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October 19, 2004

"Call it Commentary, Call it Editorial, Call it Programming, but Don't Call it News." Sinclair Fires Jonathan Leiberman

By interfering from above ("you will interrupt your schedule, you will run this program, you will call it news..."), and by coloring the news to match the Right's view of the world, Sinclair hopes to flush out employees who cannot get with its agenda. "All liberals leave" is the message. Leiberman is now Sinclair's poster boy for it; and any publicity his firing gets is good.

(UPDATE: Sinclair backs down—some—and announces a one-hour program that will examine the “issue” of documentaries in the election battle. FURTHER UPDATE: New PressThink (Oct. 21): Sinclair Goes to Air Friday Night: Notes and Comment on “A POW Story”. Original post follows.)

I am going to stay with the Sinclair Broadcasting mess because there are interesting developments.

The most important is the courageous action of the (former) Washington bureau chief for Sinclair Broadcast Group, Jon Leiberman, who in Monday’s Baltimore Sun spoke out. He denounced the company’s intention to show on 60 of its stations all or part of the film Stolen Honor. (At least that’s the plan unless John Kerry agrees to discuss on the air the charges in the film— a course of action I have recommended, and for which time is running out.)

“It’s biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election,” Leiberman told the Sun. “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.”

Leiberman (bio), who is 29 and a Northwestern grad, was hired last year to lead a four-person Washington bureau. He spoke to the Sun’s David Folkenflik after a mandatory staff meeting for Sinclair’s corporate news division at company headquarters in Hunt Valley, MD, outside Baltimore. At the meeting staffers were told the special program would be defined as news, not opinion, on orders from above.

“I have nothing to gain here — and really, I have a lot to lose,” Leiberman said in taking his complaint public. “At the end of the day, though, all you really have is your credibility.”

At the end of the day, he was unemployed and explaining to Paula Zahn on CNN what happened. Sinclair fired Leiberman and had him escorted from the building. The official reason: he broke company policy by talking about the staff meeting to the Sun. Leiberman agreed that he had violated the firm’s gag order, but for reasons of professsional conscience. “I felt we were violating the public trust,” he told Zahn. And as Howard Kurtz put it, Sinclair “found itself explaining why it dismissed a top journalist for speaking to the media.” (A “disgruntled employee,” it said.)

So if Judith Miller of the New York Times should be applauded for standing up to Federal prosecutors and refusing to cooperate with their reckless leak probe—and I do praise her for that defiance—then Jon Leiberman should be cheered for his public defiance of Sinclair, which he knew would cost him his job. (Northwestern’s Medill School should be proud that one of its graduates is a professional to the core.)

Leiberman—who said he’s a registered Democrat and voted for Bush in 2000—agreed that Sinclair “under the First Amendment, has the right to air part or all of this documentary, but my argument has been, call it commentary, call it editorial, call it programming, but don’t call it news.”

Even if Stolen Honor were judged fairly to be news—even if we bend over backwards to give Sinclair the benefit of the doubt—it still wouldn’t explain what the company is doing by pre-empting regular programming to run the special in prime time. (It’s scheduled to be broadcast at 8 p.m. Friday on WBFF, Sinclair’s flagship station in Baltimore, the Sun reported today.)

Observe that Sinclair already has several more appropriate venues to report that some POW’s are hostile to Kerry because they think he prolonged their ordeal— if indeed that is campaign news. First, the company has News Central, which is seen on all of its stations. News Central produces a national report embedded in local broadcasts. Whatever real news is contained in Stolen Honor could easily have been reported there. Or Vice President for Corporate Relations Mark Hyman, who has a daily commentary slot on all Sinclair stations (The Point it is called), could have devoted one of his rants to it.

The first option might have caused some minor grumbling inside the company; the second would have caused none. But Sinclair chose the hour-long special. “We haven’t done an hour-long special on anything else, not the war on Iraq, not the war in Afghanistan, not the election, not the debates,” Leiberman said yesterday on CNN. “And all of a sudden, two weeks before the election, now we’re doing an hour-long special based on this anti-Kerry documentary.”

Commenting on all this, liberal blogger Josh Marshall said he hopes Leiberman is offered a new job. (I think he will be before the week is out.) “But my strongest impression is simply the outlandish, manic quality of this drama,” Marshall wrote, “It’s like we’re a banana republic suddenly.”

Elsewhere in the mania: Advertisers are feeling the pressure and reacting. “I’ve decided I don’t want to advertise on them,” said Adam Lee, owner of 10 auto dealerships in Portland Me (and active in Democratic politics.) He took all his advertising off the CBS affiliate, WGME. “It’s a public trust. It seems they’re abusing it.”

The most interesting—and amusing—advertiser story involved the Hannaford supermarket chain in Portland, Maine, which was trying to stay out of politics, but having a really hard time. Last week the company pulled its ads from WGME because the station was getting too involved in politics by airing Stolen Honor. The next day Hannaford restored the ads because it felt the supermarket was getting too involved in politics— by pulling the ads! As reported by the Portland Press-Herald:

On Friday, Epstein said the company was reversing its decision, again to try to remain out of the political storm.

