(The following is an open letter to Sinclair Broadcast Group, its board members, shareholders and decision makers. – Ed)
We the people of Humboldt County, on the Redwood Coast of California, would like to welcome you to our community. With your recent acquisition of four local television channels, you are now a major part of our media landscape. We may be a small market demographically, but we support our local news outlets and we have high standards and expectations for corporations that control access to information in our communities.
As the comedian John Oliver pointed out recently on his show “Last Week Tonight,” Sinclair has earned a somewhat unsavory reputation for biased coverage and inflammatory “must-run” segments that routinely misrepresent facts in order to benefit right-wing political agendas (more on this at tinyurl.com/LWT-Sinclair). While this behavior may stem from a legitimate belief that you are “doing the right thing,” you should be aware that it often comes across as cynical manipulation and intentional distortion of the truth.
From past experience, we know that consolidated absentee ownership reduces competition, threatens media localism and harms information diversity. For example, when the digital television transition modified the transmission systems for local TV broadcasters, coverage in large swaths of Humboldt County was significantly reduced.
While Bonten has made substantial investments in local origination, Sinclair has a reputation for requiring their owned affiliate stations to air non-local editorial content during local newscasts. This “must air” practice reduces local origination of news and information programs that address controversial issues of public importance. To become a trusted local broadcaster, your policies need to provide reasonable opportunities for local and opposing views to be expressed.
Since we would like to give you the benefit of the doubt as a new player in town, we have developed a short list of suggested actions that would help to demonstrate your commitment to becoming a responsible provider of high-quality information:
Ensure Localism with meaningful investments in local news and information programming to support public interests of local and tribal jurisdictions:
• Station broadcasts should identify “must air” non-local content on-screen.
• Provide equal airtime for local editorial content expressing opposing views.
• Ensure that Spanish language channel(s) include equivalent local program origination as other channels, and that tribes have in-language programming available on-air.
Promote Universal Access with investments in new infrastructure for our least served people and places:
• Install and maintain additional translator/repeater facilities to ensure full multi-casting coverage over the entire Designated Market Area served.
Transparency and accountability to local jurisdictions through community-based participation in local programming:
• Maintain public files, including annual reports on compliance with contractual promises available at every local library location.
• Dedicate multi-cast channel(s) programmed entirely with locally originated non-commercial content from local jurisdictions. (Note: This could be accomplished in coordination with Public-Education-Government access community media available now through the counties, cities and tribes served.)
While we would love to see all of the above actions incorporated into Sinclair’s local operations, we don’t hold out much hope that these issues will be addressed.
After all, we’re just one small piece of a growing monopoly, and there is lots of money to be made through media manipulation and control. Still, we promise to do everything in our power to make sure that you deliver services that meet local needs and community interests.
The North Coast is a very special place to its residents, and we sincerely hope you will thoughtfully consider these and other ways that we can work together to develop and support community-based media.
Think of this as a golden opportunity to improve your reputation and become a trusted and reliable source of news across the Redwood Coast region.
Welcome to Humboldt County, and rest assured that we will be watching closely and working tirelessly to help keep you accountable to the high standards of our community. That’s one piece of local news you can definitely count on.
Sean Taketa McLaughlin,
executive director, Access Humboldt