Tow Center

Wicked Problem: Sinclair Broadcasting and the high price of innovation

May 8, 2018

In 1973, two design theorists at the University of California, Berkeley, coined the term “wicked problem” to refer to problems that had reached a level of complexity that made them impossible to define, let alone solve. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber argued that this type of problem—poverty, crime, nuclear proliferation, and environmental degradation, to name a few—is actually made up of interconnecting sets of problems with vast numbers of variables that change so fast and unpredictably, and which blur so profoundly into other problems, that they constitute their own class of problems. Failure to acknowledge wicked problems would have disastrous consequences, Rittel and Webber warned.

Cut to 2018, and you could say we’re surrounded by wicked problems—climate change, unfettered global capitalism, violent extremism, income inequality, racism, and, of course, the crisis in democracy, including that of the Fourth Estate.

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There’s been no dearth of conversation about the problem of the future of journalism but little consensus about what exactly that means. Perhaps this is because the forces acting on journalism are so entangled, and so intertwined with other wicked problems, that it’s inaccurate to say “problem” in the singular. When we talk about the problem of the future of journalism, we’re actually referring to a roiling network of problems that includes collapsing business models, fractured audiences, rapidly changing modes of distribution, rising misinformation machines, and so on.

If we reconceive of the future of journalism as a wicked problem, could that change how we approach it? Rittel and Webber laid out 10 points for thinking about wicked problems. This column will take those points, one by one, and apply them to journalism.

This week: “Every solution to a wicked problem is a one-shot operation.”

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This attitude has famously been the mantra of of Silicon Valley, but Americans, denizens of a country that is itself an innovation, seem to have a soft spot for men who like to break things. Look where it’s gotten the media ecosystem, particularly in the case of Sinclair Broadcasting.

Rittel and Webber wrote that every attempt at a fix for a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”: There are no second chances, because any change you make will have affected the whole system. This has serious implications for our love affair with innovation. Take an example: You try out a new way for, say, growing wheat in a culture that depends on bread. If the innovation proves unsuccessful, the consequences can’t be undone—you may have a health crisis, or even deaths, on your hands. And you can’t go back and try the same experiment again; initial conditions in a complex system are too sensitive. Additionally, Rittel and Webber warn, you may have inadvertently set the conditions for new wicked problems to emerge—like now you have bread riots.

To borrow language from complexity science, “turbulence” is necessary to loosen a “frozen system”—but sometimes turbulence just crashes the plane. Facebook’s original motto, “Move fast and break things,” expresses the same idea.


Follow the vibrations through the system, and the next thing you know it’s 2018, and we have companies like Sinclair pumping dictionary-definition propaganda into living rooms across America.


Earlier this month, many of us watched with horror the Deadspin video of anchors at Sinclair Broadcasting’s almost 200 local stations delivering identical editorials warning viewers to be on their guard against—wait for it—manipulative journalists and fake news. The joke, of course, is that Sinclair has a history of foisting naked partisanship on its affiliates: According to Politico, the company cut a special deal with the Trump presidential campaign to run interviews of the candidate without commentary. And that’s just one of many examples. The story of Sinclair’s rise from local TV station to major propaganda machine is a case study in Rittel and Webber’s “one-shot operation” warning.

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FCC chairman Ajit Pai appears to be close to allowing Sinclair to follow through on its plan to buy local broadcasting giant Tribune in a $3.9 billion deal. To do this, Pai would have to roll back limits on the number of stations an individual business can own. (Pai is the subject of scrutiny for his role in all this; in a neat trick, he also controls the body that would investigate misconduct.) If the deal goes through, Sinclair will have a penetration rate into American homes of more than 70 percent.

Using a wicked problem perspective, the focus goes not on Sinclair itself but rather on the forces that led to it, and what it in turn might create.  Our attention might travel back in time to the 1980s and 1990s, when politicians—Republican and Democratic—in a long run of misguided innovation, smashed to smithereens our national system of media regulations.

As late as the 1970s, stations were required to give equal time to opposing political candidates, no single station owner could reach more than 35 percent of American households, broadcasters were required to devote airtime to contrasting perspectives on controversial matters of public interest, and rules essentially forbade broadcasters from owning more than two television station in any local market—or even owning a TV or radio station and a newspaper in the same place.

Then came the 1980s, and with them Ronald Reagan and his team of regulation innovators.

They didn’t wear Zuckerbergian hoodies or claim to make the world a more “connected” place, but they were disrupting the market with a sledgehammer: Between 1981 and 1989, the Fairness Doctrine was smashed, guidelines for minimal amounts of serious programming eliminated, and restrictions on advertisements per hour were wiped out for everything except children’s programs. Bill Clinton finished the demolition in the 1990s, shuttering rules about how many TV or radio stations one company could own.

Follow the vibrations through the system, and the next thing you know it’s 2018, and we have companies like Sinclair pumping dictionary-definition propaganda into  living rooms across America.

Were regulators unable, or unwilling, to think this far ahead? Mark S. Fowler, FCC chairman under Reagan, said many years later that the president’s staff actually were nervous about the deregulation, fearing a hostile media would tear into the president should they be freed from fairness rules. And when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, he surely could not have foreseen that the era of industry consolidation he helped usher in would create the conditions for right-wing media outlets like Fox and Sinclair to dominate.

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It’s time to be more skeptical of radical change as a beacon of progress. Innovators seek to break the status quo, and while that can be good, it isn’t good by definition. Martin Luther King sought to upend convention to give more rights to more people; now, though, right-wing ideologues turn the language and ideals of liberal democracy on itself, either with the “freedom” of deregulation or the “freedom” to broadcast propaganda, and threaten to “innovate” our media ecosystem to the ground. As Rittel and Webber warn, these demolitions cannot be reversed.

Those who work on wicked problems—climate change or conflict resolution, for example—say that real solutions can only arise from considering all the publics that are affected by the problem. Pai seems preoccupied with how broadcasters like Sinclair can compete with Facebook and Google. Okay. But what about the rest of us?

It’s heartening to see disruptors begin to be held accountable for their disruption: The current clamor around Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg is a good start. But we can’t forget that the problem isn’t specifically Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, or even Sinclair. The problem is really the way we allow individual businesses and their allies to exercise their “rights” in a way that disrupts our lives and fails to consider the ripple effects across the rest of the system. Until we change this, we’re doomed to live in an increasingly knotty web of wicked problems, always reacting and rarely making thoughtful decisions about the future we actually want.

Maybe regulation does slow down the pace of innovation. But maybe it’s time to respond to that with a simple question: So what?

About the Tow Center

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, a partner of CJR, is a research center exploring the ways in which technology is changing journalism, its practice and its consumption — as we seek new ways to judge the reliability, standards, and credibility of information online.

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