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Democracy Under Attack: Media Screens Residents for Politician

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A photo from May 15 of protesters outside the Storer Auditorium on the Onondaga Community College protesting Rep. John Katko (R-Camillius)
A photo from May 15 of protesters outside the Storer Auditorium on the Onondaga Community College protesting Rep. John Katko (R-Camillius)

In Syracuse, if you’re a politician in Upstate New York and you don’t want to deal with people requesting an open conversation with you, turns out you can just ask the media to run interference and they will gladly oblige you.

A little over a week ago, This Week Tonight host John Oliver talked about the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a very large and very conservative media organization on the threshold of acquiring untold influence over the country’s local TV news market.

In the Syracuse area, there are two local news channels: WSTM-TV and WTVH-TV, and they’re both owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. About two months ago, they screened constituents looking to attend the town hall meeting of the congressman representing New York’s 24th District in the House, Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus).

Oliver’s segment outlines the extent to which Sinclair likes to sprinkle hard-right views into local news broadcasts to unwitting viewers. He also emphasizes how Sinclair is set to acquire another network, Tribune Media, in a merger that would give them full control over seven out of the 10 major markets across the country.  

While Oliver does a great job illustrating why having a powerful media organization inserting propaganda into news reports is as dangerous as it sounds, at least in Syracuse, the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s local affiliates went a step further.

Finally a Town Hall

In May, it was announced Rep. Katko would finally hold a long-awaited town hall at Onondaga Community College and the event was to be hosted and moderated by anchors from WSTM-TV and WTVH-TV.

To be clear, this town hall was sorely needed. It was the first time residents had a chance to talk directly with Rep. Katko in this type of venue since January 2015, so his constituents really wanted to sit down and have a lengthy chat.

Almost as ridiculous as not meeting with your constituents in over two years is the reason why he said he wouldn’t meet with them — seems he’s scared of progressives. Particularly, members and affiliates of a national grassroots group called Indivisible.  

To let Rep. Katko tell it, people who disagree with him are so much of a threat, he needed to have a severely limited and carefully-screened town hall event; lest the lowborn come in with their signs and loud noises to ask him really, really tough questions.

It’s also important to remember conservatives have (unsuccessfully) tried to convince us the angry people showing up at town halls are plants sent there to make them look bad. Ask Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) about that. While you’re at it, look into what happened to Iowa Rep. Rod Blum (R) when he tried this screening nonsense. Spoiler alert: people were still really pissed.

Rules of the Town Hall

According to the rules of admission for Rep. Katko’s event, people had to email the stations their home and email addresses after which 150 people selected through a “lottery” would be notified that they had been granted the privilege of being in the same room as the guy the put in office.

On the night of the town hall, participants had to show a valid license or ID before admittance to make sure the addresses matched what the TV stations received via email.

Wait a minute. Is this a town hall or happy hour?

Unless they plan on having strippers and $2 shots in there, there is NO good, legitimate reason to ask for identification from anyone who wishes to hold their representatives accountable. We’re talking about the people coming to peaceably assemble to ask an elected official some questions. It’s that simple.

Plus, what if someone doesn’t have a “valid” ID? Does that mean they don’t have the right to ask questions of their representatives? To some people, this might sound like suppressing free speech. You would think a news organization, an entity that is supposed to have a healthy respect for the First Amendment, would be more sensitive to that sort of thing.

Also, for the record, the town hall went pretty much as expected: only a handful of carefully-screened constituents were allowed into an event where Rep. Katko largely gave vague, non-answers to questions, dozens of people protested outside for the duration of the event, and afterwards, Rep. Katko dashed out the backdoor.

It’s no secret that the mainstream media have been known to placate politicos for access in order to keep ratings high and profits soaring at the expense of real journalism, but the idea of having the media directly working on a politician’s behalf is dangerous.

After the Town Hall

Consider the aftermath of the Rep. Katko town hall. As of right now, the two area TV stations – and by extension, Sinclair Broadcasting – have the addresses and contact information for a countless number of people in the Syracuse area, because while about 150 people were let into the event, who knows how many people sent in their information.

Imagine this: much like what happened with CNN and the Trump wrasslin’ GIF created by a guy on Reddit, some people express some pro-choice views in the comments section of one of  WSTM-TV’s ridiculously slanted pro-life segments. Their “investigative journalism team” finds out who those people are and threatens to expose their identity in a “follow-up” on the “intolerant left” unless they “show remorse.”

Or maybe that info just finds its way to the Internet regardless. You know, because the TV station has it anyway, and the people who own that station seemingly have no boundaries.

What’s more, if the media is given authority to screen constituents on behalf of a politician, what’s to stop a TV channel from coercing apologies from its viewers, or reporters from checking ID near voting booths; or asking that immigrant interviewees show them their papers before guaranteeing anonymity as one of their on-background sources? Where’s the line?

It’s Not Supposed to be Like This

In college, we learned that a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth and our first loyalty is to the citizens. It’s clear the higher ups at the Sinclair Broadcasting Group did not get that memo.

As previously mentioned, there are plenty of journalists out there fully willing to bend to the whim of a politician to enrich themselves in some way – or simply just because they’re afraid to not rock the boat. However, it takes a special kind of monster to do so to the disadvantage of their fellow citizens and democracy.

What’s scary is given how the Sinclair Broadcast Group clearly gives little to no fucks about honesty or transparency, this is likely to happen again and again all across the country.

With this merger likely to go through, it looks like any cowardly politician, corrupt journalist, or feckless media organization will have a solid platform from which to distort the truth, intimidate the citizenry, and straight up dismantle the First Amendment called the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

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