A 24-year-old Kearney man became a hero to some this week after taking his why-I-quit-my-Sinclair-TV-job story to CNN amid a firestorm around the broadcast giant’s mandated promos on “fake news.”
Justin Simmons played David to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Goliath, symbolizing a small voice — from Trump country, no less — taking a big stand to say: This is wrong.
But this David, given his own political activism, may not be the best voice of moral authority on the issue of bias.
Sinclair is under fire after the website Deadspin published a montage of broadcasters at Sinclair-owned TV stations around the country talking about the risk of “false news.” Reading from the same script, they said “we’re concerned” about: “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories”; the sharing of these “fake stories” on social media; and that other media “use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda.”
The report went viral, causing outrage from those who saw an ideological push from a right-leaning media empire echoing President Donald Trump’s attacks on the news media and sowing of distrust.
Trump tweeted his support for Sinclair while lambasting other news outlets.
Sinclair has strongly defended the promos, calling them standard practice and saying there is no bias. Simmons’ bosses at KHGI, also called NTV, did not respond to requests for comment.
KPTM/KXVO of Omaha, one of the Sinclair-owned stations in Nebraska (also Lincoln, Hastings and Kearney) and western Iowa (Sioux City), published a statement from General Manager Jeff Miller saying the whole thing had become “mired with misinformation.”
“Let me say there was no mandate to adjust news coverage in any way,” Miller’s statement says. “The piece in question was a promotional initiative focused on highlighting the fair and objective reporting we strive for and to reassure viewers of the value their trust means to our station.”
Miller said the promo was addressed during the station’s 9 p.m. news broadcast.
In his CNN interview Wednesday, Simmons said the promo was an example of how the company is “almost forcing local news anchors to lie to their viewers.”
He told me there were prior issues that made him uncomfortable. One was running what he described as “a hit piece” against the Washington Post for one of its reports on Sinclair, which is seeking government approval of its $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. The deal, under federal review, would make the largest broadcaster in America even bigger, with up to 215 local stations.
Two local media experts — Jeremy Lipschultz of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and John Shrader of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — raised concerns about the Sinclair promos and the proposed merger with Tribune Media.
Lipschultz, who has been at UNO for 30 years, said that credibility is a local news outlet’s bread and butter and that open partisanship hurts.
“I think we’re probably already in dangerous territory,” he said. “It started with a president who routinely attacks journalism and mainstream journalism.”
Shrader, a Nebraska native who spent 30 years in radio and TV broadcasting, said the Sinclair-Tribune merger would be great for that business and horrible for everyone else, from professionals who see their wages driven down to consumers who get fewer local broadcast news voices all because of less competition.
He said the mandated programming to local stations was unusual and concerning and feeds into an already challenging environment for journalists who are “being questioned for their motives.”
The Kearney High School graduate had been on staff at KHGI, based in Axtell, Nebraska, for about four years. He’d started in a part-time technical role exporting video and then got hired full-time. Most recently, he became the morning news producer, working a midnight-to-8 a.m. shift that had him responsible for the 5 a.m.-to-7 a.m. broadcast.
He told me that when Sinclair bought the station in 2016, he worried about mandated programming, including Sinclair’s daily “must-run” segment called “Terrorism Alert Desk,” which critics have called fear-mongering and Simmons sometimes skipped. CNN cited another must-run feature: pro-Trump commentaries by former Trump campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn.
But this most recent promotion, which Simmons said his station ran daily for a week starting March 23, was his breaking point.
In a resignation letter dated March 26, Simmons said he was quitting “solely because of Sinclair Broadcasting’s obvious bias in the news.”
Simmons took his story to CNN, which aired it Wednesday. Within 24 hours, Simmons’ Twitter followers had jumped tenfold. Fans praised him for the guts. Detractors pointed out his past activism, which added fuel to right-wing complaints that CNN’s coverage was slanted.
Simmons had helped organize a 2016 Black Lives Matter rally in Kearney, marched carrying a megaphone and had been photographed and interviewed for the Kearney Hub. He has used the anti-Trump hashtag, #resist.
He said he kept his personal and professional lives separate.
“I’m not really sure how relevant my political bias is,” he said.
But it is relevant when it’s shared publicly. Trust is a quality that can be hard to get and keep. And one of the trade-offs of having a journalism career is not getting to march or plant a yard sign or organize a rally.
It can be hard to lock up your opinions, especially when you have a front-row seat to the action.
It can be even harder to make the moral case that you’re standing up to a political agenda when you’ve got one.