Will Sinclair Target Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse?

Just because New England didn’t vote for Donald Trump doesn’t mean that region of the country is immune to the influence of Trump-friendly media, including the influence of a prominent station in Providence, Rhode Island:

“This is extremely dangerous to our democracy,” WJAR-TV anchor Frank Coletta tells the camera in a recent segment about “biased and false news” that critics are labeling the most recent example of pro-government propaganda forced on the local NBC affiliate by its owner.

WJAR in Providence is one of 193 television stations controlled by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which wrote a promotional segment chastising fellow news organizations for publishing “irresponsible, one sided” and “fake stories,” that echo attacks on the press from President Donald Trump.

“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country,” said the Sinclair statement, as read by the anchors of station WTVH in Syracuse, N.Y. and viewed on YouTube. “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories without checking facts first.”

Over the past year, Sinclair has required its stations to run pre-produced conservative-leaning segments, such as the Terrorism Alert Desk and commentaries from former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn.

These “must run” segments have drawn intense scrutiny from other media organizations and been mocked by observers, such as by comedian John Oliver…

“No one in our bargaining unit is happy with the way Sinclair is forcing these must-runs,” said Fletcher Fischer, business manager and financial secretary of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1228, the union that represents broadcast workers at WJAR and other New England stations. “Every time, they get flooded with emails and calls from viewers who hate it.”

Fischer said television news anchors and reporters at WJAR and other stations are afraid to speak out, and their contracts give the union little power to protect them if they do.

If WJAR’s on-air personalities can be forced to deliver diatribes against Trump’s media enemies, they can be forced to deliver diatribes against his political enemies—and in Rhode Island, that means targeting Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

There’s no question that Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and others in this atrocious administration want rid of Whitehouse, an unrelenting critic of the Republican Party’s fealty to the fossil fuel industry. Whitehouse’s “Time to Wake Up” speeches on the Senate floor, already compelling during the Obama years, have taken on new urgency since January 20, 2017, as Whitehouse has courageously highlighted, week after week, the extent to which this administration is destroying any hope of preventing carbon pollution from reaching dangerous levels.

Trump and his confederates in covfefe know that if the Senate changes hands this fall, Whitehouse will be relentless in his pursuit of this administration—and could turn up the heat of Senate scrutiny so high that multiple Cabinet members could be scorched. The fossil fuel industry writ large also knows that if Whitehouse is re-elected this fall, he’ll have another six years to raise awareness about the need to keep dirty energy in the ground—or two years, as Whitehouse, a former US Attorney, would be an odds-on favorite to become Attorney General in an incoming Democratic administration in 2021. As Attorney General, Whitehouse would presumably be able to launch a federal investigation, expanding upon the state-level investigations of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, into whether the fossil fuel industry engaged in illegal activity by not disclosing to the public the risks posed by their products decades ago. That would be the worst nightmare for the fossil-fuel industry and the right-wing interests aligned with that industry.

Don’t be surprised if Sinclair orders WJAR to run “commentaries” bashing the hell out of Whitehouse, and subtly (or maybe even blatantly) promoting his Republican challenger, as the midterm elections approach. Even if such attacks don’t ultimately bear fruit on November 6, those attacks will be relentlessly repeated by right-wing media outlets for years to come to turn gullible Americans against Whitehouse. When it comes to the threat to civil discourse posed by right-wing media, it is indeed time to wake up.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.