“We recognize that WGME has been placed in an untenable position,” said Epstein, in a written statement. “It was never our intention to politicize this issue even more by our action, or to punish WGME. Hannaford is in the supermarket business, not the political business. We make our media buying decisions based on our customer demographic.”

After reading the statement, Epstein said she would not comment further.

I’m not surprised she didn’t want to comment any more. Political analysis is not a strong suit in the supermarket biz (should it be?) so Hannaford officials were unable to see how it’s in the nature of Sinclair’s action—causing an immediate reaction—to eliminate the neutral ground on which a big retailer desperately wants to stand. Hannaford’s dilemma—how do we stay out of this mess?—perfectly illustrates why most broadcasters don’t do what Sinclair has done. From today’s USA Today account:

Shares closed Monday at $6.49, down 55 cents since Friday — and down 12% since Oct. 11, the first day of trading after the Los Angeles Times disclosed Sinclair’s plans.

Lehman Bros. cut its 12-month price target to $9 from $10 as analyst William Meyers noted in a report that airing the documentary “has no upside and only multi-dimensional downside” for the company — for example by alienating advertisers and regulators.

No upside? Well, that would be true for most broadcasters. But most broadcasters are commercial operations, first and last. I have argued (go here) that this is not the right way to understand Sinclair. People on Wall Street are supposed to be savvy; Meyers sounds naive to me.

The biggest operator of television stations in the country is not so much a commercial broadcaster with a political agenda as a political broadcaster with an expanding commercial base. With Stolen Honor, Sinclair is not trying to minimize public controversy, but to create one. It is not trying to stay out of politics so that its advertisers can do the same; it wants a public role in the election endgame and it fully intends to politicize its environment— within the company and without.

Just how risky and unusual this is can be heard in Bill Carter’s account from Monday’s New York Times. Listen to this part:

A report issued by the [investment banking] firm Legg Mason last week cited the controversy over the film and asked the question, “Is this good for investors in terms of increasing the odds for favorable deregulation?” The conclusion: “We think not.”

Blair Levin, the managing director of Legg Mason and a former F.C.C. official, added in a telephone interview, “Deregulation usually happens when you do it quietly.”

Sinclair needs further de-regulation to get bigger and to begin buying newspapers in cities where it has television stations. That’s one part of its long term strategy. (See this.) In the normal way of operating a big company, you make your campaign contributions and then quietly seek favors from government. Deregulation typically turns on complex details in law and public policy that are too boring to make headlines, which almost guarantees that big changes can be won without much scrutiny. That’s why Levin says do it quietly and you will get what you want.

But we have to adjust our sense of what Sinclair wants and how it works. It isn’t a normal company seeking goodies from the Federal government— forget all that. It’s a political empire seeking to expand its influence and win a reputation for applying muscle where needed. That’s the upside of the Stolen Honor furor. Think Machiavelli, not Adam Smith.

For how long has the political right wanted a housecleaning in the nation’s newsrooms, which—according to political legend—are over-stocked with liberals? Since at least 1969. Sinclair doesn’t gripe about it; Sinclair acts. It has a strategy of killing independent newsrooms, reducing their number as it buys more and more media properties. Claiming economies of scale, it gains two stations in the same market, and combines their news operations into one.

Poof— there goes a newsroom. By openly practicing interference from above (“you will interrupt your schedule, you will run this program, you will call it news, and you will talk to no one about this meeting, understand?”), and by changing the ideological color of the news to match the Right’s view of the world, Sinclair hopes to flush out employees who cannot get with its agenda.

“All liberals leave” is the message. Leiberman is now the company’s poster boy for it; and any publicity he gets is good for the re-education scheme Sinclair has undertaken with its news workers. It expects conflicts. It expects to fire people or to find that they have quit. This is a sign of progress, not turmoil. Or rather, it’s progress through turmoil: a Right-wing version of the “long march through the institutions.”

The next step in this campaign is to begin buying up local newspapers where Sinclair has television stations. Then, using the economies of scale argument to shut up Wall Street, it will bring the newspaper’s editorial staff to heel under the centralized Sinclair system.

Let’s use Charleston, West Virgina as an example. (And here I am speculating.) Sinclair already has in hand WCHS, the ABC affiliate, and WVAH, the Fox station. After the election, it wants to obtain the right to buy the Charleston Gazette, a morning newspaper owned by the Chilton family. From three competing newsrooms across three media properties, Charleston will be down to one news operation distributed three times, and heavily influenced by decisions at corporate headquarters in Maryland.

Mark Hyman’s televised commentaries, which now run on all Sinclair stations, will be expanded to op-ed length so they can be published in company newspapers. Sinclair gains as a power broker in West Virgina, a swing state. And what Congressman is going to defy it, especially after Sinclair demonstrated its willingness to intervene in a bitterly contested national election?

The step after that: buy a third television station in Charleston, say the NBC affiliate, which means another opportunity to fire the liberal media, consolidate news operations and spread the influence of News Central, the real GOP-TV. You tell me: on what basis is anyone in Washington going to object?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Today’s big announcement, Sinclair Broadcast Group:

In order to minimize the interruption of normally scheduled programming in those markets where Sinclair owns and/or programs more than one television station, the news special will be broadcast on only one of those stations….

