Sinclair Broadcast Group has found itself in hot water in recent days after a script for one of its “must-run” segments was published online. But despite the fallout, the controversy has done little to hamper its efforts to recruit young journalists and those desperate for work.
On Thursday, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a script from content-sharing partner KOMO-TV, which blasted its competition as fake news. The script was one of many “must-run” segments Sinclair distributes to its anchors and reporters regularly, which often feature a mixture of misinformation and pro-Trump talking points.
The backlash was swift but has yet to hit the company’s bottom line. Sinclair, America’s largest owner of local news stations, continues to pursue its $3.9 billion dollar purchase of Tribune Media which, if approved, would give Sinclair control of more than 200 stations and the ability to reach more than 70 percent of American households.
Another area where Sinclair is flexing it’s financial muscles: the journalism jobs market. On the website JournalismJobs.org, more than 800 open job listings, or 64 percent, are from Sinclair Broadcast. On LinkedIn, Sinclair is mentioned in 116 active journalism postings, 62 of which were posted in the last month alone. By comparison, NBC has 104 “journalism” positions currently listed, CBS Corporation has 42, and Turner Broadcasting System, CNN’s parent company, has 34. Sinclair is only beat by media services company TEGNA, which currently has 138 positions listed nationwide.
In an age where newsroom layoffs have become the norm and the journalistic revenue model seems stuck in perpetual turmoil, Sinclair has established itself as one of the few companies that’s actively hiring, making it an appealing option for younger reporters seeking their first full-time job, and those desperate for work.
In many of those contracts — several of which have been shared with reporters in the wake of the must-run script controversy — Sinclair states that it reserves the right to fire a journalist if they become disabled and can no longer “present a pleasant personal appearance and a strong, agreeable voice.” Sinclair employees also have to agree not to “materially alter his/her physical appearance” or express their own political views. In an employee handbook obtained by HuffPost, Sinclair states, “You should not have any expectation of personal privacy in any communication using Company owned equipment.”
A lot of people are curious about this, so a former Sinclair journalist sent me a Sinclair contract. Here are the parts about quitting/getting fired. (See that clause about politics? It forbids employees from expressing their personal political views, but not their employer's.) pic.twitter.com/doFwbdl239
— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) April 2, 2018
The most troubling part of the contract however, is the “liquidated damages” clause, which states that if an employee chooses to leave before their contract is up, they could be required to pay up to 40 percent of their annual compensation back to Sinclair.
Employment-law experts have voiced doubt over whether the liquidated damages section is enforceable. “This…clause does seem highly problematic,” Samuel Estreicher, director for the Center for Employment Law and New York University, told the Daily Beast on Tuesday. “In general such clauses are not enforceable if they are simply punitive; they have to be reasonable attempts to capture likely damages. In the employment context, this is very unusual.”
Regardless, the contracts have helped to create an environment in which it is near-impossible to speak out against employers or walk away from the job. This particularly affects younger journalists who don’t yet know how the job market works or how to deal with unfair work environments.
“I used to work for Sinclair. Was threatened that I would be sued if I left the company early,” one former Sinclair employee claimed in a Twitter message to the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce on Monday, explaining that they were originally signed to a two-year contract, which also barred them from working in another news station in the local market.
Per the liquidated damages cost, they might have been forced to pay upwards of $20,000 if they had tried to leave, the former employee claimed.
“I was 22, fresh out of college,” they added. “This was the general manager telling me I would be sued.”
Sinclair did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The continued spotlight on Sinclair has had the effect of creating added turmoil within some of its newsrooms. At KOMO-TV in Seattle, the station which first shared its script for its promotional “must-run” segment, staffers are reportedly furious enough that they’ve begun planning to leave — but many are concerned about the potentially severe financial penalties they’d get for walking away.
“For many, compliance is the only option,” one staffer told the Seattle Times.
Added another, “While it’s romantic to be a martyr, it’s more realistic to put a resume tape together.”