Letter to the Editor: The Cronkite School continues to overlook critical concerns about its partnership with Sinclair

Given Sinclair's questionable record, the Cronkite School must do more to address student concerns

Brandon Kutzler graduated from ASU in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and English literature. He is currently a law student at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. 

The Cronkite School released a letter on April 13 reflecting their concerns about Sinclair Broadcast Group and revealing their decision not to disinvite the company from formal on-campus recruitment events. 

We were excited that the school finally addressed its concerns with Sinclair to the full student body, something it had not yet done — even after signing a letter criticizing Sinclair that had already been joined by 13 other journalism schools. The school had failed to share its concerns with students, even with the knowledge that many of those students would soon be interviewing with Sinclair on campus.

This evident lack of transparency inspired a letter-writing campaign organized by myself and Lizzy Riecken, another Cronkite graduate who worked at Sinclair for two years after interviewing with the company through the school’s career services office.

Although we were happy the school was being more transparent, we were deeply disappointed with the school’s decision to continue its on-campus recruitment partnership with Sinclair. 

To be fair, the school is in a tough spot. Dean Kristin Gilger told us that, as far as she knows, the school has never turned away a company that has asked to participate in recruitment events. (We wonder if the school would turn away Breitbart News or InfoWars if those companies asked to participate in on-campus recruitment.) In his letter to the student body, Dean Christopher Callahan wrote “we believe limiting employment options — in any way — for students trying to enter a highly competitive field is not in their best interests.”

But it’s not in students’ interests for the school to endorse a company that actively works to monopolize the industry, offers unethical contracts, broadcasts outrageously editorialized content in the guise of local news, corrodes public trust in journalists, and actively degrades the profession of journalism.

Sinclair’s unethical journalistic practices have been center-stage in the recent controversy, especially the mandatory “must-run” segments that hijack the credibility of local journalists for the company’s own propagandistic purposes. Sinclair forced its employees to read a speech about “fake news,” exercising an unusual and troubling degree of control over journalists in the local news industry.

Further, Sinclair’s sensationalistic “Terror Alert Desk” segments do little more than drum up fear and xenophobic bigotry against Muslims, Middle Eastern Americans, and immigrants. Cronkite allows Sinclair to recruit on-campus, even though the employer’s bigoted content may make students feel unwelcome from applying in the first place.

The “too expensive to quit” contracts at Sinclair are another major problem, which the deans are in a position to address head-on. Sinclair has been known to include noncompete clauses, forced arbitration, and even a “liquidated damages” provision that can require an employee who quits to pay back 40 percent of their annual compensation. 

Many of these practices are outside industry norm, especially for employees who are not on-air talent, and these contracts can create a coercive environment where employees may feel trapped and unable to leave.

Everyone knows that salaries in journalism start at the low end, but adding unethical or coercive contract terms can make the process of planning a career and adult life exceptionally fragile — not to mention dramatically unbalancing the power of an employer over employee. 

Coercive contracts don’t open up opportunities for journalists. They constrain opportunities. Contracting is an entirely separate issue from Sinclair’s politics; we’d be just as troubled if a company like CNN offered these contracts.

The deans should announce that such contract clauses are unacceptable, and that employers offering such contracts are unwelcome at official recruitment events.

We’re not asking the school to “ban” Sinclair. All we ask is that the school stop granting permission to Sinclair to participate in official recruitment activities. The Cronkite School shouldn’t censor Sinclair, but it's not obligated to act as Sinclair's middleman, either.

Far from wanting to shut down the company’s speech, we welcome more speech about Sinclair. The school could invite a mix of Sinclair executives and former employees who have spoken out. 

Aaron Weiss — a former news director who quit his job shortly after Sinclair bought his local station and who has recently spoken out against the company in The Huffington Post and CNN — comes to mind as an excellent potential guest. So does Suri Crowe, who left Sinclair after the company told her to present both “sides” of the “argument” on climate change. Best of all, an event like this would open Sinclair up to Q&A time with students.

We were encouraged to see many students turned away from Sinclair’s interviews, and several of those who chose to stay on Sinclair’s list had serious reservations. When given all the information about Sinclair, these students were able to make informed decisions for themselves.

But the school has a responsibility as a gatekeeper when it facilitates recruitment, and unless Sinclair makes some serious changers, we still believe it shouldn’t be welcomed.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this letter to the editor are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors. 

Reach the author at brandon.kutzler@uchastings.edu

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