The news special will focus in part on the use of documentaries and other media to influence voting, which emerged during the 2004 political campaigns, as well as on the content of certain of these documentaries. The program will also examine the role of the media in filtering the information contained in these documentaries, allegations of media bias by media organizations that ignore or filter legitimate news and the attempts by candidates and other organizations to influence media coverage.

PressThink on Oct. 16: “How much clearer can it get? Sinclair has made no commitment to run the film.”

Sinclair on Oct. 19: “Contrary to numerous inaccurate political and press accounts, the Sinclair stations will not be airing the documentary Stolen Honor in its entirety.”

Plausible deniability: This listing of published air times for Stolen Honor, collected by Net users, shows that Sinclair forgot to tell affiliates it might later switch stories and claim that it never had plans to show the documentary. Clearly, it did have such plans.

Professor Bainbridge: “As a Bush supporter, I’m okay with Sinclair’s decision (although more than a little worried it will backfire). Having said that, however, I must admit that I would be pretty annoyed at Sinclair if I were a shareholder. We have here a classic agency cost problem - managers using their control of the corporation to advance their personal interests and preferences at the expense of the shareholders.” Also, see this from the AP.

Prophetic: “A significant effect of the John Kerry-led 1971 protests was it strengthened the resolve of the North Vietnamese to continue to hold American POWs.” Who wrote that? Sinclair’s Vice President for Corporate Affairs, Mark Hyman, did. It’s his commentary from on Sep. 22, 2004.

Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post: “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.”

Paul Schelzer, AlterNet: “This top-down model reflects the authoritarian, hierarchical structure at Sinclair described by Leiberman: ‘Everything is dictated. Ideas are funneled down from the highest levels.” He says CEO David Smith would often appear “in the newsroom and toss out ideas that ended up in the evening broadcasts.’

John Nichols in The Nation’s Online Beat:

When Sinclair buys a station in some long-suffering community, it fires the local staffers and begins feeding the locals a steady diet of disembodied and disengaged “content” spewed out of the company’s media mill near Baltimore.

Sinclair has even experimented with the so-called “distance-casting” of weather reports. Sinclair’s stormbots read local forecasts for communities around the country while standing in front of ever-changing weather maps at the firm’s suburban Baltimore bunker.

Terry Heaton, former television news executive:

This move by Sinclair is so transparent that even a blind man can see through it. But it comes on top of RatherGate, Fox News and countless other recent public embarrassments. It screams for all the world to hear that fairness isn’t a part of the media anymore (was it ever?), much less objectivity. The train of self destruction that’s roaring through town keeps picking up passengers, regardless of whether they choose to get onboard or not.

And that means the decline and fall of the mainstream press in America is inevitable. It is so, because the whole thing is sleight-of-hand anyway, and the people aren’t as stupid as we once thought. If you cannot see this happening, you are in denial

Philadelphia Inquirer. “Yesterday, Kenneth J. Campbell, a University of Delaware professor who is one of the veterans depicted in the 41-minute film, sued the producer for libel, saying the film falsely portrayed him as a fraud and a liar. The civil lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.”

Chicago Tribune, Oct. 16:

Television viewers receive on-camera reports from “News Central” that appear to be coming from local stations. Sinclair spokesman Mark Hyman delivers conservative commentary that must be carried on local news reports.

“Their whole business model is about cutting operating costs,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, a legal watchdog group. “They fake the localism by presenting the hometown station feel but without any of the presence and journalism that local communities deserve.”

Shareholder action against Sinclair. Update on it from Josh Marshall. The Professor scoffs. The Comptroller of New York State, steward over 256,000 shares, is curious about a few things. Meanwhile, the advertiser pullouts move along.

Previously at PressThink: Commentary on the Sinclair Challenge

Sinclair Broadcast Group: What Are They Doing in the Middle of Our Election? “What Mark Hyman has been saying to the point of braying it is— let’s negotiate. John Kerry can keep Stolen Honor off the air by replacing it with himself. Sinclair has no other invitations out. So I say send Mike McCurry and Richard Holbrooke to Baltimore. They negotiate. Five minutes of film, 55 minutes of Kerry answering questions sounds about right to me…” (PressThink, Oct. 16)

Agnew with TV Stations: Sinclair Broadcasting Takes On John Kerry and The Liberal Media. “In a commercial empire it makes no sense to invite a storm like Stolen Honor. But imagine a firm built for that sort of storm. Is Sinclair Broadcasting a media company with a political interest, or a political interest that’s gotten hold of a media company and intends to use it? There are plenty of signs that a different animal is emerging.” (PressThink, Oct. 13)

John Kerry Should Accept Sinclair Broadcasting’s Offer. “A final confrontation with the Right. Isn’t that what the Right wants too? A chance, indeed, to clear the air about Vietnam, and a lot of other things. Will America watch? America will watch. And if he can’t win that broadcast, he does not deserve to win the prize.” (PressThink, Oct. 9)

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 19, 2004 1:11 PM