Media observers were outraged last week when a video went viral depicting more than two dozen news anchors broadcasting an eerily similar message: "Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias," they said. "This is extremely dangerous to our democracy."
The segment was handed down by the corporate heads of Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media giant made up of 173 stations in 81 markets across the U.S. The conglomerate has faced criticism before for an alleged conservative tilt and for its "must-runs." Controversy around the mandatory broadcasts reached a fever pitch on April 2 when "Deadspin" stitched together videos of anchors across the country reading the same script bashing the mainstream media.
The script echoed rhetoric used by President Donald Trump and his affiliates to criticize journalists, and the subsequent coverage unearthed a Politico article from 2016 that suggested Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, had claimed the campaign gave Sinclair increased access in exchange for favorable coverage. The media company disputed that the deal was out of the ordinary and said an offer for more coverage was extended to candidates from both major parties, according to the article.
In response to the "Deadspin" video, thirteen journalism school deans and directors signed a letter warning that Sinclair's actions had "diminished trust in the news media overall" and "may further erode ... the trust that viewers put in their local television stations."
The letter originated with University of Maryland journalism Dean Lucy Dalglish.
Dalglish said the origin of the letter was an e-mail a professor sent expressing concern over the Sinclair segment. The e-mail was then the topic of a faculty meeting which evolved into the letter.
"People were puzzled, distressed, angry," Dalglish said.
After drafting the letter, Dalglish and her faculty sent it to deans and directors of journalism schools across the country, inviting them to sign on. Among the recipients of the letter was Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Dean Christopher Callahan, according to Dalglish. A dozen schools signed the letter that very day, including the University of Arizona.
UA journalism program director, David Cuillier, said his faculty's only criticism of the message was that it was "too soft."
"My letter would be: your organization and your leadership is not worthy of journalism. It's not worthy of your employees and it's not worthy of our students," Cuillier said.
The Cronkite School did not join the chorus of schools denouncing Sinclair until Wednesday, five days after the letter was shared with them.
Associate Dean Mark Lodato said that he immediately reached out to "senior level contacts at Sinclair to open a dialogue" before the letter was even made public.
That dialogue continued on Monday at the Broadcast Education Association awards in Las Vegas, where Lodato said he met with Sinclair Senior Vice President of News Scott Livingston and Director of News Content and Operations William Anderson.
"I was in a position to not only express our concerns over the company's behavior but also more importantly, continue this level of conversation by setting up a call between Dean Callahan and (Sinclair Executive Chairman) David Smith," he said.
Lodato said the Cronkite School's plan was to schedule that call as soon as possible.
"But at the same time, if that didn't happen in a timetable we could find acceptable, then we were going to join the letter with the other schools," Lodato said.
With the phone call pushed back further, Callahan decided Wednesday morning to join the letter. But Lodato said that's not the end of the effort.
"I think we're going to accomplish more by continuing to have conversations with Sinclair at the highest levels so that's what we intend to do regardless," he said.
Senior Associate Dean Kristin Gilger said the element of conversation is important.
"I think having a conversation has more potential for impact," Gilger said. "We just want to make sure we are taking it very seriously."
Recruiters from Sinclair visit journalism schools across the country, including Cronkite, which Lodato said is not going to change.
"The reality is we don't want to stand in the way of our students when it comes to employment opportunities," Lodato said. "However, we do think it's our job and obligation to provide good counsel to our students. So we will continue to do that but we won't simply prevent (Sinclair) from coming in."
With the school having shared its opinion with Sinclair and with plans to continue those conversations, Lodato said it's up to the media company to "choose what to do." He noted that "they were very professional and open to hearing our concerns."
Both Lodato and Gilger shared their concerns over the content of the must-run segment. Gilger said the issue was one of transparency.
"It's one thing to do a promo and say it's a promo and say where it came from and why you're doing it," Gilger said. "It's another thing to present it as something it really isn't. It's not just the message itself ... but it's the lack of transparency."
Editor’s Note: Fortesa Latifi is a graduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The State Press is an editorially independent student-run news organization, and the Cronkite School plays no role in the publication’s news gathering, editing or publication process.