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Reporter Fired for Publicly Criticizing Plans to Air Anti-Kerry Documentary

Sinclair Broadcast said in a statement that it fired reporter Jon Leiberman and that “we are disappointed that Jon’s political views caused him to violate company policy and speak to the press about company business.”

Lieberman, who had been the media company’s chief political correspondent for more than a year, told CNN Monday night that he was fired for denouncing Sinclair’s decision to present the film as news instead of commentary and to run it so close to the election.

“They’re using news to drive their political agenda,” Leiberman said Monday. “I don’t think it served the public trust.”

In his initial interview with the Baltimore Sun, published in Monday’s edition, Leiberman called Sinclair’s program “biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election.”

Leiberman said he was fired by Joseph DeFeo, Sinclair’s vice president for news, because he had “violated company policy by divulging information from a staff meeting to the (Baltimore) Sun” and for criticizing the company publicly. He was then escorted from the building.

In his interview with the Sun, Lieberman also charged that running the documentary days before the election reflected the conservative bias of Sinclair executives, specifically naming Chief Executive David Smith and Vice President Mark Hyman, who doubles as a conservative commentator for some of Sinclair’s stations.

“[T]he 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,” Lieberman had told the Sun.

Leiberman, 29, previously acknowledged that he could be fired for speaking out and refusing to participate in the presentation of the documentary, but said he felt like he had no other choice.

“I really feel like I can sleep at night and I can be OK with my decision to criticize Sinclair publicly,” Leiberman said late Monday. “I know I stood up for the principles of objectivity. In journalism, all we have is credibility and objectivity.”

Sinclair defended its decision about the documentary and to fire its chief political correspondent.

“Everyone is entitled to their personal opinion, including Jon Leiberman,” Hyman told the Baltimore Sun Tuesday. “Viewers can judge Leiberman’s opinion versus the reality when the finished product is aired,” Hyman said, adding that Leiberman was a “disgruntled employee.”

The 42-minute documentary, “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” features former prisoners of war accusing Senator Kerry, a decorated veteran who joined the antiwar cause upon returning from Vietnam, of prolonging the war and worsening their plight.

Hyman has described the program as “a special news event that we’ve put together.”

As a news event, it would be exempt from the federal regulations to provide equal time for the opposing point of view. The Kerry campaign last Friday asked Sinclair to provide equal airtime for a program with Senator Kerry’s supporters.

Nineteen Senate Democrats wrote the Federal Communications Commission Oct. 11 asking for an investigation into whether the documentary was proper use of the public airwaves. FCC Chairman Michael Powell responded Oct. 14 that the agency would not take action since there were no rules allowing the agency to block the broadcast of a program. The FCC also said it could not consider a complaint until the program actually airs.

Additionally, the Democratic National Committee last week filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, contending the film was a 42-minute attack ad and should be considered an illegal in-kind contribution to President Bush’s campaign.

Hyman has called “absolutely absurd” to label the program a contribution to the Bush campaign.

“Would they suggest that our reporting a car bomb in Iraq is an in-kind contribution to the Kerry campaign? Would they suggest that our reporting on job losses is an in-kind contribution to the Kerry campaign?” said Hyman. “It’s the news. It is what it is. We’re reporting the news.”

The FEC is not expected to take action before the election.

Sinclair owns or controls 62 television stations in 39 markets, reaching about a quarter of the nation’s population. Hyman said all but two of the stations — those that maintain only business arrangements with Sinclair — will air the commercial-free documentary this week.

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