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."
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."
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.)
"Our sources didn't trust us anymore, even though we didn't make that decision," Modarelli said. "They didn't want to work with us anymore because whatever we did, the story would turn out biased."
She added, "For me, it's just about ethical journalism."
Leiberman said the company had largely treated him well - until yesterday.
"I am not a disgruntled employee. I have worked hard for Sinclair for more than four years," he said. "I love what I do, but I love doing news. ... And I just felt like nobody was listening."
Leiberman, a Baltimore native, has been promoted several times during his tenure at Sinclair. He returned to Baltimore in 2000 to become an investigative reporter at Sinclair's WBFF-TV after stints at local stations in Topeka, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M. His duties at WBFF were expanded to include some supervisory duties for the station's investigative unit in 2002. Last year, he was promoted again, to head up the four-person Washington newsroom. He was sent by Sinclair to file stories from Iraq and Cuba, and also covered the two major political conventions this summer.
He said he has been upset by the role that Hyman, who is also the company's conservative editorialist, plays in making news judgments. Hyman pushed for Sinclair to create the program based on Sherwood's anti-Kerry documentary.
"This is nothing personal," Leiberman said yesterday afternoon. "This company has been good to me. Simply as a journalist, I think it's wrong for a commentator to have his hand in news - and other nonjournalists to have their hands in news."
Although he said he is passing along some ideas for the show, Hyman said his involvement in the Sinclair special has ebbed.
"This is a definite news event," Hyman said yesterday. "This has received significant media scrutiny as well as from outside groups."
The plans for the Sinclair program stirred a national firestorm earlier this month, with Democrats filing formal complaints with the Federal Election Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and Sinclair itself.
The chairman of the FCC, Michael K. Powell, has dismissed calls that the panel investigate the program before it airs. The FEC is not expected to take action before the election on the contention of the Democratic Party that the show constitutes an illegal "in-kind" corporate campaign donation.
Sinclair has invited Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, to appear on the show to respond to the allegations raised by the prisoners of war, but his campaign aides have rejected the offer as disingenuous.
Some liberal groups said they intend to challenge future efforts by Sinclair to renew broadcast licenses at its stations. Sinclair has benefited in recent years from deregulation, in which restrictions on the acquisition of stations by large media companies have diminished.