The political satirist John Oliver has spent plenty of time on air mocking the right-wing Breitbart News Network, infamous for headlines like “Why Equality and Diversity Departments Should Only Hire Rich, Straight White Men” and “Donald Trump Would Be the Real First Black President.”
But in yesterday’s edition of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, the British comic took aim at Sinclair Broadcast Group—a lower-profile media giant, but one with, arguably, broader reach. “I did not know it was possible to dip below the journalistic standards of Breitbart,” Oliver said. “That’s like being too bad a chef to work at a carnival food cart.”
Oliver called the ultra-conservative company, which reaches an estimated 2.2 million American households via its 173 stations, the “most influential media company that you’ve never heard of.” The privately owned television station operator’s stations are concentrated in the American South and Midwest.
The peg for Oliver’s segment was the likelihood that the media goliath is about to get far more influential: It’s in the process of buying Tribune Media. The $4 billion takeover would create the largest single group of television stations in the country including Seattle’s KOMO, Pittsburgh’s WPGH, Buffalo’s WUTV, and Austin’s KEYE-TV.
Sinclair is far from a hands-off owner. For years, the company has quietly bombarded its affiliate stations with “must run” sensationalist right-wing segments, including commentary from former Sinclair executive Mark Hyman and former Trump press officer Boris Epshteyn.
In his segment Oliver highlighted clips in which Hyman says “there’s one step that’s proven to reduce domestic abuse: marriage”; calls political correctness and multiculturalism a “nasty cancer epidemic”; and challenges the view that only black people can have a legitimate afro, saying “someone should tell Art Garfunkel.”
Sinclair also feeds its local stations pre-written scripts, which Oliver exposes in a comical montage of countless anchors using the same language to claim the FBI may have had a “personal vendetta” in investigating Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, for his links to foreign powers.
Perhaps most egregiously, Sinclair forces all of its stations to air a daily segment called “Terrorism Alert Desk.” Its dubious coverage ranges from the Islamic State chainsaw-killing nine Iraqi teens (an unverified story even Breitbart reported skeptically); to an ISIL flag hanging at a New Hampshire home; to French legislation on burkinis. “By that definition, terrorism is anything a Muslim does,” Oliver joked, quipping that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sneezing could be tonight’s segment.
While it’s easy to dismiss local newscasts as minor and sensational, Oliver points out that a lot of excellent reporting happens at the local level, which he regularly sources and runs clips from on Last Week Tonight. Recent Pew data shows that adults in the US trust local news more than national news, he says.
If the acquisition earns regulatory approval, which it likely will, despite some industry experts’ concern that Sinclair will become too powerful, Oliver warned viewers that factually inaccurate, racism-slanted reporting from Trump surrogates could become regular features of their favorite local stations.
While viewers can’t prevent the deal, it’s their responsibility to find out who owns our local news station, says Oliver, who closed out the segment with a warning message from The Sopranos’ Steve Schirripa.
“Local news should never be about cheap scaremongering or advancing a political agenda,” the actor said, before pulling out an adorable baby pig. “It should only be about weather, sports… and human interest stories featuring cute animals, like this pot belly pig.”