America's most trusted news source is about to get politicized

America's most trusted news source is about to get politicized
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The most trusted news source in America is not the New York Times, the Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal.  It’s something long looked down upon by all those high-end national brands: local television news.

But if two powerful TV station owners aren’t careful, they could mess up the whole thing.

A study last year by the Poynter Institute echoed several other surveys: Local television news was trusted by 76 percent of those questioned. Local newspapers were a close second, but national newspapers and networks landed down around 55 percent.

The reason is simple. Local TV news is a straightforward headline service focused on crime stories, weather reports and local sports. By and large, a local television station stays far away from politics and — especially — partisan commentary. It’s the polar opposite of cable news channels.

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In some ways this political pullback is a bad thing. To save money, more stations are closing bureaus in state capitals and doing less legwork down at City Hall. National stories usually merit a 20-second anchor read via teleprompter.

But this also has created something like a politics-free zone, which viewers seem to welcome as a respite from the relentless Washington coverage and commentary served up everywhere else.

However, two big media players may be trying to undo that: Sinclair Broadcasting and the deep-pocketed hedge fund Apollo Global Management.

Sinclair owns close to 200 TV stations around the country, more than anyone else.  It has long been known for inserting conservative commentary into its stations’ broadcasts. These segments are called “must-runs,” which means Sinclair outlets must air them. Local management can choose when — so in more diverse and liberal markets, the commentaries sometimes run late at night.

But recent reports indicate Sinclair may now be going full-throttle. It has hired a string of political pundits, including Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaGorka slams PBS children's show 'Arthur' over gay wedding America's most trusted news source is about to get politicized Gorka: 'We have to get serious about the detention facilities' MORE, Eric Bolling and Lara Logan, all destined to appear in segments on local stations.

Meanwhile, Apollo Global Management has been gobbling up stations and is now negotiating to buy 17 more from Meredith Corp.  Apollo’s founder Leon Black has sought influence with both parties, donating red or blue depending on the election cycle and the candidates. An unnamed Wall Street insider told Vanity Fair that Black was building this empire because local television “gets senators elected.”

Here’s the problem: At the local news level, partisanship can be bad for business.

Three hundred million people live in the U.S. — and if a zealous cable news host attracts just one percent of the population, well, that’s three million viewers and that’s a decent business model.

But in the local-station world, the total population pool in a mid-sized metropolitan area may be just three million. One percent of that is not a significant audience. Too much throwing-your-partisan-weight around, and chunks of viewers switch the channel. No single television station can afford that.

The same applies to their advertisers. Your Tri-State Valley Metro Chevy Dealer wants controversy like he wants Toyota giving away cars every weekend down the block. Few big local businesses are eager to be associated with a certain side of the political divide. That’s a good way of telling half your customers to buy someplace else.

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But Sinclair and Apollo may be placing a particular kind of bet. If they own enough TV stations, they can make the business model look like a cable news channel’s: Smaller audiences in each market, but a big enough audience nationwide — when you put them all together — to attract certain politically-oriented advertisers and, more importantly, political influence.

You can guarantee shareholders will be watching closely.  Wall Street recently did send Sinclair stock soaring, although it had nothing to do with politics. The company had just struck a $10 billion deal to buy 21 regional sports networks from Fox.  The money people loved it.

Investors may be sending a message: Local sports draws in people from all walks of life, all sides of any divide. They show up at the stadium or gather around the TV set with family and friends. Politics fade far away — and that works for everybody.

Right now, local news is a bit like that: A rare nonpartisan place on the dial that has built up a strong level of trust with viewers by keeping it simple and direct. That trust is a hard thing to create — and an easy thing to lose.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.