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Sinclair Fires Journalist After Critical Comments

The broadcaster's Washington bureau chief had called an upcoming anti-Kerry program 'blatant political propaganda.'

October 19, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. on Monday fired its Washington bureau chief after the newsman publicly protested plans for a program about Sen. John F. Kerry's anti-Vietnam War activities that is scheduled to run this week on about 60 Sinclair-owned stations.

Jon Leiberman, who had worked for the TV broadcaster for nearly five years, called the upcoming program "blatant political propaganda, not objective journalism," because it was airing so close to election day. He added that he had told his boss that he refused to work on it.

Leiberman, 29, who made similar comments that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on Monday, said he was fired late in the day for violating company policy by speaking to the media without prior approval.

Exactly what conservative-leaning Sinclair has planned for the program is unclear. Leiberman said the Sinclair news staff, which hadn't produced any other recent one-hour news programs, was called in Sunday to a mandatory meeting at the Maryland headquarters, where they were told they had to take part in putting together the program in the next several days. Originally, the program had been assigned to the commentary unit.

Sinclair had initially informed its staff, its stations and the networks with which it is affiliated that the plan was to air Carlton Sherwood's 42-minute anti-Kerry film, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal." Sherwood's film features interviews with former Vietnam POWs who allege that Kerry's 1970s antiwar activity prolonged their ordeal. The film was to have been followed by an 18-minute panel, to which Sinclair executives had invited Kerry. He declined.

One person familiar with the situation said Sinclair executives told news employees in the six-hour meeting Sunday that the ad-free broadcast would probably now include about 15 minutes of "Stolen Honor," as well as several news pieces about the controversy, the Vietnam-era military service of Kerry and President Bush, and why voters should care the about 30-year-old events.

The program, which isn't scheduled to be finished until just before some Sinclair stations begin to air it Thursday, might also include portions of a sympathetic film about Kerry's Vietnam years, "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," according to the source.

Sinclair has ordered its stations -- which reach nearly one-fourth of U.S. homes, many of them in swing states -- to run the program in place of an hour of entertainment programming in prime time.

The company has endured a week of protests since the plan became public. Democratic legislators called the program a partisan attack ad and filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Election Commission.

Viewer complaints have burgeoned, with employees at Sinclair stations saying they have been inundated with calls and e-mails. Some advertisers have pulled ads, and protesters have started targeting stock funds that hold shares of Sinclair.

After several stock analysts expressed concerns over Sinclair's plans, the company's shares dropped nearly 8% on Monday on Nasdaq, closing at a 2-year low of $6.49.

Leiberman, who started at the Sinclair Washington bureau more than a year ago, said he told his supervisor Sunday that "as an objective journalist, I can't be part of this program and I won't be a part of this program," adding: "We work too hard for credibility in this business." He said that he wasn't protesting Sinclair's decision to air the program -- just its plan to label it as news.

"I would have preferred that they did it in the context of an editorial or a commentary or a programming special, but to call this news and to put this under the guise of a news program, in my opinion, is wrong," he said.

Leiberman also said, in an interview on CNN, that "I feel that our company is trying to sway this election" in favor of Bush.

Before he was fired, Leiberman said he was speaking out because at Sinclair, "there is such a big influence in the newsroom from editorial and higher-ups in the company.... My hope at the end of the day is that this just wakes up some people in our company and we just do a better job at being fair, that what we call news is news, what we call commentary is commentary."

Sinclair executives didn't return calls. In a statement read on CNN, Sinclair called Leiberman a "disgruntled employee." The statement noted that he was entitled to his personal opinion, but added, "We are disappointed that Jon's political views caused him to violate policy and speak to the press about company business.... Viewers can grade Leiberman's opinion versus the reality when the finished product is aired."

Sherwood, the "Stolen Honor" filmmaker, said Monday he was under the impression that Sinclair was planning to run his entire work, and expressed surprise that it could be cut.

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