Since early into the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, conspiracy theories have become big business. Entire industries sprung up around the more popular narratives and figures pushing those narratives. For the most part, though, these stories and theories remained at the consumer level, shared by believers and skeptics alike on file-sharing sites and social media.
Recently, though, it was disclosed that Sinclair Broadcast Group intended to air a segment on their myriad local TV news channels promoting the conspiracy narrative of Judy Mikovits, whose claims about Dr. Anthony Fauci have become popular among those who criticize the government’s response to the pandemic. Mikovits is seen as a martyr in some circles, a victim of unfair treatment by “the system.” Others dismiss her as a once-brilliant researcher who made some poor decisions that have now resorted to conspiracies to remain in the spotlight.
When it was announced that Sinclair intended to broadcast an interview by correspondent Eric Bolling featuring Mikovits, the blowback was immediate. Huge numbers of people responded, rallying against the idea and slamming Sinclair for promoting what they consider to be hokum. That negative response raged through the weekend, prompting a public change, of course, by Sinclair on Monday morning.
The media giant published a release announcing it had no plans to air the segment featuring Mikovits, calling the interview “not appropriate,” given Mikovits’ claims, both about the virus and about Fauci. In the statement, Sinclair praised the work of Fauci and his team, saying, “We reiterate our appreciation for all that Dr. Fauci and his team have accomplished for the health and well-being of Americans and people worldwide…”
This is a powerful position statement, given that Sinclair owns local television stations in more than 80 markets across the United States. Had the company greenlit the video, it would have reached a massive audience backed by the perceived legitimacy of local television news.
This could have been where the story, and the consumer PR consequences, ended for Sinclair and affiliated stations, however, after the announcement of the show being pulled was made, some other media companies revealed that it had already run in certain markets. In response, Sinclair invited Fauci to appear on any of its stations at any time to tell his side of the story.
From a PR perspective, the politicizing of the COVID-19 outbreak has created a difficult tightrope for partisan-leaning media companies. Sinclair is considered to be right-leaning in its editorial policy and content promotion; however, many conservatives don’t buy into the conspiracies touted by Mikovits and others. Decision-makers at these companies have to choose how far they want to go with their messaging and where their gatekeeping lines will be drawn. In this case, they decided on discretion. The PR consequences of that decision have yet to be seen.
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