Cronkite school alumni call for harder stance against media giant Sinclair

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. (Craig Johnson/DD)

Alumni from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication are calling for the school to take a stronger stand against Sinclair Broadcast Group following recent controversy surrounding the media giant.

The outcry comes in the form of a letter template started by Cronkite 2015 alumna Lizzy Riecken. It expresses disappointment at the school’s response to the dispute surrounding Sinclair’s supposed conservative slant and required “must run” segments.

The letter says the school has not had an adequate response to illustrate the “danger Sinclair poses” to students and journalism. It also asks that Sinclair not be allowed to participate in on-campus recruitment.

Dean Letter

“I don’t think there’s a place for that at the Cronkite school,” Riecken said. “I think Cronkite should stand up to them, stand up for the students, stand up for what their professors teach.”

Updated Response

The Cronkite school deans did not respond as of press time, but had previously signed on to a national letter with other journalism schools expressing concern with Sinclair.

Friday evening in a school-wide email, Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan acknowledged the controversy, but said it will not stop Sinclair from recruiting on campus. A full copy of the text from the email can be read here.

“While the overwhelming majority of our students, faculty and board members (including the leaders of competing TV companies) we have talked with over the past few days strongly disagree with that idea, we certainly understand the concerns underlying that sentiment and the symbolism such an action would provide,” the email reads.

The email says the school has expressed concern in signing on to the letter with other schools nationwide, and have engaged privately with leadership at Sinclair. The email notes that the school feels the company’s response has been “completely insufficient,” and says they will continue to lobby corporate leadership to address “flawed policy.”

“Our first priority is and will always be our students, and we believe limiting employment options – in any way – for students trying to enter a highly competitive field is not in their best interests. Instead, we want to underscore the tremendous faith and confidence we have in our students, taught and guided by our thoughtful, caring and inspiring journalism professors, to gather the facts, analyze them, receive input and counsel from our school and others, and make the best individual decisions for themselves on their careers,”  the email reads.

In response to the school’s email, alumni Brandon Kutzler* and Riecken put out a joint statement said they were deeply disappointed with the school’s decision to maintain on-campus recruiting by Sinclair.  It also stresses it is not trying to tell students not to pursue opportunities with Sinclair, but says at minimum they should know all the information available about future employers.

“Sinclair’s numerous ethical violations and deep contempt for the institution of a free press place them beyond the pale of what should be considered acceptable by any journalism school worth its salt,” the statement reads.

It says the campaign to remove Sinclair from on-campus recruiting is not politically motivated, and wants to welcome a broad spectrum of job offers.

“However, we do hope the school excludes those who offer no genuine benefit to students through employment or to the public at large through their deceptive content. That does not make us partisan. We only challenge the school to uphold its own professional and ethical standards in selecting recruitment partners,” it reads. 

Nationwide Controversy

This past week at least 17 deans and directors of journalism schools across the country, including the Cronkite School, signed a separate letter of protest expressing concern over Sinclair media. It was sent to journalism school deans nationwide, 13 of which signed on April 6.

Both letters follow controversy after a clip went viral showing numerous Sinclair anchors from around the country reading the same scripted segment warning viewers of biased reports in the mainstream media.

The State Press reported the Cronkite deans signed the letter Wednesday. According to the article, it was signed after a “dialogue” between the school and Sinclair officials.

The media giant has been an active part of recruitment and employment for Cronkite students. The Sinclair Broadcast Group is also scheduled to be at the school this upcoming Sunday and Monday, April 15 and 16, to interview graduating seniors for positions.

Riecken, who now works in marketing, was a digital content producer at two different Sinclair-owned broadcast stations from June 2015 to until the summer of 2017. Riecken started the letter following the State Press article reporting on what she felt was an inadequate response from the deans, who are allowing the media giant to continue recruiting on campus. She said it was disappointing and a disservice to students to not take a stronger stance.

Riecken said Cronkite needs to align themselves with its own students rather than an employer.

“To think that Sinclair still has a place at Cronkite after everything it’s done to show their bias, after senators have called for the Federal Communications Commission to investigate it, after just how they treat their employees,” Riecken said.

Some alumni feel the school signing on to the letter was too little, too late and did not agree with reported comments that the school would still be letting Sinclair recruit on campus. Many took to social media to express their anger and concerns before and after the letter was signed.

How Big is the Giant?

While it currently does not own any stations in Arizona, Sinclair touts itself as one of the “largest and most diversified television broadcasting companies” in the United States. The company owns a large portion of the broadcast market, which can make it difficult for journalists to seek non-affiliated options.

Currently, the media giant owns just under 200 stations in 89 markets. If it completes a planned acquisition with Tribune media, it will own 233 television stations in 108 markets. Thursday, senators asked the FCC to slow down the merger and look into whether the group is distorting news.

