Sinclair fires D.C. chief who spoke out

Political correspondent criticized network's plan to air anti-Kerry program

The Media

Election 2004

October 19, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Sinclair Broadcast Group fired its Washington bureau chief yesterday after the reporter criticized plans for an hourlong program on 60 stations that will include incendiary charges against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

"I just think it's a shame that a journalist gets fired for telling the truth," said Jon Leiberman, who had been the Maryland-based media firm's chief political correspondent for more than a year.

In his initial remarks, published yesterday by The Sun, Leiberman called the Sinclair show "biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election."

In the interview, Leiberman condemned the unprecedented dedication of an hour by Sinclair to charges that Kerry's anti-war activism led to the renewed torture of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam. He said the decision to run the program reflected the conservative ideological bent of Sinclair executives intent on influencing voters as the Nov. 2 election nears.

"Everyone is entitled to their personal opinion, including Jon Leiberman," said Mark Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate relations. "We're disappointed that Jon's political views caused him to violate policy and speak to the press about company business."

'Stolen Honor'

The Sinclair program, as yet untitled, draws from the documentary Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, which includes allegations by some U.S. prisoners of war that Kerry's anti-war testimony before Congress in 1971 inspired their North Vietnamese captors to torture them further. Stolen Honor was produced by Carlton Sherwood, a prize-winning journalist with close ties to Bush administration officials.

"Viewers can judge Leiberman's opinion versus the reality when the finished product is aired," Hyman said, calling Leiberman a "disgruntled employee."

Later yesterday evening, Hyman issued an additional statement: "Jon Leiberman is no longer an employee of the company. We do not comment on personnel matters."

The show is planned for broadcast locally at 8 p.m. Friday on WBFF, Sinclair's Baltimore-based flagship. Sinclair owns or controls 62 television stations in 39 markets, reaching about 24 percent of the nation's population. Hyman said all but two of the stations - those that maintain only business arrangements with Sinclair - will air the show.

The Sun first interviewed Leiberman on Sunday after he told Joseph DeFeo, Sinclair's vice president for news, that he would not participate in preparing the program and that he objected to it being labeled news rather than commentary. Leiberman raised his objections at a mandatory meeting for all Sinclair corporate news staffers to help prepare the piece.

Leiberman was summoned yesterday afternoon to the company's Hunt Valley headquarters and fired by DeFeo for his remarks, he said last night. Leiberman said he was told that he was being fired for criticizing the company publicly and for revealing "proprietary information" by describing the Sunday meeting of the news staff. He was then escorted from the building.

DeFeo did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

Yesterday, Leiberman, 29, disputed Hyman's contention that political beliefs informed his criticisms of Sinclair. Leiberman said he is a registered Democrat but that he voted for George W. Bush, a Republican, in 2000. A search of federal and state databases found no political contributions by Leiberman.

"I have never, ever let politics frame the way I cover news," Leiberman said. "The reason I spoke out is because Sinclair Broadcast Group is not holding up the public trust."

'Ethical journalism'

Geneva Overholser, a former editor of The Des Moines Register and ombudsman of The Washington Post, praised Leiberman yesterday for what she termed his courage.

"I have a pantheon of heroes, and he's now among them," Overholser said. "He was willing to stand up and say what the news department has to do is stand for fairness and balance."

Lisa Modarelli, now a freelance journalist, was hired in June 2003 as a producer for Sinclair's nascent Washington bureau. She was its first employee and Leiberman its first chief. She said she never had any glimmer of Leiberman's political beliefs but saw that he was discouraged by the political tone coming from his bosses in Baltimore County.

"He was giving up, agreeing to do their stories and wasn't doing the kind of investigative reporting that he went there to do," Modarelli said yesterday. "The amount of spin they wanted to put in it really broke him down over time."

She said she left in August 2004 for two reasons. The pay was low compared with that of other news operations in Washington. But she also was frustrated by the fallout from another controversy that sparked national attention. In late spring, Sinclair blocked an edition of Nightline from its seven ABC stations because, executives said, Ted Koppel's plan to read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq amounted to an anti-war statement. (Koppel denounced that contention.)

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