How much control do local reporters who work for corporate media have over their stories? And how does their control, or lack thereof, affect our local community?
Over the course of Trump’s presidency, Neta has kept local news outlets accountable when they parrot the government line with respect to immigration. Recently, we were contacted by former reporters of one such outlet: KGBT-TV, a news station in the Rio Grande Valley with an association with the major media company Sinclair.
The reporters describe an environment of pressured assignments from management and the implied risk of termination in a highly-competitive job market, leaving them in no position to refuse stories they may disagree with or find unethical.
In April, many Sinclair-owned stations broadcasted an identical script warning the public about the “extreme” dangers of “fake news” to “our democracy.” It turns out that these warnings were what the media knows as “must-run” segments. KGBT Channel 4 produced one of them. And now, former KGBT employees have approached Neta to talk about what it was like to work for the Maryland-based conglomerate, who, in 2017, entered into a merger with Tribune Media that could give it more than a third of the country’s local TV stations.
The merger is under threat, as the Federal Communications Commission voted to send the proposed merger to an administrative hearing Wednesday.
Former employee, Analise Ortiz, talked about KGBT’s “Say What?” segments, in which reporters approach bystanders on the street and ask questions about the news. According to Ortiz, “The questions are asked in such a way that it welcomes a certain answer that serves Sinclair’s conservative agenda.” Thus, Ortiz said, Sinclair is not only “forcing anchors to read their corporate message,” but also “making innocent viewers in the community mimic their propaganda.”
One “Say What?” segment followed a period when police officers had been attacked in several US cities. The reporter asked Valley residents if they felt violence against police officers should be treated as a hate crime. Responses aired were, “Police, they protect us, and what they are doing to them is totally not right;” “It would be a hate-crime for the people that are not killing them . . . Black lives do matter, but our police are here to protect us;” “It takes hate to make it happen . . .”
The question itself seemed to elicit such answers, failing to address nuances and socioeconomic conditions that might lead to violence between police officers and the communities they patrol.
On Monday, we asked Assistant News Director of KGBT, Jim Bob Breazeale, about reporter autonomy at their station. “Reporters are not required to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing,” Breazeale said. “All they would have to do is speak up and say I don’t feel comfortable doing that story; we’re not gonna force anybody to do it.”
A seven-year Sinclair employee, Breazeale was certain that “Say what?” segments have not been run since 2016. Of course. Almost all “Say what?” segments Neta found were related to the most divisive issues from the campaign trail, dating from March 2016 to November 2016. We made a playlist of these segments.
Ortiz once “spoke up.” In 2016, News Director Zoltan Csanyi-Salcedo, assigned her a story, at the request of a regional news director, on a recent poll which had found that ⅗ of Texans would agree with seceding from the US if Hillary Clinton was elected President. She found the story ridiculous and refused to do it, but Csanyi-Salcedo did not agree.
“A regional news director (aka a honcho from corporate) sent it to our local news director and said please do this as a package,” Ortiz told Neta. A package is a news story that gets more airtime than other segments. “The news director assigned it to me, and I said NO. This is a silly story, this will never happen, it’s all talk and anti-Hillary rhetoric. NO.” But, Ortiz lamented, “my news director said, ‘It’s not a silly story. You must do it.’ He did not want to stand up to corporate and tell them no. So I had to comply. I was livid.”
A recent case
On July 5, KGBT Channel 4, the Sinclair-owned TV station, ran a story by Sydney Hernandez. It challenged widespread indignation at the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” separation of families by focusing on taxpayer money used to “house” immigrants apprehended at the border.
Referencing the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) numbers, Hernandez noted that $3.2 billion was spent by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in detaining immigrants. That figure, Hernandez added, did not even include Border Patrol Agent salaries.
Hernandez’s reporting then segued into speculation about the likelihood of the detainees to apply for government assistance and the “loopholes” they might attempt to exploit in order to receive these benefits— such as by giving birth to a US-citizen baby while awaiting their immigration hearings. She asked a Honduran woman detained by a Border Patrol Agent if she intended to do this and whether the woman thought it was “fair.”
