Nexstar Media Group has fired one of its Michigan-based television news directors who orchestrated a memo urging reporters under his watch to lessen their coverage of Pride Month events because the stories were upsetting some viewers.
On Thursday, WOOD-TV (Channel 8, NBC) News Director Stanton Tang learned of his dismissal during a one-on-one meeting with the station’s general manager, Julie Brinks, following a two-week investigation by executives at Nexstar over whether the memo violated corporate policy.
While Tang and Brinks were meeting, the station’s office manager packaged his personal items and cleaned out his office, according to a source inside WOOD-TV’s newsroom. He was escorted out of the building a short time later.
Tang will be replaced by Steven Ackermann, a veteran television executive who will serve as WOOD-TV’s news director on an interim basis. Ackermann will start in his new role on Friday, sources said, at which point Nexstar will begin a search for someone to fill the position permanently.
Earlier this month, Tang directed his subordinate, assistant news director Amy Fox, to write and distribute a memo urging reporters and producers to ease up on their coverage of LGBT-related events in Michigan. In the memo, Fox wrote that the stories were upsetting WOOD-TV’s conservative viewers, and that reporters shouldn’t pursue the stories unless they could find a newsworthy angle and were willing to pursue “both sides” of the matter.
“We should not cover every Pride event that we learn about,” Fox wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Desk. “We need to do some work to discern the newsworthy-ness of the event. If we are covering Pride events, we need to consider how to make the story balanced and get both sides of the issue.”
The memo was a rare instance of a news executive encouraging reporters to sideline stories based on the political affiliations of its viewers. After The Desk published an initial story on the email, reporters and other journalists inside WOOD-TV took to social media, denouncing the directive and vowing not to follow it.
The outcry drew significant media attention to WOOD-TV, which broadcasts in the 42nd largest television market in the country. It also raised flags at Nexstar, with executives apologizing for the memo and vowing to hold those accountable.
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A multi-week investigation ended Thursday when Nexstar ordered Brinks to fire Tang for violating company policy, according to a source familiar with his dismissal. Nexstar also ordered Fox to be dismissed for writing and sending the memo, finding her to be just as culpable.
Two other employees — producers Luke Stier and Madeline Odle — were also terminated after Nexstar accused them of leaking information about the memo to members of the news media. Journalists at WOOD-TV learned of their dismissals during an all-hands meeting arranged Thursday afternoon, two sources said.
A History of Hostility
In the two weeks leading up to his firing, Tang had faced mounting pressure from within his own newsroom to resign, which he apparently ignored. Several current and former employees told The Desk that the anti-Pride Month memo was just the latest incident involving abusive and hostile behavior toward subordinates during his nearly two-year run at the station.
Among other things, journalists accused Tang of making editorial decisions based along his own personal and political views, and often encouraged reporters to pursue stories that would find favor with WOOD-TV’s conservative viewers.
Privately, Tang consumed a significant amount of political news and conspiracy theories — on social media, he follows a number of controversial, right-of-center personalities, including blogger Matt Walsh and Daily Wire host Ben Shapiro — and occasionally emailed and texted reporters with links to conservative-oriented news articles, urging them to find similar local angles on those topics.
Tang also interjected in stories on various social matters. Earlier this year, after WOOD-TV covered a controversial Black History Month-themed lunch menu at a local private school, Tang privately complained to a producer that the reporter, Byron Tollefson, spent too much time on the matter because “they don’t watch our news, and they won’t get us ratings.”
The producer told The Desk that they understood the word “they” to refer to Black people, based on some of Tang’s prior comments to them, and that the encounter made them so uncomfortable that they deliberately avoided Tang for several weeks.
The hostility involving Tang went well beyond his political and racial views. He also occasionally berated and shouted at journalists in his newsroom if he struggled to get his point across, or if they challenged any of his directives, multiple people said. On one occasion, an argument escalated to the point that a veteran journalist broke down in tears and ended their shift early. (Tang later apologized for what happened, according to a source.)
Tang also drew criticism over a newsroom-wide email sent last year that warned reporters against participating in Michigan’s primary election. In that note, Tang claimed unnamed “activists” might try to look at public voter registration information to figure out the political leanings of WOOD-TV reporters.
“You do not want to be the one they catch displaying your political preference,” Tang said, which many took to be a veiled threat that if they were caught voting, they might lose their jobs. (Legal experts told The Desk the note may have violated federal and state laws prohibiting voter intimidation during elections. Tang has not been formally accused of any legal wrongdoing.)
