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Why I Stood Up to Sinclair

Guest Commentary 10/24/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

People used to describe me as Sinclair Broadcast Group's "golden child." I was hired as a reporter at the company's Baltimore flagship station, WBFF. Later I started the station's investigative unit. When centralized newscasts began, Sinclair promoted me again, to jump-start its Washington bureau.

That's when things got tricky.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the traditional way of fairly and objectively covering news began to disintegrate at Sinclair.

It started with the politically charged commentaries of Mark Hyman, in nearly every newscast. Then newsroom leaders (at the encouragement of Hyman) started suggesting pro-administration story ideas. They made sure that every political story had a comment from the Bush administration, and went out of their way to get it. But they didn't always balance the stories with the Democratic response.

This built on itself. Once the Sinclair news department started coming across as Republican, it became impossible for me to do my job properly. No Democrats would talk to me. They would schedule interviews and then cancel them—fast—as soon as they did their homework.

Who could blame them?

Weeks ago, when the company began discussing plans to run the documentary Stolen Honor,
I wasn't happy about it, but my view was to let them run it as commentary, or opinion. I didn't think it was the most appropriate decision to make a week and a half before the presidential election, but I could live with it.

But it went too far when Sinclair officially claimed the documentary as "news" [a classification that would preclude Sinclair from having to offer the Kerry campaign equal time to respond].

Looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised. But at the time, I didn't know how the company could, in good faith, call this documentary "news." It didn't serve the public trust to label it news. After a lot of introspection, I told the news department that I couldn't take part in the project.

At Sinclair headquarters, nobody was happy with the project, as far as I could tell. But there was no room for dissension. Everyone was afraid for their jobs. My former colleagues are excellent journalists, but need to feed their families, and can't afford to take the hit of being fired. And at Sinclair, everyone is expendable. That's why nobody else did what I did and took a stand against Sinclair's decision.

When I told them I couldn't do it, and that it wasn't news, and that it would hurt everyone's reputation, nobody else stood up with me. But though I was the only one in that room speaking up, I looked around me and I didn't feel alone.

Sinclair Broadcast Group fired Washington bureau chief Lieberman last week for talking about company business to the press. He questioned the company's decision to air portions of a documentary critical of John Kerry's role in Vietnam.

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