Sinclair Broadcast Group executives reprimanded and ultimately ousted a local news reporter who refused to seed doubt about man-made climate change and “balance” her stories in a more conservative direction.
Her account, detailed in company documents she provided to BuzzFeed News, offers a glimpse at the inner workings of a media giant that has sought to both ingratiate itself to President Donald Trump and cast itself as an apolitical local news provider — a position the documents undermine.
In one 2015 instance, the former news director of WSET-TV in Lynchburg, Virginia, Len Stevens, criticized reporter Suri Crowe because she “clearly laid out the argument that human activities cause global warming, but had nothing from the side that questions the science behind such claims and points to more natural causes for such warming.”
In recent months, Sinclair has garnered intense national attention for forcing stations across the country to carry pro-Trump, “must-run” segments and instructing anchors to read statements touting conservative talking points. Sinclair, which owns local TV stations “affiliated” with name-brand networks like Fox or ABC, has defended the segments and noted they are a small part of its stations’ overall coverage — but Crowe’s experience as a general assignment reporter demonstrates how the parent company’s ideology can permeate throughout local news reporting.
She faced discipline for social media posts and restrictions in reporting on guns, white nationalism, and Liberty University, she said. Company documents do criticize some of her work as unfair and her behavior as unprofessional at times. Overall, the documents provide an unusually close look at one reporter’s experience working for a Sinclair station, and how the smallest details mattered and were recorded.
Crowe told BuzzFeed News that before the October 2015 climate change segment aired, she was ordered by Stevens to include Donald Trump’s opinion on the matter. “When I instructed you to balance the story, by including some of [the] other argument, you insisted there was no need to add such balance to the story,” he wrote in her Jan. 22, 2016, performance review.
“That was the moment where I realized how things were going to go there.”
A veteran reporter who has worked at news stations in Texas and Virginia, Crowe said she viewed the story as environmental — not two-sided or political. “I was always covering the flu. I don’t remember a time when for balance I went out to a group of 20 people who are nutjobs that say flu shots kill,” she told BuzzFeed News. The scientific consensus is that climate change is real and humans are largely to blame, but Crowe ultimately read the updated, “balanced” script on air. “That was the moment where I realized how things were going to go there,” she said.
“The management team felt the story was one-sided — indicating that human activity is to blame for global warming — period,” said Stevens, who now works in the communications department at Liberty University, in an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News. “I understand most scientists agree with that assessment. I, myself, feel that human activity at least plays a role, but our opinions really shouldn’t matter. We were there to deliver news, not opinion. And there is NOT 100% agreement on this issue, even among the scientific community.”
Crowe was, in retrospect, struck that Trump’s thoughts were included before he was even his party’s nominee, but Stevens defended the decision. “It was simply a statement — in the headlines at that time — that provided some balance, some reference to the other side of the argument. That side does exist,” he said. “The same would hold true for any hot button issue — Gun Control, Abortion, the Death Penalty, etc.”
Crowe, 49, says she was badly shaken by her time at Sinclair. She left the news business but decided to speak on the record so other reporters and news consumers would know about what can happen when Sinclair takes over a local outlet. The largest owner of TV stations in the country, Sinclair is poised to expand even more through the $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media, which could grant it a foothold in major US cities like Los Angeles and expand its reach to 72% of American homes.
Last year, Crowe’s contract was not renewed and she was forced out of WSET, an ABC-affiliated TV station owned by the company. “We do not comment on individual cases regarding past employees,” said Ronn Torossian, a spokesperson for Sinclair. “We do always maintain high standards for balanced, fact-based reporting.”
“After I left, I just didn’t want to go back to news,” Crowe said. “Now I feel like I’m more committed to journalism than ever. We really have to fight for journalism — it’s worth the fight.”
Suri Crowe in Virginia on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Matt Eich for BuzzFeed News
Crowe spent the early part of her reporting career in local markets in Texas in the 1990s, covering federal court cases, murders, drug trafficking along the border, and then-governor George W. Bush. “He was a pleasure to cover — a very kind and decent man,” Crowe said. “I enjoyed my relationship with that whole Republican changeup in Austin.”
She left journalism to work in pharmaceutical sales for Pfizer, but returned to other TV stations in Virginia before landing a three-year contract with WSET in 2014. At the time, Sinclair was in the process of acquiring a handful of stations owned by Allbritton, including WSET and the broadcaster’s flagship, WJLA, in Washington, DC. Though Crowe’s position fell in the medium-sized Roanoke-Lynchburg TV market, she was advised by a mentor at Sinclair that the company’s expanding footprint would set her up to move to a market like DC afterward.
“It’s always been a conservative station. We’re right in the Bible Belt. It went beyond that when Sinclair took over.”
Former employees said that WSET’s coverage has long focused on the Lynchburg side of the area, where the station is located (unlike the rival broadcasters). “The market strategy was to really not fret about the western half of the market, but to own your backyard counties because there was no competition,” said one former staffer. “That is a far more conservative half — versus the Virginia Tech area.”
