver played an intriguing clip during his segment that aired on the channel ahead of the 2016 election, one which falls out of the realm of their typically robust offerings of mischief, mayhem and the occasional human interest piece we tend to lean on local cable news for: packages blaming the Democratic Party for slavery, Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. His highlighting of the broadcast company’s mandated “Terrorism Alert Desk” segments were an added bonus.
After hours, journalists occasionally like to hang out with each other. Oftentimes, no matter how hard we try, we usually end up talking about work. Media literacy – how people process and evaluate the trustworthiness of the news they’re receiving – is a popular topic.
What we don’t talk about enough, maybe out of good manners, is each other.
Since the first printing press knocked over the first domino toward the information age, individuals and communities have created a market for knowledge. Naturally independent with an immovable marketplace to cater to, the first media outlets were naturally profitable, self-sustaining enterprises, holding onto their business models for several centuries and publishing up-to-date, on-the-ball information on a daily basis. This was a practice that, for a long time, fulfilled the first and foremost tenet of our democracy: The right to free speech and a truly independent press, one separate from government oversight and financial control. The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights even states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”
We just didn’t expect insufficient funds to be the frontier to take that away and give it to those who mislead us. And corporations, at least the wealthy people who run them, have opinions too.
Locally, a lot is falling through the cracks. Our local daily newspaper, if not for corporate interference, likely would be long gone and even then, the whims of the corporate structure have left it gutted, attempting to fulfill its traditional function with little time to build sources or commit time to the relentless pursuit of the truth that, at one time, won the paper a Pulitzer Prize citation. Our local online-only outlet and us – the humble alt-weekly – are attempting to fill the void left behind, yet are often limited by our own resources. There are several other outlets in town to fill the gaps, true, but oftentimes prove just as small and at times, redundant in the news they provide. As such, you’ll see three reporters in a courtroom, but none at a school board meeting. You’ll see a Finger Lakes Community Newspaper reporter at a Newfield Town Board Meeting for a public hearing on a massive tax hike, for instance, that will go unattended by the outlet the person most affected might subscribe to. In that regard local media – which is still local, save for several corporate-owned outlets – and all we miss, is a failing system. The consequences of this, not just the loss of culture, but the loss of an ally to the public, is an issue; one that needs to be discussed and soon.
“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate. I think that we should adhere to that principle with regard to admission into, as well as to life within this country.”
–Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., United States v. Schwimmer, 279 U.S. 644 (1929).
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the media, Paul Starr, a Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, wrote extensively on the politics and influence of the media, outlining how power, control and public opinion can be dictated not just legislatively, but from the influence and permeation of corporate interests. There is a pledge all journalists take: to tell the truth, to work diligently for it, and to do so with bravery and integrity. We’d love to do so. But we need to eat.
When our lifeblood no longer comes from our communities, it comes from up top. Whether the Faustian bargain comes in the form of “must-run” segments or a dedication of all our resources to stories on crime and chaos, the conditions of that bargain always come down to who holds the checkbook. And as Sinclair, owner or operator of 176 TV stations, including Syracuse’s NBC 3 (WSTM-TV), CW 6 (WSTQ) and CBS 5 (WTVH) has shown, when those holding local coverage accountable are no longer local – no matter what their reporters see or hear in the community – only one voice goes over the airwaves.
And it’s certainly not yours.
Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca