Sinclair employee decries planned program on Kerry

D.C. bureau chief calls it `biased political propaganda'

October 18, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The Washington bureau chief for Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group's news division angrily denounced his employer last night for plans to air an hourlong program that is to include incendiary allegations against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for his anti-war activism three decades ago.

"It's biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election," said Jon Leiberman, Sinclair's lead political reporter for more than a year. "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."

Repeated efforts to reach Sinclair officials for comment last night proved unsuccessful.

Sinclair sparked national headlines this month by ordering its 60 stations to broadcast a program that will devote significant time to charges that Kerry's nationally televised remarks in 1971 about atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam spurred the torture of American prisoners of war. (Sinclair has business relationships with two additional stations that are not scheduled to air the show.)

The broadcasting company's plan has drawn formal protests from Democrats for both the program's content and its timing -- less than two weeks before Election Day. It plans to pre-empt an hour of regular prime-time network programming for the special on each of the stations over a several-day period this week. While Sinclair has invited Kerry to respond to the allegations, campaign aides have dismissed that offer as insincere.

Sinclair reaches about 24 percent of American viewers, with a presence in 39 markets, most of them in smaller regions. But many of them can be found in pivotal political states such as Michigan, Missouri and Ohio.

Leiberman spoke out yesterday after a mandatory staff meeting attended by Sinclair's corporate news division at company headquarters in Hunt Valley.

"I have nothing to gain here -- and really, I have a lot to lose," Leiberman said. "At the end of the day, though, all you really have is your credibility."

Leiberman, 29, is a Baltimore native who has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has worked at stations in Topeka, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M., as well as Sinclair's WBFF in Baltimore.

The program draws from a documentary called Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, produced by Carlton Sherwood, a prize-winning journalist who has close ties to Bush administration officials.

Sinclair staffers were told the show would be presented as news, not opinion, Leiberman said.

Some industry analysts have decried Sinclair's plans. "People in the news business are supposed to present both sides of the story," said American University communications professor Jane Hall, a media critic for Fox News Watch. "They are not supposed to have an agenda. They are not supposed to want to affect the outcome of the election with something they label news."

Leiberman said he was anguished by his decision to speak out. But, he said, the influence of commentator Mark Hyman and Chief Executive David D. Smith has been devastating. "There is going to be a concerted effort on the part of my colleagues to make this as balanced a program as they can," Leiberman said. "But the selection of the material -- dumping it on the news department, and giving them four days, and running it this close to the election -- it's indefensible, in my opinion."

Leiberman said he told Sinclair's vice president for news, Joseph DeFeo, that he would not contribute to the program and that DeFeo suggested the reporter could lose his job.

DeFeo did not return messages seeking comment.

The Smith family, which controls Sinclair, has long been a financial backer of Bush and other Republicans, including Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Now, Leiberman said, the conservative bias of Sinclair executives is too palpable to ignore. "All I want is for them to address these issues," Leiberman said. "Let the journalists do what the journalists do -- cover the news."

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