“It’s always been a conservative station. We’re right in the Bible Belt,” said another former employee. But Sinclair’s grip on local coverage became clearer to employees after the takeover. “It went beyond that when Sinclair took over,” the former employee said. “It became: ‘This is what we have to do.’ In our morning editorial meetings, anything that went against anything that corporate wanted was just shot down.”
Crowe, for her part, battled with her bosses over political and nonpolitical issues. Younger reporters counted Lynchburg as a “starter” market, but Crowe’s colleagues said she was an outspoken, experienced journalist who wanted to do nationally minded stories. She clashed with management, former employees said, particularly over what exactly constitutes balanced coverage.
“Your story on proposed gun legislation was not balanced,” Stevens wrote in Crowe’s performance review. “You wrote of the proposed gun restrictions, ‘Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, not to those in charge of passing new gun laws.’ And that tone is carried throughout the story. Another line: ‘Several polls show the majority of Virginians are in favor of tighter restrictions on gun purchases… But Republican lawmakers in Richmond… won’t go for it.’”
On another gun story about the state attorney general’s decision to revoke a reciprocity agreement with other states for concealed carry permits, Stevens wrote that the sum total Crowe offered the other side was a single sentence: “The NRA on the other hand released a statement condemning the attorney general’s decision.” Stevens added that Crowe “had access to the press release sent by the NRA, yet included nothing from the actual statement… This kind of approach damages our reputation as a fair and balanced news organization.”
“I would tell the reporters ‘just give me something I can defend,’ because I was the one who would take the angry calls from viewers.”
“I would tell the reporters ‘just give me something I can defend,’ because I was the one who would take the angry calls from viewers if they felt we weren’t giving a fair treatment to ‘their side’ on a particular issue,” Stevens told BuzzFeed News. “When a story was balanced enough, I could simply read it back to the caller, word for word, and highlight to them how all sides were represented. Most often, the caller would agree, thank me for taking the time to explain, and promise to keep watching. Those interactions protected that newsroom’s credibility. Almost everyone there understood this need for balance, agreed with it, and followed through. Any reporter who would outright refuse to balance their stories would certainly get extra oversight and possibly remedial action.”
The review highlighted other complaints, including that Crowe had been late to news shoots and that she had acted unprofessionally with the Lynchburg Police Department. “[An] officer describes a pattern of inappropriate behavior in his time dealing with you, including: ‘overstepping bounds, drama, unprofessional texts, emails, calls, etc.,’” Stevens wrote. One officer had indicated Crowe had “looked very angry” and “looked irritated the entire time you were with him, that you ignored him, and that you got basic facts of the story incorrect.”
In a written response to her review, Crowe said that she was being unfairly targeted. Lots of stories, she told BuzzFeed News, got cut for space, diminishing time given to both sides. Crowe wrote in her response to Stevens that she had also “on multiple occasions reported on ‘pro-gun’ stories,” including a December 2015 pitch about Republicans in Campbell County wanting to pass a pro-gun resolution. “I didn’t have an anti–gun violence side there — and Mr. Stevens had no problem with that story.”
According to Crowe, her relationship with the police department was fine — at times adversarial, but that comes with being a reporter — and she felt horrified that station management would not come to her defense. Crowe’s response continued: “This appraisal is not really about my performance. This is really a character and professional assassination of me because I am a woman. A very good reporter who is not afraid to ask the difficult questions of a police department during a year when so many police departments have been under fire,” she wrote. “If you want me out so much, let me go without any restrictive covenants and I will start looking today for another job.”
Suri Crowe in Virginia on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Matt Eich for BuzzFeed News
As Sinclair’s corporate control intensified, some employees at WSET began to quietly worry about the introduction of the company’s now infamous “must-run” clips. The segments, produced by the parent company, included a “Terrorism Alert Desk” rounding up terror incidents from around the globe, as well as political diatribes from former Trump official Boris Epshteyn. Inside the newsroom, employees who viewed the segments negatively mostly kept quiet. “We would see a must-run, and we would all glance at each other, but that was about it,” said a former staffer. Some reporters in the field chafed at the must-runs not for political reasons, but because it meant they had less time for their own stories.
The segments also exposed a generational divide. “Half of the newsroom was pretty vocal about drinking the Kool-Aid, and they were all the old people,” one of the former employees said. “I think the general consensus and attitude was that they were probably doing it because they liked their jobs. It was scary to watch.”
Earlier this month, Sinclair’s must-runs came under sharp national scrutiny when Deadspin stitched together a video showing dozens of local TV anchors delivering the same speech about media bias in unison. Critics said that the anchors looked like hostages. Journalism schools sent a letter to Sinclair blasting the video. The clip ricocheted around Hollywood, with liberal actor Amy Schumer canceling a planned interview with Sinclair’s DC station. Former Sinclair employees began speaking out — like one reporter in Florida who told Bloomberg he was ordered to conduct politically tinted “man on the street” interviews.