The report blew a dog whistle, playing on stereotypes about immigrants, by interviewing Border Patrol Agent Robert Rodriguez, who said, “Agents are assisting in delivering of baby’s births because illegal aliens are coming right at the time that they’re about to give birth, literally giving birth on the levee.” KGBT provided no data to substantiate Rodriguez’s claim.
Neta contacted Sydney Hernandez. She referred the questions that we sent through email to her management, including Mr. Breazeale, who maintained that the story was entirely of Hernandez’s “enterprise” when speaking with him Monday. He told us that a leader from a local organization accused Hernandez of “being told to do it by our company, which is completely incorrect.”
He explained that Hernandez in the past has written stories from the “point of view of immigrants” and that local reporters’ stories are generally produced via a different process from the Sinclair-mandated broadcasts. We asked Breazeale Wednesday for the identity of said leader, but he referred us to the station’s General Manager, Linda Guerrero Deicla, who did not return our phone calls.
Neta reached out to a leader from a local organization who we believe to be the individual mentioned by Breazeale. They would not go on record for fear of jeopardizing relationships with other reporters.
Another former employee of KGBT, however, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in a competitive environment like broadcast journalism, management, rather than corporate headquarters, use the implied threat of job-insecurity to shut down disagreements that reporters express about stories they are assigned.
Ortiz, who went on to work with one other news station after leaving KGBT in 2016, but who has since left the TV news industry for being unable to morally stand with what she “saw and experienced every day,” agreed with this assessment. Management, who tend not to be from the area, and make little effort to learn about the communities where they work, according to our sources, have much more influence over local reports.
We reached out to Hernandez one last time to confirm whether the story was assigned to her by management. She did not return our calls. All we can say for certain is that people who hold her employment in their hands say it was her idea and that Hernandez referred all inquiries to them.
Nonetheless, Breazeale said they cover all angles and points of view in their coverage. In this case, whose point of view? Angles reflected highly resembled those of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a non-profit organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-immigrant hate group founded on “white nationalist principles.” The KGBT report is identical in substance to a 2017 report published by FAIR entitled, “The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on United States Taxpayers.”
The 72-page report addresses “Total Governmental Expenditures on Illegal Aliens,” “Total Economic Impact of Illegal Immigration,” including to the federal budget. An example of federal spending on “illegal aliens,” according to FAIR, is that “The Federal government spends a net amount of $45.8 billion on illegal aliens and their U.S.-born children. This amount includes expenditures for public education, medical care, justice enforcement initiatives, welfare programs and other miscellaneous costs.”
According to FAIR’s 2016 financial audits, they spent $6.3 million on media outreach, a 6-fold increase from 2015. Their pressroom claims that, as the largest immigration reform group in the country, it “has nearly 40 years experience providing journalists, radio and television broadcasters with background, research, and perspective on immigration and related issues.”
Indeed, reports published by Sinclair-owned stations have featured their 2017 report, such as one by WJLA out of Washington D.C., and outlets considered right-wing on immigration like The Hill, who entitled their report, “The cost of illegal immigration to taxpayers is growing at an unsustainable pace,” likewise resembled FAIR’s points of view. Other citizen journalists have blasted FAIR’s report for being aired by their local Sinclair-owned news stations as a warning to viewers.
In any case, broadcast reporters have a difficult job: they must produce stories daily, in time for the 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and 10 o’clock news. This speed-up creates pressure from management to accept assigned stories without protest. Even when they pitch their own “enterprise” stories, the end-product can be very different from what reporters originally intended to report.
Thus, Valley residents may want to take with caution—if not suspicion—the stories from local, corporate media that paint negative pictures of repressed peoples seeking asylum and safe-haven in our communities, especially when the end-result elicits mimicry of propaganda purveyed by individuals with little or no ties to, or interest in the communities in which they operate.