I know Doug Emblidge and Norma Holland. I’ve been to Emblidge’s house, we drank wine, he played guitar. Holland I’ve gotten to know mainly through her work with EstroFest, Rochester’s all-women comedy ensemble. So we’ve shared a few laughs.
Emblidge and Holland are also quality television journalists. They care about the profession.
Both news anchors at Rochester’s Channel 13 WHAM are now newsmakers since the web site Deadspin released a compilation of TV reporters reading a script provided by Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation. It’s hilarious, as the anchors earnestly mouth the message in unison. They’ve been compared to zombies. To political prisoners reading a propaganda statement prepared by their captors. It’s also chilling. Because the free press isn’t meant to be like this. Our local journalists should all be free thinkers, of their own minds, they shouldn’t be reciting corporate memos.
On its surface, the script might not seem all that horrible. It is a vague condemnation of fake news. The cacophony of voices never says what specifically triggered this outpouring of crocodile concern. The message simply seems to be: We can all agree, fake news is bad.
But we can’t agree what is fake news, and what isn’t.
Here’s why so many of those Sinclair television anchors have stepped up to confess – some anonymously, some on the record – their dismay at being a part of this charade. It’s because they know: Sinclair is a smarmy operation. It is the company that produced anti-John Kerry swiftboat stories, a disgusting attack on an American war hero. Sinclair provides the nearly 200 television newsrooms that it owns or operates with “must run” commentaries. Most notably the Terrorism Alert segments that appear virtually every day on its stations. These are generally substance-free reports, loaded with buzzwords about some foreign-looking, brown-skinned guy arrested at an airport. Here’s a typical Terror Alert, from last August:
Two men detained over the weekend at Heathrow Airport are now out on bail. The BBC reports that the men arrived on a flight from Turkey into London, and were questioned after being suspected of preparing for terrorist acts. However, officials say there is no immediate threat to the public and released them.
That’s it. That’s the whole story. Two men “suspected of preparing for terrorist acts.” Except, apparently they weren’t preparing for terrorist attacks after all, and the men were released. It’s not news.
Unless your aim is to create fear.
Vagueness is the weapon. They throw in a line about “suspected of preparing for terrorist acts” and let you fill in the blanks. Terrorists! At Heathrow Airport! Were they on their way here? Of course they were! Thank God we stopped them! This time…
How about our home-grown terrorists? Like the guy who shot and killed 58 people and wounded 851 at a country-music concert in Las Vegas. Or the guy who shot and killed 17 of his fellow students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Those killers are irrelevant, they don’t fit Sinclair’s right-wing scare profile. Those murders, that’s just the price Americans have to pay for our right to own assault rifles.
But I digress. Emblidge went to Facebook to thank those who came to his defense, who realized he’s not the problem:
Thanks to all for the kindness shown at a difficult time. This too shall pass. As I often say … some people have real problems. I don’t.
And I like the words Holland posted on her Facebook page:
The Sinclair message you saw me and my colleagues in has damaged the trust you place in us — a trust that’s taken, me in particular, 22 years to build. That hurts. Here’s the truth: I could have chosen to quit, but who among us has an alternate career in their back pocket ready to go? I have a family to support. That’s not an excuse — that’s reality. Moreover, I have a career I love and worked hard for. Am I supposed to be bullied into giving it up? So, I read the statement and now I’ve been called disgusting names. That hurts, too. One bad day does not speak for a career filled with good.
I’m with her on that. As journalists, all we have to offer is our integrity. Sinclair is hiding its political agenda behind the good names of its employees. People with families to support and no intention of abandoning a noble career.
We have to realize, the First Amendment is under assault. And we don’t know where the next attack is coming from. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s right and what’s wrong. You might not know if you’re getting wise counsel, or fear.
I’ve been in those kinds of uncomfortable situations in the past with my former employer. In my final year there, I had editors kill two of my stories, both featuring musicians and artists and writers calling out the misogyny, xenophobia, racism and bigotry accompanying the Trump campaign. You know, in talking to musicians and artists and writers, it was kind of hard to avoid that subject.
Like when the British singer Joss Stone – a funny, smart and delightful interview – told me that what was happened in the United States after Trump was elected looked “Hitler-ite.” You didn’t read that, it was cut from my story. Rather than allowing you to judge, an editor made the judgment for you.
Perhaps I could have sought out someone to express the other side of these stories. But I just didn’t feel like giving bigotry equal time. Like that piece I did on an art exhibit that was simply a trail of glass shoes, representing victims of the Holocaust. I could have sought out a Nazi to get the other side of that story. I didn’t bother. I guess as a journalist, that’s my failing.
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