Pravda: Will Trump Make Us the Next North Korea or Russia?

Trump state-run media

Last week Lara Trump (Eric Trump’s wife) made news by starring in a Trump campaign produced “real news” video posted to Donald Trump’s Facebook page. The video labeled mainstream media “fake news” while arguing to offer “real” news focusing exclusively on positive aspects of the current administration. That flirtation with state-run media may be escalating as a new video appeared on Trump’s Facebook over the weekend featuring former CNN contributor and new RNC spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany.

That combined with the Trump administration’s use of an outdated legal loophole to allow Sinclair Broadcast Group to own and operate a majority share of local news stations is setting the stage for what several pundits have called the ground floor of a North Korea or Russia-style state media operation.

While the former represents a blatant disregard for ethical lines and democratic norms, the latter may actually represent a real danger to constitutional free press the very concept of liberal democracy.

Campaigner-In-Chief

It should come as no surprise that Donald Trump is using the constant flow of campaign money from his already-announced 2020 presidential reelection bid to continue his authoritarian-style propaganda campaign aimed at destroying constitutional and democratic norms like free press. Since his actual governing style has been anything but efficient or productive, Trump has fallen back on the one thing he has had success in: campaigning and playing to his ultra-supportive base.

Knowing that, the new weekly Facebook propaganda videos make more sense as they serve as an extension of his need to continue campaigning (whether that means holding unnecessary rallies or having female surrogates ignore events that could paint the presidency in a negative light while gleefully updating everyone on speeches and so-called ‘accomplishments’).

In the newest video anchored by McEnany, Trump’s propaganda arm offered multiple inaccurate statements – something that’s becoming a hallmark for the current administration.

The Washington Post called her out for giving Trump credit for the nation’s continued economic growth noting:

Saying that Trump “has created more than 1 million jobs” and that Trump “has clearly steered the economy back in the right direction” is taking some real liberties. And that’s for one big reason: The jobs picture has largely continued the trends from late in President Barack Obama’s administration. In his first six months, the economy under Trump has indeed added more than 1 million new jobs — 1.07 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in the last six months under Obama, the economy added slightly more jobs than that — 1.08 million. And if anything, the average jobs growth under Trump is actually slightly slower than it was in Obama’s final years:

  • Trump’s first six months: 179,000 jobs per month
  • Obama’s final year (2016): 187,000
  • Obama’s full second term: 209,000

As Philip Bump noted after last month’s jobs report, what we’ve seen looks more like a continuation of a strong trend that Trump inherited from Obama, rather than Trump steering “the economy back in the right direction.” Things were already headed in the right direction, in fact, so Trump didn’t need to steer anything. He needed to keep it on course.

As Trump hasn’t signed any major legislation – health care, tax, economic or otherwise – his influence on economic growth is marginal at best.

Moreover, WaPo added:

Lastly, McEnany’s claim that consumer confidence is at a 16-year high doesn’t check out. The University of Michigan has been tracking consumer sentiment since 1952, and it’s actually currently at a nine-month low. It did reach a 13-year high (not 16-year) under Trump this year, but as you can see below, it had already approached that high under Obama, and it’s basically been around the same level for years, with a new peak and then a downturn under Trump.

The state of the economy wasn’t the only ‘achievement’ McEnany crowed about; she also gleefully spoke about the proposed Raise Act – a dead-on-arrival piece of legislation aimed at significantly curtailing legal immigration and giving preference to rich, English-speaking professionals. She said:

On Wednesday, the president introduced the Raise Act. For decades, a steady rise in immigration has depressed the wages of American workers. The Raise Act will increase wages, decrease poverty and save the taxpayers billions. Americans deserve a raise, and President Trump is finally putting the American worker first.

In reality, immigration has little effect on American workers’ ability to seek gainful employment. In fact, the Trump administration’s actions to curtail undocumented immigration has resulted in farms across the nation having to allow their crops to rot because they can’t find seasonal migrant help.

The Raise Act in particular would actually seek to import money and high wage earning immigrants – something that actually could pose a risk to professionals seeking employment in higher-end industries. Moreover, a majority of U.S. citizens (regardless of family history) would not qualify to immigrate based on the standards the legislation sets (you can find out if you would qualify here).