The Controversy beyond the videos

Many industry members have complained Sinclair promotes a right-wing ideology, which has only increased since the election. Its “must run” segments, like the one shown in the viral clip, have also brought criticism. Many of its employees can face repercussions for breaking contract with Sinclair, on top of already numerous complaints of low pay.

Lauren Handley, a Cronkite 2015 alumna and current PR manager, said she left journalism for a number of reasons, but her biggest was Sinclair buying out the company she worked for. She was disappointed at Cronkite’s silence as other universities spoke against the company.

“I’m disappointed that Cronkite and the deans aren’t practicing what they preach, Handley said in a message. “They drill into us the importance of journalism ethics and being fair, unbiased reporters, and yet they continue a relationship with a company that is exactly that.”

Kutzler, a Cronkite 2015 alumnus, said the giant’s contracting practices, “very right wing” political ideology, and increasing consolidation of the market is troubling. He also said the stations are a bad place to work.

He said if Sinclair wants to recruit ASU students they should be able to, but the school should not allow the broadcast group to come to official recruitment events. He said the Cronkite School needs to stop partnering with them for recruitment or explain further why they are still allowing Sinclair to recruit on campus.

“To me, working at Sinclair is not a real employment opportunity. It’s not like they’re going to be working for a company that presents a good, ethical, non-coercive opportunity to work in journalism,” Kutzler said. “They’re not somewhere that generally aligns with general values that the Cronkite School says it has.”

Sinclair’s employees are often asked to sign multiyear contracts that contain clauses with strict penalties if broken early. Many contracts include clauses that require employees to pay back salaries. Some, like Riecken’s original contract, require as much as 40 percent of the salary be paid back if a contract is broken.

“I was still in school at the time when I signed my contract and I didn’t know that was unusual,”  Riecken said. “They never really said what a contract should be or what pay should be.”

She ended up leaving journalism after two years with Sinclair.

“I was just over the way Sinclair treated its employees and its journalists who are very hardworking so I left journalism,” Riecken said. “I got a job outside of journalism.”

The number of stations Sinclair owns can also mean it’s hard to find a job that’s not at a Sinclair owned station.

Out of fear of consequences affecting his employability one alumnus commented anonymously, and said he was happy to see ASU signed on to the letter with other journalism schools. He had not yet seen the alumni letter at time of interview.

“As a professional doing this every day to earn a paycheck, it’s really troubling to see what’s going on right now, what (Sinclair is) doing,” he said. “Sinclair has never been a company I’ve put up high up on my list, but, unfortunately, when they own a large share of the market it’s tough to avoid them.”

He added that Sinclair jobs usually are paying the least and have few benefits. Still, he said Cronkite School completely cutting off recruitment from Sinclair does not make sense.

“For me, Sinclair is not even about the politics. It’s in the business to make money, not journalism,” he said. “You can’t cut people off from jobs, because unfortunately when they control a share of the market like that it’s tough to cut them out of the loop. It’s not like (Sinclair) is going to die tomorrow. The company is still going to be there for a long, long time.”

For Kutzler, the sheer market share is just another reason the school should take a harder stance.

“A company that’s in (Sinclair’s) position shouldn’t just be able to bully a school because of their market power to work with them,” Kutzler said. “A school should still be selecting who it chooses to partner with for recruitment based on the journalistic integrity of those institutions and based on it being a good job. I don’t think Sinclair does that.”

Kutzler said today more students may be aware of controversy against Sinclair, but he still doesn’t feel the Cronkite school should be aligning itself with the company in any way.

He said if for some reason Sinclair decided to stop hiring ASU students they would just be “denying themselves ASU’s talent,” and urged students to remember they have a lot of leverage to tell the school they don’t want the company at their school.

“Any other company that’s at the Cronkite recruiter table… Sinclair is trying to actively delegitimize these other companies in viewers eyes,” Kutzler said. “I think that really speaks to their lack of integrity and journalism ethics.”

Maggie Spear, a Cronkite 2015 alumna and page designer and editor for Gannett, said she signed the letter because Cronkite students “deserve better.” She said continuing to allow the company to recruit on campus is hypocritical.

“I like to think that all journalists, but especially young journalists who are entering the market during a time when trust in the media isn’t exactly high, would do everything to prove the values of our profession,” Spear said in a message. “As journalists, we definitely know that employment can be scarce and pay can be low, but just because it’s a job doesn’t mean it’s a desirable one.”

Riecken said the Cronkite School should be more transparent and an advocate for students about jobs after they graduate. She said she feels she might have listened if someone had told her the low pay or arbitration clauses were not the best choices for her and were not a normal practice.

“Be more of an advocate for students, be more transparent about the after-Cronkite job experience,” Riecken said.

*Editor’s note: Brandon Kutzler was a former editor and staff member at Downtown Devil He did not contribute to the reporting or editing of this article.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Friday evening to address new developments in the story.

Contact the reporter at