Fired Sinclair Reporter Says His Criticism Not New
Jon Leiberman, the Sinclair reporter who was fired for speaking out against his employer’s plan to air the anti-Kerry documentary, said he has complained before to his bosses about the companies biased TV news reporting.

“It was the daily struggle to get fair news on the air,” he said. “I’ve been raising red flags for months. I didn’t just fly off the handle. … This is an agonizing process.”

… By last winter, Leiberman said he was privately complaining to his bosses about the blurring of the line between the company’s news stories and the conservative, pro-Bush editorials of Mark Hyman. It came to a head when Hyman and Leiberman were sent to Iraq in February to find positive developments missed by the rest of the mainstream media, which Sinclair executives said were focusing too narrowly on the unstable conditions there.

“Our mission really is to tell stories we think local news viewers aren’t getting throughout the country,” Leiberman told The Sun at the time.

Cameramen accompanied Leiberman, who was to report stories, and Hyman, whose assignment was to tape editorials about conditions in Iraq under the U.S.-led occupation. But the difference between the two became tough to discern, Leiberman said. “The commentaries were being presented as news,” he said.

In separate interviews, two former Sinclair producers – Lisa Modarelli and Dana Hackley – gave similar accounts of Leiberman’s struggles with his news bosses, in Iraq and back at home.

“Mark Hyman had his own agenda, which was to [produce] stories that he envisioned to be commentaries but that the average viewer would see as news,”said Hackley, who has since left the company for a job at a Pittsburgh university.

By late spring, Leiberman was thoroughly disillusioned. (He provided copies of e-mailed correspondence this week to The Sun to bolster his account.) In early May, he forwarded to DeFeo, the news vice president, a copy of a complaint from a viewer who said that the company’s newscast was biased. Leiberman added a note saying he agreed.

Hackley said Hyman and Smith routinely gave story ideas to news executives, who usually sought quick reaction by reporters.

On June 10, Leiberman asked to be released from his contract with Sinclair. In an e-mail to DeFeo, Leiberman wrote: “I am miserable in this position. We don’t have the resources to cover the news, and the resources we are given are always driven toward conservative agenda stories. We are not balanced and I have a problem with it.”

DeFeo responded soothingly, according to the correspondence given to The Sun: “I like having you on board with me as we build this. We will, and have, made some mistakes in this complex process.”

Leiberman complained to DeFeo and Carl Gottlieb, managing editor of Sinclair’s corporate news division, about a series of story selections. They were skewed toward stories that would make Kerry look bad, he argued. Many of them were defensible on their own terms, Leiberman said. But at a time when the bureau was typically producing one story a night, story selection was everything.

In response to one such lament, Gottlieb replied by e-mail, “Jon, all news is agenda driven.”

“All news is agenda driven.” Sad to say, Gottlieb is right. The agenda may be conservative or liberal politics. Or it may be audience ratings- or ad dollars-driven. But there’s usually an agenda that has nothing to do with honest journalism.

Meanwhile, Sinclair says it has decided not air the anti-Kerry film, “saying it would air only portions of the movie in an hour-long special scheduled for Friday.”

The company says it never planned to air the whole documentary. Atrios refers us to a citation that suggests that’s not true, as if we needed one. But none of the reports I’ve read have made clear why what they plan to air is substantively different or potentially less damaging to Kerry has the full documentary would have been. But clearly, the blogosphere has won another big one. The lesson: Hit them in their pocketbook.

Sinclair’s stock has dropped more than 15 percent since the controversy erupted 10 days ago. Alan G. Hevesi, the Democratic comptroller of New York whose state pension fund holds 257,000 shares of Sinclair, questioned in a letter to the company yesterday whether airing the movie would further depress the shares.

The Sinclair announcement came hours after Deborah Rappaport, a major Democratic donor with her husband, Andy, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, said they had offered to buy one hour on Sinclair stations. This would finance a 42-minute version of a pro-Kerry documentary, “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry,” by George Butler. Rappaport said she was “deeply, deeply outraged” by Sinclair’s action and was offering $1 million more than the company’s usual ad rate in response.

Adding to the pressure on Sinclair, a group of institutional investors alleged yesterday that Smith’s three brothers, who serve on the company board, sold millions of dollars in Sinclair shares late last year just before the stock began its decline. Prominent shareholder lawyer William S. Lerach said the family would face a lawsuit unless the company is repaid.

Lerach, who has led investor lawsuits against Enron Corp., Time Warner Inc. and other corporations, is a noted Democratic fundraiser. But he said his involvement is not political, spurred instead by institutional investors who have watched Sinclair’s stock slide from a high of $15 per share in late December to its close of $6.26 yesterday.

Lerach noted that Frederick, Robert and Duncan Smith sold about 1.4 million shares of stock for almost $19 million as the stock was peaking at the turn of the year. The attorney, whose clients include a New York pension fund for health care workers, said the plan to air “Stolen Honor” has further hurt the company by driving down the stock price. He said Sinclair executives “should be focusing on creating shareholder value — not pressing a controversial personal political agenda at shareholders’ expense.”