As the media storm intensified, Sinclair battled back. David Smith, Sinclair’s chair, emailed the New York Times that the must-runs were similar to stations running late-night shows from their affiliated network. The company then ran a banner on the websites of every one of its local stations linking to a YouTube video attacking CNN’s “hypocritical” coverage of the incident.
Despite her negative performance review, Crowe remained in her contract at WSET, and in April 2016, she won a Virginias Associated Press Broadcasters award for coverage of animal inspection violations at a roadside zoo. Crowe’s reporter “reel” from her time at WSET compiles some of her stories, from local weather events to political rallies to an investigation on why a local shelter euthanized a dog set for adoption.
Stevens, the news director from the Allbritton and early Sinclair era, joined Liberty University when he left WSET in 2016. But Crowe continued to feud with the new management, including news director Scott Nichols.
Crowe told BuzzFeed News that she pitched a story about the rise of white supremacists in the area who she said she could get on camera for an interview. According to Crowe, Nichols told her that he didn’t see the news value. The piece would have been prescient, Crowe now says, because she offered the idea well before the race-fueled clashes in nearby Charlottesville that would bring national attention to the region.
Nichols did not return a request for comment for this story.
Crowe also claimed she was called off from digging into potential Title IX issues at Liberty University, a topic that was later covered at length in the local media. Crowe attributed the decision to close ties between WSET at the evangelical university, which is led by Jerry Falwell Jr., an ardent Trump supporter.
“We leave Liberty alone,” said another former employee. “It’s like Liberty is untouchable.”
Stevens disagreed. “When I was in that newsroom, we treated Liberty the same as any other institution, sometimes drawing the ire of university leadership. We were tough but fair and we covered a lot of Liberty news,” he said. “In fact, in my current position at Liberty, I’ve noticed no drop-off in interest by WSET in Liberty-related stories of all stripes.”
By early 2017, Crowe said she believed that Sinclair executives were seeking to build a case against her — in writing — so that they could eventually force her out of the company.
On Jan. 24, Nichols emailed Crowe to reprimand her for two tweets posted on her personal Twitter account that were in violation of Sinclair’s social media policy. “With record unemployment, job creation, lower crime rates and booming stock markets — what America is @realDonaldTrump seeing?” Crowe quote-tweeted along with a Vanity Fair article about Trump’s “dark, raw, partisan” inaugural speech, which depicted an America in crisis. Crowe also quote-tweeted President Obama’s outgoing farewell tweet with three heart emojis.
“Someone could interpret your tweets and re-tweets as media bias because a majority of them are anti-Trump and pro-Obama,” Nichols wrote in an email. “It’s OK to hold those in power accountable. But your tweets and re-tweets should cover a wide breadth of topics, not just point out what some say President Trump is doing wrong. You say you are not biased, and I appreciate that. But you don’t want to have the ‘appearance’ of bias either.”
Crowe responded in an email: “I do tweet on a wide range of topics — I also put hearts next to a social media post regarding the Bushes recovering — am I to understand one positive for the GOP is okay — but certainly not for the other side?”
“What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t outright quit because I was in a contract.”
On her social media accounts — particularly since she left the news business — Crowe frequently posts and retweets negative comments about the president and Republicans and in favor of liberal causes. Her politics are no secret. Crowe told BuzzFeed News that she recognizes by coming forward, critics will point to her personal beliefs, but she said that as a reporter her opinions were separate from her work. “People will say, ‘She’s so obviously liberal, she hates Trump, loves Obama,’” Crowe said. “This is the thing. I have never been accused of imbalanced reporting in my effing life until I got to that station.”
“Suri is a good journalist,” said one of her former colleagues. “It wasn't like she was trying to go out for the left. It boiled down to the corporate [structure] that we were under and also our area, where management is just thinking, ‘That's not going to fly here.’”
On Feb. 24 of last year, Nichols sent Crowe a “last chance agreement.”
“Certain aspects of your job performance have been unsatisfactory,” he wrote. Nichols reprimanded Crowe for an incident earlier that month where Crowe called animal control on a family while shooting a story about them. (Crowe said that she filed an anonymous tip because she viewed the situation as dangerous.) Nichols wrote that Crowe had left work early and also brought up incidents of “your apparent bias in your social media accounts.”
“What they were doing is manufacturing incidents to target me. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t outright quit because I was in a contract,” she said. Crowe had wanted to leave for some time, she said, but feared owing the company money or being blackballed from other stations for breaking an agreement.
Toward the end of the contract, Crowe said she was whisked into a room and told that the company had exercised an escape hatch to force her out early. It was her last day at Sinclair and, as it happened, her last day in the news business. She now works in the health and fitness industry.
“I believe the ire at me was politically tainted,” Crowe said. “If they perceived you as a liberal, or someone not going along with that whole credo, then you are done.” ●