Last month, a video emerged that showed dozens of anchors from local news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group delivering the exact same script about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country.” The video, edited by Deadspin, was shocking because it showed how Sinclair was forcing its journalists to become part of a pro-Trump propaganda machine. If Sinclair has it way, the spin factory they run could soon reach almost three-quarters of all American households.
Sinclair currently owns 193 TV stations in more than 80 media markets around the country, and they are asking the government to approve a merger with Tribune Media so they can become still bigger. If approved, this merger would give Sinclair access to more than 72% of households. This could have a dangerous impact—hindering our ability to keep local news in America independent and free from political bias.
Sinclair is a textbook example of the dangers of ever increasing corporate power, which is why Sinclair’s impending merger should be blocked by the federal government. Even if Sinclair’s merger fails, the company still wields enormous power over its employees. Upon learning about Sinclair’s massive influence over the nation’s local news media, many commentators wondered publicly why very few Sinclair employees refused to participate in the partisan broadcast segment (even though several journalists clearly appeared uncomfortable).
Scarily, the answer is that they had little choice but to participate, due to the predatory contract clauses that come with the Sinclair job. Vox recently published an essay by anonymous Sinclair employees who were incensed by Sinclair’s mandate to slant coverage of national issues with a clear right wing viewpoint. The authors note that they were particularly disturbed by the president’s tweet defending Sinclair in the midst of the uproar over the Deadspin video, but they could not fight back because of Sinclair’s pernicious employment contract provisions. The anonymous employees write:
Under a clause that appears in many contracts… if an employee quits, he or she could end up owing the company thousands of dollars. The penalty for breaking a contract is a payment to Sinclair of part of the employee’s annual salary, based on a complex formula. That’s money most employees simply don’t have. It’s a decision between possibly going bankrupt or sticking it out for another X number of years.
As reported by Bloomberg and the Southwest Times Record, Sinclair employees sign contracts that contain a morass of questionable and likely unenforceable provisions and potential penalties for violating the agreement. For example, employees must sign six-month noncompete agreements that make it difficult to work in journalism if they leave Sinclair. They are also subject to a forced arbitration clause that waives their right to access the courts if they are wronged by Sinclair, such as through discrimination. Even more ghoulishly, the contracts specify that employees could be subject to a financial penalty as large as 40 percent of their annual compensation upon quitting.
Even if these agreements were found by a court to be unenforceable, few employees are willing to risk their families’ financial well-being based on that promise. This means that, whether or not the contracts are legally sound, their intended chilling effect—to keep employees in line and afraid to leave—has been achieved.
Massive corporate power continues to corrode our democracy and make it harder for individuals to receive access to justice when they are wronged. We will continue to fight against massive corporate power, fight for worker protections against predatory contract provisions, and ensure that every person’s voice is heard.