Can Labor Contracts Help Sinclair TV Anchors Dodge Edicts? (1)

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By Jacquie Lee

Labor activists say newscasters at Sinclair Broadcast Group should have job protections if they refuse to participate in airing stories or promotional segments they deem untrue or slanted.

A former federal labor board member responds, “Good luck.”

The debate arose after the broadcaster, which owns almost 200 TV stations across the U.S., distributed scripts for news anchors to read that echo the anti-media sentiments of the White House.

A video montage that went viral shows numerous anchors reciting, in unison, a warning about “biased and false news” that “has become all too common on social media.” The message goes on to encourage viewers to call the local station if they “believe our coverage is unfair.”

As rhetoric about “fake news” gets more intense and large media corporations exert more influence on local outlets, labor advocates see a window of opportunity. They are pushing for language in contracts that would allow journalists to refuse to participate in on-air endeavors they see as inaccurate or biased, Steven Greenhouse, a former labor reporter for the New York Times, told Bloomberg Law.

A Delicate Dance

Creating the actual language in a labor agreement would be a delicate dance, James M. Cooney, an arbitrator and a professor at Rutgers University, told Bloomberg Law.

An effective clause would create a process to raise concerns, not offer specific language about what newscasters will or won’t say, Cooney said. It would need to include protection against retaliation and standards for evaluating what a journalist could reasonably refuse to say should disputes arise, he said.

Most Sinclair anchors aren’t unionized, but they still have protection from workplace retaliation for some activities under the National Labor Relations Act. The law shields workers from backlash for “engaging in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

But just because two or more employees band together to seek changes in working conditions doesn’t always mean their actions are protected from employer backlash, Marshall Babson told Bloomberg Law. Babson was a member of the National Labor Relations Board during the Reagan administration and now practices at Seyfarth Shaw, representing employers.

Sinclair anchors would have a tough time proving their resistance to reading company-mandated stories or promotions is protected activity under the NLRA, Babson said. Their efforts are more likely to be viewed as protected if the company wanted them to deliver information that is blatantly false, not just slanted or poorly sourced, Babson said.

‘No Political Agenda,’ Company Says

Sinclair Broadcast Group has gotten flak for its seemingly close ties with the Trump administration. The president tweeted his support for the media company multiple times after videos of anchors delivering the same speech went viral.

“The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast,” President Donald Trump tweeted April 3. “The ‘Fakers’ at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!”

Owning dozens of stations has given Sinclair a virtual monopoly in some smaller media markets.

Sinclair didn’t respond to Bloomberg Law’s requests for comment. A statement on the company’s website said, “The promos served no political agenda, and represented nothing more than an effort to differentiate our award-winning news programming from other, less reliable sources of information.”

Contracts On Content Exist

Pushing back against a publisher’s content isn’t unprecedented.

Some outlets have contracts with “partnership language” that allows news staff and managers to discuss journalists’ concerns about content, Grant Glickson, president of the NewsGuild of New York, told Bloomberg Law.

The Huffington Post’s labor contract with the Writers Guild of America, East has language that ensures “editorial employees cannot be assigned to work on branded content or native advertising,” according to the Writers Guild. Native advertising is promotional material that matches the style and voice of a particular publication, which can make it difficult to differentiate from editorial content.

But it’s difficult to predict labor trends and the problems they will create, and then address those problems in contracts. Take the language in the Huffington Post’s union contract, for instance.

“No one would have thought to include that before native advertising came along,” Greenhouse said. He anticipates “must run” stories and mandatory coverage of promotional material will be unions’ next targets.

The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents roughly 15 percent of Sinclair anchors, said it “opposes such directives in the interest of defending the professionalism of journalists.”

“SAG-AFTRA has been in contact with Sinclair to express our concerns with this campaign, and we stand with our members and journalists everywhere in challenging corporate directives that call into question the journalistic integrity of the news presented to the public,” the union said in a statement sent to Bloomberg Law April 4.

Slippery Slope, Difficult to Manage

Traditionally, decisions about on-air content are guided by journalism ethics, not by contractual obligations. Contractual language that lets a journalist refuse to report something creates a slippery slope, Wendy Wyatt, a media ethics professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, told Bloomberg Law. It also might be ineffective in the long run, she said.

“You could have a very specific clause that says journalists are not required to do ‘must reads’ and that might solve this one little issue that we’re talking about today, but again it’s like a Band-Aid to this larger question” of media consolidation and corporate power, Wyatt said.

And even if unions could persuade management to agree to a provision that allows reporters to say no to certain stories, that type of language would make it very difficult to manage a newsroom, Brian Balonick, a labor lawyer at Cozen O’Connor in Pittsburgh, told Bloomberg Law.

“Whether you agree with it or not, politically, I would imagine their view is we have news that we need to deliver to our viewers and we have employees that are picking and choosing what they say,” Balonick said.

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