Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s attempt to shame other media organizations continues to backfire in spectacular fashion this week.
On Saturday, Deadspin posted a video compilation of local anchors at Sinclair-run news stations reading a corporate-mandated promo script bashing other mainstream outlets for “media bias.”
The video raised concerns about conservative Sinclair’s programming mandates, which include “must-run” national news and commentary segments that boost President Trump or his preferred policy positions.
That focus on the right-leaning conglomerate also exposed a perhaps more sinister way Sinclair controls its employees: draconian noncompete contracts.
Several versions of Sinclair employee contracts—leaked to various news outlets—show that staffers who left the company were barred from signing with other competitors for six months.
More alarmingly, according to documents leaked to the Los Angeles Times, the contract stipulated that employees could be subject to a “liquidated damages” clause requiring them to pay Sinclair up to 40 percent of their annual paycheck as penalty.
Employment-law experts quickly expressed skepticism about whether the company could actually enforce such contracts mandating employees pay Sinclair large sums of money if they walk away.
Samuel Estreicher, director of the Center for Employment Law and New York University, told The Daily Beast that employees working under a definite contract could be liable to cover the replacement costs, but for nothing more.
“This liquidated damages clause seems highly problematic,” Estreicher said in an email. “In general such clauses are not enforceable if they are simply punitive; they have to be reasonable attempts to capture likely damages. In the employment context, this is very unusual.”
Aside from ex-employees leaking the draconian contracts to reporters, there has also been some slight internal resistance to Sinclair’s controversial media-bashing videos.
One on-air personality at a Sinclair-operated station—who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a company prohibition on speaking to the press—told The Daily Beast that the anchors at their station who were required to read the scripts pushed back, successfully toning down the language in their promo.
One Sinclair-owned station, WMSN/FOX47 in Madison, Wisconsin, refused to run the promo altogether.
But the employee said that the strict contracts make staffers “all feel a little helpless,” and trapped from quitting.
“People are demoralized, people are dejected, people are upset,” the source said.