I had been working as a video editor at KHGI in Kearney, Nebraska, for about two years when Sinclair Broadcast Group purchased the station in 2016. It didn't take long for the segments our new parent company said we had to air during our local news broadcasts to arrive.
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 was commentary on national political issues; "Bottom Line with Boris," hosted by former Donald Trump aide Boris Epshteyn; and the "Terrorism Alert Desk," which discussed apparent terrorism worldwide and sometimes used unverifiable sources. Sometimes these were labeled as commentary. But most "must-runs" were slanted, and they sometimes went straight into blatant fearmongering.
About five months after Sinclair bought the station, they promoted me from editor to producer, which meant I was more directly involved in newsroom management. I was hesitant to take the new role because the ownership group seemed heavy-handed, but when I realized I didn't have to sign a new contract, I went ahead.
The "must-runs" kept coming from the corporate office, and they quickly became a problem for me. My local morning news show was about 90 minutes, once commercials were accounted for. This meant the segments on national politics took valuable time away from local reporting, as they did on the evening newscasts, too. When I first started as a producer, I had considered just not running them - both because their substance was questionable and because they took up time we didn't really have to spare. Pressure from others made not airing them a challenge, but I eventually stopped.
I often skipped "Behind the Headlines." When I did run the segments, I would add disclaimers saying something like "Sinclair Broadcast Group Commentary" to set them apart from local news. I labeled one as a "must-run segment." Sometimes I labeled them "required segment." Sinclair's "must runs" were something I was willing to get fired over. A few months ago, Sinclair asked my boss how many of them I had run, and it turned out I ran only 60 percent of them. I didn't get in trouble, but my boss was chastised.
The promo Sinclair sent around last month for us to air was even more egregious. Viewers called and emailed before it had aired saying they were concerned about it and complained 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 like projection. It also appeared to echo President Donald Trump's rhetoric on "fake news."
I tried to find out from my superiors whether we could stop it from airing. I asked them to fight it and for us to have a stationwide meeting. I was told it would be a losing battle and to "not bite the hand that feeds 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 put in a tough spot because my boss said his job would be at risk, not mine. This made me angry. I resigned and decided to go public about it. 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 lacked the same freedom my lack of a contract gave me. For lifelong journalists who have spent their career establishing trust with their viewers, Sinclair's message created a bigger 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 trust and 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 Journalism said the promo, along with other must-runs, "rob" communities of local content provided by local journalists. Sinclair withdrew a $25,000 donation from the NPPA's legal fund after the group criticized the company. Instead of taking away donations, I wish Sinclair management would consider why journalistic organizations are concerned.
Sinclair reaches 39 percent of U.S. households. A pending $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media would put Sinclair broadcasts in front of 70 percent of Americans with televisions. Sinclair's bias and required segments make its size especially concerning. As it currently 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 last week.
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 can't 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.