The anxiety at WOOD-TV caused by Tang turned a once-exceptional news team into a group that felt constantly under pressure, stressed and afraid. Several times, employees filed complaints with Brinks over their interaction with Tang. When those reports didn’t resolve the issue, they took their complaints directly to the human resources office at WOOD-TV’s parent company, Nexstar Media Group. Those complaints also went nowhere.
The pressures of the job that were exacerbated by Tang’s behavior became too much for some WOOD-TV employees, who often called in sick just to recover from the mental anguish they experienced. One employee who was reprimanded for “attendance issues” was ultimately fired, according to a source, who said a station official told everyone in the newsroom about their dismissal before the former worker was personally notified.
“The negative shift in our newsroom has prompted many employees to explore opportunities at other news stations, or even contemplate career changes,” a current employee wrote to The Desk by e-mail earlier this month. “The toxic atmosphere created by Stanton’s behavior has had a profound impact on the well-being and morale of our team.”
Journalists Berated, Fired Over Leaks
The Pride Month memo was the last straw for some journalists at WOOD-TV, who felt their complaints often went unheard. One ultimately decided to leak the memo to media blogger Scott Jones, who put it behind a paywall on his website, FTV Live.
The memo went viral after excerpts were posted by The Desk, which prompted a flurry of local and national media attention. Feeling emboldened, several WOOD-TV journalists took to their social media accounts to denounce the memo, vowing not to follow Fox and Tang’s directive and siding with the LGBT community.
The station increased its coverage of Pride Month-related events, to include stories on the Grand Rapids pride parade and a digital news package that offered a glimpse at the history of the gay rights movement in Michigan. Tang and Fox were not allowed to participate in editorial meetings during which Pride Month coverage was being discussed, according to sources familiar with the issue.
Several Nexstar executives traveled to Michigan to interview employees about the memo and other matters related to Tang and Fox, sources connected to the probe confirmed. Their investigation also tried to get to the bottom of who leaked Fox and Tang’s memo to the media in the first place, and worked to prevent additional information about Tang’s behavior from becoming public knowledge.
During a meeting with the WOOD-TV newsroom last Wednesday, Nexstar’s Senior Vice President of Content Development Susan Tully affirmed the anti-gay memo ordered by Tang and written by Fox crossed the line. But she also berated journalists for leaking the memo and speaking publicly about it, calling their response to the matter “not appropriate.”
Tully later pointed out that Nexstar’s employee handbook — which some staffers later said they didn’t receive — offers guidance on how to report policy violations to the company’s Texas-based corporate office.
“Like the memo [directed] by Tang, the approach by corporate in these meetings is essentially ‘both sides’-ing the situation,” a journalist at WOOD-TV said in a message to The Desk after the meeting ended. “Like our jobs, we understand corporate has to be thorough in their investigation. But given their recent tone-deafness, time is running out and patience is running thin.”
Other employees complained that Nexstar did not immediately put Fox and Tang on administrative leave during the investigation, and that too much of the company’s efforts were focused on finding the source of the leak and not the memo itself.
“It is absolute malpractice that Nexstar Media Group hasn’t done so, since the emotions are still raw,” one source said.
Executive Producer Luke Stier was one of several employees to publicly comment on the memo, writing on Twitter that the newsroom rejected it and that Fox and Tang had been “removed from any discussions surrounding WOOD-TV’s Pride coverage as our corporation conducts a thorough investigation.”
Reached for comment during the investigation, Stier declined to offer his thoughts on the memo, saying he understood why colleagues were speaking out beyond Twitter, but that he wanted to “trust the process and work to ensure we remain one of the best local newsrooms in the country.”
Nexstar officials ultimately concluded Stier was among those responsible for leaking information to the press. On Thursday, executives told Stier he was dismissed, and officials escorted him out of the newsroom. Another producer, Madeline Odle, was also fired on suspicion of leaking information, sources affirmed. It was not immediately clear how Odle learned of her termination.
Whatever relief WOOD-TV journalists felt over Tang and Fox’s dismissal quickly evaporated after word came down that Stier and Odle had also been fired. Many viewed it as an attempt to chill future leaks; some are talking about resigning in solidarity with their colleagues.
“This whole situation killed what used to be a very enjoyable job,” one journalist said when reached by phone on Thursday. “I have no passion for it anymore.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said news anchor Michele DeSelms was among those fired on Thursday. DeSelms later confirmed she was not dismissed.