The short “real news” segment also highlighted a Medal of Honor ceremony (an event all presidents engage in) to highlight a VA bill Trump signed over two months ago.

This video and the last – hosted by daughter-in-law Lara Trump – explicitly seek to promote questionable contentions as fact while contending the mainstream media’s criticism and reporting of events that may paint the administration in a negative light are “fake news.” This is a hallmark not of democracy but of authoritarianism. It’s how regimes with state-run media operate in order to quell dissent and control the message coming from its country’s leadership.

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul noted this commenting on the newest video stating, “Wow. Feels eerily like so many state-owned channels I’ve watched in other countries.”

These “real news” videos are just the tip of the iceberg though.

Multi-Pronged Free Press Assault

In a report on the media conglomerate’s expansion into new markets, Politico reported on Sinclair Broadcast Group’s upcoming expansion noting:

Sinclair Broadcast Group is expanding its conservative-leaning television empire into nearly three-quarters of American households — but its aggressive takeover of the airwaves wouldn’t have been possible without help from President Donald Trump’s chief at the Federal Communications Commission.

That’s because Trump installed a Republican FCC Chairman – Ajit Pai – who worked tirelessly to help Trump and Sinclair jointly build a local-level conservative media empire. And he succeeded after announcing the FCC would allow Sinclair to break through the previously-established ceiling on market ownership using an old, seldom-used legal loophole.

Politico noted:

The change will allow Sinclair — a company known for injecting “must run” conservative segments into its local programming — to reach 72 percent of U.S. households after buying Tribune’s stations. That’s nearly double the congressionally imposed nationwide audience cap of 39 percent.

The FCC and the company both say the agency wasn’t giving Sinclair any special favors by reviving the loophole, known as the “UHF discount,” which has long been considered technologically obsolete. But the Tribune deal would not have been viable if not for Pai’s intervention: Sinclair already reaches an estimated 38 percent of U.S. households without the discount, leaving it almost no room for growth.

And what will Trump receive for installing an FCC Chairman who facilitated this market takeover by a conservative media conglomerate?

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) – the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel – offered insight on the dangers this poses to free press and journalistic integrity. “Local television broadcasters have long served the public interest. The Sinclair-Tribune merger threatens to upend this responsibility by consolidating local news into a single voice that reaches into 70 percent of American homes,” he told Politico. “It’s no secret that Sinclair has used its large platform to push extremely conservative programming, while cutting deals with the Trump campaign to provide favorable coverage.”

Some of the problems with having such a large market share is required programming – a concept Sinclair is repeatedly guilty of forcing local stations to comply with.

John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” devoted nearly 20 minutes in a July show to mocking Sinclair’s “must run” segments and warning about the potential impact of the deal. “[I]n contrast to Fox News, a conservative outlet where you basically know what you’re getting, with Sinclair, they’re injecting Fox-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors, the two people who you know, and who you trust, and whose on-screen chemistry can usually best be described as two people,” Oliver quipped.

Another segment Sinclair regularly forces local stations to air is commentary from Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn. Variety reported on this last month:

Sinclair plans to deliver nine Epshteyn commentary segments to stations per week, up from three per week since the former Trump administration official joined the station group giant in April. Politico first reported the news of the volume boost for Epshteyn.

Epshteyn in his “Bottom Line with Boris” segments have opined on a range of political topics, from health care to tax reform to economic policy, since his debut as Sinclair’s chief political analyst. His segments have so far been a mix of cheerleading and defensive arguments on behalf of the Trump administration’s agenda. With the increased schedule, Epshteyn is expected to include short interviews with members of Congress and other D.C. political figures.

[Emphasis Mine]

That’s right: Trump installed an FCC head that gave Sinclair a greenlight to break past and nearly double the FCC market ownership rule and in turn is receiving local level propaganda similar to the “real news” show airing on his Facebook page.

This is how state-run news and media empires like Pravda begin.

Russia, North Korea…and the United States

David Zurawik, a journalist who has covered local level media for three decades, recently spoke out against the Sinclair expansion. “They come as close to classic propaganda as I think I’ve seen in thirty years of covering local television or national television. They’re outrageous!” he said in a recent CNN segment. “Whatever the White House says, you know, President Trump believes there was voter fraud and he sets up this commission to get data from the states and the states rightfully push back because it’s very intrusive data — Boris Ephsteyn’s piece on it ends with, the states should cooperate with President Trump.”

