The Sinclair Broadcast Employment Contracts May Not Be Fair, But Is It Legal?

Over the weekend, a compilation video of television anchors parroting the same phrase put together by Deadspin went viral, leading to accusations of news bias and meddling from the Trump administration.
In 2016, Politico reported on Jared Kushner's claims that his father-in-law's campaign had "struck a deal" with Sinclair Broadcast Group to "try and secure better media coverage," especially in swing states. Mother Jones also reported on the Sinclair brothers' close ties to the White House last year, citing coverage that called their segments "classic propaganda."
But while it's obvious that the mash-up decrying fake news looks like a segment from the Borg, it is less clear if Sinclair's employee directives behind the scenes cross legal lines.
On Twitter, Los Angeles Times correspondent Matt Pearce shared an employee contract that a former Sinclair journalist sent him. It included provisions forbidding employees from expressing their personal political views during broadcasts (which isn't that unusual at most organizations, especially in news). However, there were also several sections detailing cases in which an employee's appearance might be grounds for termination.
"Employee acknowledges and agrees that his/her employment is based upon, among other things, Employee maintaining a certain physical appearance," one clause says, adding that an employee may not alter their physical appearance wiinthout written authorization from the News Director and General Manager.
Another clause — under termination of employment — includes "disability of Employee (including but not limited to any which limits Employee's ability to present a pleasant personal appearance and a strong, agreeable voice)."
These sections of the contract (among others) are harsh, even distasteful — but are they illegal? Not necessarily, says Samuel Estreicher, a law professor and the director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at New York University School of Law.
"In general, employment is at will and the employer can fire you for any reason," he says. "Ordinarily, employers may require a uniform of some sort, but with respect to these on-air employees, there may be contractual provisions on appearance."
Some local jurisdictions in California, including San Francisco and Santa Cruz, prohibit appearance-based discrimination, but those protections are rare. Nearly all states in the U.S. legally allow employers to discriminate based on weight, making it "very hard to bring a claim," Estreicher explains. (Although in some cases, discrimination against extreme weight can be challenged based on disability.)
"You might be able to challenge it in California, and if [an employee] had a union representative, that would be challengeable under a just cause provision," he says. Since an employee's looks can be categorized as a business appearance to some extent, he believes termination based on those criteria would generally be seen as reasonable. It may not be fair, but it isn't against the law either.
Additionally, some of Sinclair's anchors are union members, but as SAG-AFTRA told reporter Steven Greenhouse, their contracts may "contain language about journalistic integrity" but "generally nothing" carries specific protections from spouting propaganda.
One place Sinclair might run into some trouble, Estreicher counters, is with the latter provision on termination, which seems to link any obstruction to someone having a "pleasant" personal appearance and "agreeable voice" with a disability that would provide grounds for termination.
"It sounds like there are a lot of provisions in this contract that may invite arbitrary conduct," Estreicher says. "With on-air people, a lot of the success of their programs depends on their appearance and I don't think it is rare for employers to take on-air appearance into account. But if it is because of disability that someone has a problem with their voice, there may be issues under the Americans With Disabilities Act."
Those kinds of conditions might induce many people to up and quit, but as Bloomberg just revealed, the cost of doing so is too high for many Sinclair employees — some of whom were expected to pay as much as 40% of their annual salary to the company by leaving before their contracts are up. In some cases, it might be cheaper to stay and quote the party lines.
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