A television reporter fired a year ago after accusing his employer, Sinclair Broadcast Group, of a right-wing bias has been sued by the company for damages and for what it says are violations of his contract.
The suit says that in October 2004 Jon Leiberman, Sinclair's Washington bureau chief at the time, broke company rules by speaking publicly about his disaffection with his bosses after they ordered Sinclair stations around the country to pass off as news a documentary critical of presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry.
Reached yesterday in Iowa City, Iowa, where he was attending a journalism seminar at the University of Iowa, Leiberman said he had not yet been served with the suit and had only learned of it in a call from The Daily Record, which reported news of the lawsuit yesterday.
"I just want to get on with my life," Leiberman said. He said he would comment on the suit after he sees it.
The lawsuit says Leiberman, now a producer at America's Most Wanted, owes Sinclair almost $17,000 in so-called liquidated damages, equal to a percentage of his salary had he served out his contract. A company spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment, although Sinclair officials routinely refuse to discuss personnel matters in public.
Leiberman said at the time of his dismissal on Oct. 18, 2004, that in almost five years of working for Sinclair he had asked to be released from his contract on four occasions, all of them prompted by matters of bias. He was refused each time.
His firing came after he gave an interview to The Sun in which he said the 42-minute, anti-Kerry documentary, Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, was "biased political propaganda." The film, directed by Carlton Sherwood, featured allegations that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, prolonged the confinement of American prisoners of war by speaking out against the U.S. government's conduct of the conflict.
News that the Sinclair stations, which reach about 24 percent of the U.S. television audience, planned to pre-empt normal programming less than two weeks before the 2004 election to air the anti-Kerry documentary as a news show caused such a furor that the company backed off somewhat. Instead, Sinclair, with headquarters in Hunt Valley, showed excerpts from Stolen Honor as part of a one-hour program called A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media, in which panelists discussed the influence of the media and documentaries on political campaigns. It aired on 40 of the company's 60 stations, including Fox 45, WBFF-TV, in Baltimore, which had employed Leiberman before he went to Sinclair's Washington bureau.
In the lawsuit, filed last week in Baltimore County Circuit Court, the company said Leiberman "divulged confidential and proprietary information" about the company "to individuals outside of the organization," a reference to the interview in The Sun in which he discussed a staff meeting about the Kerry documentary.
The company's position was upheld by the Maryland Department of Labor, which found that Leiberman had violated provisions of his contract that prohibited speaking to the press without permission about internal company matters, which are considered proprietary information.
David Smith, president of Sinclair Broadcast Group, cited the agency's finding when he protested a decision by the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication to give Leiberman a special professional citation as part of its Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism. The judging panel rejected Smith's complaint.
"Mr. Leiberman upheld the fundamental journalist principles of fairness and balance, even at the risk of losing his job," the school's dean, Tim Gleason, wrote Smith on May 9. "It was a principled stand in the face of significant pressure." Leiberman, Gleason said, "acted in order to uphold values that are central to the practice of journalism in the public interest." On Oct. 28 last year, 10 days after his dismissal, Leiberman gave a speech at McDaniel College, 30 miles northwest of Baltimore, in which he said he had 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."
Leiberman added that he did not see himself "as a hero or martyr."