While Sinclair’s conservative leanings may not be new (they’ve openly leaned right since the George W. Bush administration), their reach and vigor are new.

In fact, coinciding with achieving local news station dominance, Sinclair is literally tripling the number of times it requires local stations to air Trump propaganda from one Trump surrogate. And that’s not all.

The Washington Post noted after the November election:

A review of Sinclair’s reporting and internal documents shows a strong tilt toward Trump. Sinclair gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign while often casting Clinton in an unfavorable light. For example:

● Sinclair-owned stations and its Washington bureau scored 15 “exclusive” interviews with Trump over the past year, including 11 during the final three months of the campaign in critical states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. They did 10 more with Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, from August through October, as well as 10 with Trump surrogates, primarily Ben Carson. Sinclair stations aired five such interviews with Clinton running mate Tim Kaine and two with Chelsea Clinton but none with Clinton or another top surrogate.

● During one of the Carson interviews, Sinclair managers provided questions for local- ­station reporters to ask, such as “Dr. Carson, you toured Detroit, your home town, with Donald Trump Saturday. What will Donald Trump offer the African American community better than Hillary Clinton can?” And: “He has talked a lot about job creation. What will he do specifically to help employment among African Americans?”

● Mark Hyman — a Sinclair executive and conservative commentator who appears on Sinclair stations — regularly criticized Clinton or highlighted positions favorable to Trump in his on-air commentaries. “Most Americans know very little about the leaked Clinton emails,” he said in one, which aired on Oct. 27. “Major news organizations buried the most damaging. So we’re sharing some with you.”

● News stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton were distributed to Sinclair stations on a “must-run” basis — that is, the stations were required by managers in Washington to make room in their evening newscasts or morning programs for them.

There were no equivalent “must-run” stories examining Trump’s refusal to release his medical or tax records or about questions surrounding his charitable foundation. In addition, Sinclair offered no stories about Clinton’s views about 9/11, about what role Chelsea Clinton might play in her mother’s administration or about Bill Clinton’s campaign role.

It goes further than that. Sinclair actively works with Trump and his surrogates for positive coverage. Politico reported last year:

Donald Trump’s campaign struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage, his son-in-law Jared Kushner told business executives Friday in Manhattan.

Kushner said the agreement with Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country in many swing states and often packages news for their affiliates to run, gave them more access to Trump and the campaign, according to six people who heard his remarks.

In exchange, Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary, Kushner said. Kushner highlighted that Sinclair, in states like Ohio, reaches a much wider audience — around 250,000 listeners — than networks like CNN, which reach somewhere around 30,000.

“Our promise was to give all candidates an opportunity to voice their position share their position with our viewers. Certainly we presented an opportunity so that Mr. Trump could clearly state his position on the key issues,” Livingston said. “Our commitment to our viewers is to go beyond podium, beyond the rhetoric. We’re all about tracking the truth and telling the truth and that’s typically missing in most political coverage.”

A Trump spokesman said the deal included the interviews running across every affiliate but that no money was exchanged between the network and the campaign. The spokesman said the campaign also worked with other media outlets that had affiliates, like Hearst, to try and spread their message.

“It was a standard package, but an extended package, extended story where you’d hear more directly from candidate on the issue instead of hearing all the spin and all the rhetoric,” Livingston said.

This all happened before Trump’s inauguration. Now that he has the power to stack the FCC, Sinclair is now set to take that collusion to a new level.

Local news – the last trusted segment of journalism across most of America – is facing a conservative takeover and most people won’t even realize it as they see increasingly pro-Trump messages displayed during their local evening news.

72% of households across the nation will see these carefully-crafted pro-Trump messages – a sharp increase from the 39% threshold the FCC just allowed Sinclair to surpass.

This is just one of the many ways authoritarianism begins. People don’t go to sleep in a democracy and wake up to a authoritarian regime; it creeps up on you slowly. And this is one of the biggest, brightest warning flags the nation has seen so far.

 

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Trump’s Pravda: Administration Flirts With Creating State-Run Media

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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