This past weekend, the media watchdog group Allied Progress began airing a message on Sinclair Broadcast Group stations urging viewers to contact the FCC and ask the agency to stop Sinclair’s consolidation of local news. This is something that the FCC could do, if it wanted—Sinclair is in the process of buying out Tribune Media and its 42 local TV stations, a merger that would put the number of stations Sinclair owns or operates past 200 if the agency allows it to go forward. Coincidentally, Sinclair has consistently produced content praising Donald Trump while it seeks that approval from Trump’s FCC.
The Allied Progress ad mostly uses a video I made a week ago, featuring dozens of Sinclair anchors reading a ridiculous statement bashing the media and parroting Trump’s rhetoric against “fake news.” Sinclair, in turn, bracketed the 30-second Allied Progress ad with its own, moderately-to-severely unhinged commentary on the Allied Progress ad:
Allied Progress didn’t spare any expense on this, as the spot is airing on Sinclair stations in its largest markets—including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Seattle. La guerra de los medios is upon us.
This was not my intention.
On March 7, CNN’s Brian Stelter first reported that Sinclair would be pushing its local news staff to air the message, and that’s when I got the idea to make a video of all the Sinclair anchors reading this ridiculous statement, together, in that all-too-familiar speech pattern shared by nearly every American TV newsreader. It would be absurd, a visual spectacle. Most importantly, it would be dumb.
As such, it would fit squarely within my job description. I make a lot of dumb videos here. Most of them are dumb, really, even the ones that go viral. Maybe especially the ones that go viral.
But news and politics posts always reach a much larger audience than sports posts, because (sorry, “stick to sports”-ers) a lot more people care about news and politics than care about sports. Sometimes we mix them all together to make something especially dumb, and they become even more popular:
I aim to make interesting things that highlight hypocrisy, absurdity, or novelty; I’m influenced by the work of Jon Stewart-era Daily Show, Adult Swim, and teamcatlab, and the videos I make tend to reflect that. I’ve made videos about Melania Trump plagiarizing Michelle Obama in an RNC speech, her husband plagiarizing a Batman villain in his inaugural address, Hillary Clinton being full of shit, and so on. While the posts written to accompany these videos usually reflect the politics from which I, or my colleagues, are coming, I don’t really want the videos to represent anything other than the farce that is the intersection of media and reality at this moment in time.
Our original Sinclair video was made absent of any activist bent, or even conspicuous evidence of any political position at all. It was just a strange, spooky thing that happened, cut together in an attempt to play the strangeness and spookiness up. The resulting video found a massive audience, which is always nice, but that audience has viewed the video within three wildly different contexts.
The first, and most ludicrous, is that the alt-right has somehow appropriated the video as proof of “fake news.” I will admit that this one is pretty confusing to me. Such a reading would need to ignore 1) the fact that the video’s source is being a left-leaning media company and 2) that the stations featured in the video are owned by a right-wing media empire, which would be pretty ignorant. But that’s who we’re dealing with, and so right-wingers have held this video up like Simba before the Pride Lands as proof mainstream media outlets are fake news. (Seriously, the constantly wrong reactionary blog Gateway Pundit credited Infowars conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson as the creator of the video.)
The second context is what—to the extent that any intent can be assigned to the work, although as its creator I can affirm there is none—could be assumed to be the “intentional” understanding: audiences casually familiar with the existence of Sinclair Broadcasting and its history of pushing propaganda on its viewers finally had a “document” of the degree to which Sinclair dictates what its local newscasts deliver to viewers at home.
The third context is perhaps the most frightening, and may constitute the one from which a majority of viewers encounter it. Absent any background on media consolidation in this country, nor knowledge of what Sinclair is and what political angles they push on their viewers, such a middle-of-the-road viewer could simply conclude that “you can’t trust the news,” and, when confronted with this video evidence that “they’re all reading from the same script,” simply mark down his or her internal confidence in news media in general.
That, of course, was Sinclair’s intent from the beginning. What kind of impact all this has made is hard to say. It’s impossible to pin down exactly how many views the video has, as it was almost immediately ripped and posted to Reddit without any context minutes after we published it, not to mention that thousands of people posted it to Facebook, but the number is at least 30 million from my counting. I’ll reckon with whatever harm might result from all this, but it seems pretty clear this is just the beginning.
Sinclair stations have already pushed back, with some refusing to record or air the initial scripted message at all. While the meta-effect of the campaign may have brought down viewer confidence in the news, Sinclair obviously saw an immediate risk to its reputation as the company effectively shut down the campaign soon after we published our post on March 31. Local Sinclair employees have begun questioning the corporation’s other “must-run” programming. We also have this, from a commentator on Sinclair-owned KPTM in Omaha:
I promise to continue making weird dumb shit for your amusement, and apologize in advance for any future wars, media or otherwise, that may result from their publication.