The Washington bureau chief of Sinclair Broadcast Group was fired yesterday after accusing the media company of "indefensible" conduct for planning to air a movie attacking Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam record in the coming days.
Jon Leiberman, who also was the lead political reporter for the 62-station television chain, told CNN last night that he was terminated for his criticism, which was quoted in yesterday's Baltimore Sun. He spoke out, he said, because "I feel so strongly that our credibility is at issue here. . . . I feel our company is trying to sway this election."
The Baltimore-based firm, which has drawn harsh criticism from Kerry and the Democrats, found itself explaining why it dismissed a top journalist for speaking to the media.
Sinclair Vice President Mark Hyman said in a statement: "Everyone is entitled to their personal opinion, including Jon Leiberman. We are disappointed that Jon's political views caused him to speak to the press about company business." The statement called him a "disgruntled employee."
Leiberman, 29, called that characterization "completely unfair," telling CNN's Paula Zahn that Sinclair had promoted him twice and treated him well until he criticized plans to have the news division handle the upcoming hour-long special at a meeting Sunday.
He told the Sun's David Folkenflik that the program -- which is to include the anti-Kerry film "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal" -- is "biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election. For me, it's not about right or left -- it's about what's right or wrong in news coverage this close to an election."
The movie, which a Kerry spokesman has called "a 42-minute attack ad" in demanding equal time for the Democratic campaign, features 17 former prisoners of war accusing Kerry of betraying his country -- and in some cases extending their captivity -- by testifying in 1971 about U.S. atrocities in Vietnam. "Those were point-blank lies," one ex-POW, Tom McNish, says in the film.
Leiberman called it a "slanted documentary" and said there was no way for Sinclair, which owns the nation's largest collection of network affiliates, to verify the allegations. "Call it commentary, call it an editorial . . . but don't call it news," Leiberman said. He added: "Viewers aren't going to trust us if we call it news. . . . I couldn't be part of this special and call it news when what it is is political propaganda."
Leiberman acknowledged that he was violating Sinclair policy by giving an unauthorized interview and revealing part of what happened at a company meeting, but said he felt he had no choice but to speak out. "I knew I had nothing to gain by doing it and everything to lose," he said. "I need to be able to sleep at night."
"America's at its best when people stand up to powerful interests and tell them the truth," said Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton. "That's what happened here."
Sinclair chief executive David Smith and his three brothers, who are company directors, have given $121,000 to President Bush and the Republicans since 1999. Some liberal groups are organizing a boycott of Sinclair's advertisers, which include prominent national chains.
Leiberman said he objected to the fact that the idea for the special originated with the commentary department and what he called "a very right-wing" Hyman, an on-air editorialist who has called Kerry a liar. Hyman told The Washington Post last week that he wants to put on "a balanced and honest program" and did not back off a charge that the other networks "are acting like Holocaust deniers" in ignoring the former POWs. The movie was made by Carlton Sherwood, a former journalist, Vietnam veteran and aide to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
Leiberman noted that Sinclair, which has built a new studio for the program, has not done an hour-long special on any other matter related to the campaign or the war in Iraq.