I had been working as a video editor at KHGI in Kearney, Neb., for about two years when Sinclair Broadcast Group purchased the station in 2016. It wasn’t long before we started receiving the segments that our new parent company said we had to air during our local news broadcasts.
The segments ranged from one to three minutes long and were intended to appear in the middle of our newscasts: “Behind the Headlines ” with Mark Hyman, which offered commentary on national political issues; “Bottom Line With Boris,” hosted by former Donald Trump aide Boris Epshteyn , who mostly discussed how well he thought Trump was doing as president; and “Terrorism Alert Desk,” which discussed apparent terrorism going on around the world and at times used unverifiable sources. Sometimes these were labeled as commentary. But most “must-runs” were slanted, and some segments went straight into blatant fearmongering.
About five months after Sinclair bought the station, the company promoted me from editor to producer, which meant I was more directly involved in newsroom management. I was hesitant to take the new role at first, because the ownership group seemed heavy-handed. But I told my boss I wouldn’t sign a contract, and he never brought it up again after that conversation, so I went ahead.
The “must-runs” kept coming from the corporate office, and they quickly became a problem for me. My local news show in the morning was about 90 minutes, once commercials were accounted for. This meant the Sinclair segments took valuable time away from local reporting, as they did on the 20-minute evening newscasts, too. We were already running better pieces on national and world news from ABC or CNN. When I started as a producer, I considered just not running the mandatory segmentsbecause their substance was questionable. Pressure from others at the station made it a challenge, but I eventually stopped airing them.
“Behind the Headlines” was one I would often skip in the morning show. When I did run the segments, I would add disclaimers saying “Sinclair Broadcast Group commentary” or something else to set them apart from local news. I labeled one as a “must-run segment.” Sometimes I labeled them as “required” segments. The “must-runs” were something I was willing to get fired over. A few months ago, Sinclair asked my boss to review how many of them I had run, and it turned out that I had aired only 60 percent of them. I didn’t get in trouble, but my boss was chastised. After that, he told me I had to run the segments, and except for one or two of them, I did.
But the promo that Sinclair sent last month for us to broadcast was even more egregious. It slammed unnamed other news organizations for being biased and trying to “control what people think,” which the promo said was “extremely dangerous to our democracy.” And news anchors had to read it on virtually every one of the company’s stations. Viewers called and emailed before it even aired, saying they were concerned about it and complaining about other corporate segments like “Bottom Line With Boris.” I didn’t even know about the promo until CNN reported on it at the beginning of March. Later we received an email saying it would first air March 23. I was concerned because Sinclair’s support for the Trump administration made the claims about “irresponsible, one-sided news” look hypocritical. The script also appeared to echo President Trump’s rhetoric on “fake news.”
I talked with my superiors, trying to find out whether we could stop it from airing. I asked them to fight it and to call a station-wide meeting. I was told it would be a losing battle and not to “bite the hand” that fed me. At this point, I wasn’t sure what else I could do. My plan was to just not run it — at least then I would still have my integrity. But I was in a tough spot because my boss said his job, not mine, would be at risk. This made me angry. I resigned and decided to go public. If I don’t take a stand, I figured, who will?
During all of this, my co-workers were also uncomfortable, but because of strict contracts with potentially outrageous penalties, they didn’t have the same freedom that my lack of a contract gave me. For lifelong journalists who have spent their careers establishing trust with viewers, Sinclair’s promo created a big challenge, but what choice did they have? I did what few others within Sinclair could do.
Hundreds of local stations and news anchors who work for Sinclair put their journalistic integrity on the line every day, and Sinclair is actively working to undermine it. According to the National Press Photographers Association, the required on-air message is an editorial and violates its code of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists said the promo, along with other must-runs, robs communities of local content provided by local journalists.
Sinclair withdrew a promised $25,000 donation to the NPPA’s legal fund after the group criticized the company. Instead of taking away donations, I wish Sinclair’s management would consider why journalistic organizations are concerned.
Sinclair reaches about 40 percent of households in the country. A pending $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media would put Sinclair broadcasts in front of more than 72 percent of Americans with televisions. Sinclair’s bias and required segments make its size especially concerning. As it stands, the merger is under investigation by the Justice Department. Political concerns aren’t supposed to come into play in an antitrust evaluation, but Trump officially expressed support for Sinclair earlier this month.
My career will be fine now that I’ve left Sinclair — after I spoke publicly about resigning, I got several job offers at various stations. But I worry about my former colleagues, many of whom have noncompete clauses or other onerous provisions in their contracts that mean they couldn’t soon find work at another station. (About 10 states have made noncompete clauses illegal for broadcast employees, but not Nebraska.)
Concerns about how Sinclair affects local news aren’t new, but they should worry the company. And if they don’t worry the company, that should worry all of us.