‘Chicago’s Very Own’ in peril: WGN tries to keep a lid on Sinclair resistance

WGN News

Jeff Hoover, a longtime producer and on-air contributor for WGN-Channel 9’s top-rated morning news show, was the first employee to speak out Monday about the impending takeover of the Tribune Media station by Sinclair Broadcast Group.

He also was the last.

In response to a video montage that went viral last weekend showing anchors at Sinclair stations delivering identical messages parroting President Donald Trump’s anti-media talking points, Hoover tweeted: “Re: Sinclair - There is NO WAY any of our on-air anchors and reporters will read their scripted messages on our show. Chicago's Very Own, not owned.”

Jeff Hoover

The normally free-spirited Hoover later said he could not talk about what he had written and declined further comment. Other sources confirmed that Hoover had been admonished by his bosses for the unauthorized tweet.

On the eve of WGN’s 70th anniversary celebration, I reached out to more than a dozen news anchors, reporters and other on-air personnel at the station to ask what they thought of Sinclair. Not one would comment on the record. Most of them directed me to their bosses or a company public relations representative.

That didn’t do much good either. Through a spokeswoman, Paul Rennie, president and general manager of WGN, declined to comment. So did Gary Weitman, senior vice president of corporate relations at Tribune Media.

Sinclair Broadcast Group

“In one way or another, we’ve all been told to keep quiet and stay out of it,” one insider said. “They keep saying ‘nothing will change’ when Sinclair comes in, but it is quite scary to think that they could try and force this crap [on us],” said another.

Referring to the video of Sinclair’s media-bashing campaign, a third source said it “validated everyone’s fears about the company. It’s a very bad joke — a real embarrassment and the furthest thing from credible journalism.”

Back last spring when the $3.9 billion deal with Sinclair was first announced, the irreverent cast of “WGN Morning News” mined it for laughs. Anchorman Larry Potash called Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley live on the air and left a voice mail message asking: “What can we expect? Is the holiday party going to be a bit better this year?” The next day, weatherman Paul Konrad concluded a bit about the new owners with the deadpan: “I’m sure that it’s going to be better here for us in the future.”

No one’s joking about it anymore.

With “Chicago’s Very Own” producing more than 70 hours of local news each week, the prospect of Sinclair calling the shots has people who care about ethics and integrity in the newsroom feeling anxious and worried.

Tom Skilling

Chief meteorologist Tom Skilling, undoubtedly WGN’s biggest star (and reportedly the highest-paid local weatherman in America), has expressed concerns that Sinclair might pressure him to soft-pedal his belief in the science of climate change. If so, what would he do? Skilling was among those who did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

WGN political analyst Paul Lisnek could find himself on a collision course with the staunchly conservative agenda espoused by Sinclair. Is he concerned about maintaining his independence? Lisnek declined to comment, referring me to a Tribune Media corporate representative.

And what about Steve Cochran, morning personality on news/talk WGN AM 720, who’s been a relentless and outspoken critic of President Trump? Sinclair’s close ties to the White House were reaffirmed Monday when Trump tweeted that Sinclair was “far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.” Cochran also declined to comment.

When Mark Suppelsa retired at age 55 as WGN’s principal anchorman in December, he insisted that the specter of Sinclair taking over never entered his mind. Pure coincidence, he told me.

Maybe so, but Suppelsa’s exit strategy seems to be looking smarter all the time.