Fired reporter tells audience at college why he spoke out

Sinclair's TV piece called `one-sided documentary'

October 29, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Jon Leiberman had expected to spend Tuesday near President Bush, then head to Ohio or another swing state as the Washington bureau chief for the Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. of Hunt Valley.

Now, Leiberman says he will probably watch the election from his couch - sidelined by his criticism of the corporation's plans to air a documentary against Democratic contender Sen. John Kerry.

The 29-year-old Westminster native returned yesterday afternoon to McDaniel College, where he has been a frequent speaker for journalism professor Terry Dalton - but as a newsman, rather than the subject of the news. He spoke to almost 100 students, college officials and others from the community.

Leiberman was fired Oct. 18 after his comments to The Sun condemning plans by Sinclair to have its stations air as news - so close to Election Day - the charge that Kerry's anti-war activism led to the renewed torture of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam. He said he refused to lend his face, voice or writing to "a one-sided documentary a week and a half before the election."

"I was against them calling it news, that's all," he told the McDaniel audience. "It was one of those times a light bulb goes off in your head and you have to do what's right. ... I don't view myself as a hero or martyr."

Leiberman has since been a guest on cable news and public radio stations, and the Sinclair program that aired Oct. 22 was modified and broadened in scope.

Asked what it was like to be the subject rather than the interviewer, Leiberman said the reporters had treated him fairly. He laughed about reporters calling cousins that he hadn't heard from in years trying to get his home number - because he had done the same while covering other stories.

"I stopped doing interviews Friday," said Leiberman, who said his only remaining engagements were an appearance last night at the University of Maryland, College Park and a taping for a Dec. 7 Public Broadcasting Service show with Bill Moyers.

"I needed some time. I need to start looking for jobs," he said.

He said he is talking with CNN, but has no definite job offers.

Mark Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate relations, said yesterday through an assistant, "It is not our policy to comment on personnel issues."

Extra chairs were brought to the classroom at McDaniel's Hill Hall where Leiberman spoke. Audience questions ranged from his perception of the animosity level in this presidential election to bias and concentration of media ownership.

"They have a First Amendment right to run what they want on their television stations - 62 of them," he said of Sinclair. "But when they called it news, it stepped across the line," he said. "People [at the group] would say, `We're going to get Kerry this time.'"

"I'm not a huge John Kerry fan," he added.

Leiberman said the political bias shown by some in Sinclair management caused problems for him, as subjects canceled interviews because "they did not think they'd be treated fairly."

So he began eight months ago in telephone calls and e-mails to his bosses to express his concern that the news was not being presented in "an objective and fair manner" but rather with "tremendous pressure to slant to one side of the political spectrum ... to vilify John Kerry and praise President Bush."

"I didn't feel we were serving the public interest, the viewers, and I asked to be released from my contract," he said. "I tried to go quietly.

"There's only one thing you have as a journalist that you take with you from story to story ... and that is your credibility," said Leiberman, who was in Iraq in February and at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. But professionally, he said, the past few weeks have been his "most difficult challenge."

He has no plans to sue his former employer, but does have an attorney to obtain unused vacation time, he said. "I feel good about what I did."

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