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Former WOOD-TV news directors file defamation lawsuits against Nexstar

The executives, Stanton Tang and Amy Fox, were fired last year for circulating a memo that encouraged employees to pull back on Pride Month stories.

The executives, Stanton Tang and Amy Fox, were fired last year for circulating a memo that encouraged employees to pull back on Pride Month stories.

Stanton Tang, the news director at Nexstar-owned NBC affiliate WOOD-TV Channel 8. (Photo via Twitter)
Stanton Tang, the former news director at Nexstar-owned NBC affiliate WOOD-TV Channel 8. (Photo via Twitter)

The former news directors at Nexstar Media Group’s NBC affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan have sued the company for defamation after they were fired last year for orchestrating and circulating a memo among staff that was widely perced to be anti-gay.

The lawsuits were filed in federal court this week by former news director Stanton Tang and assistant news director Amy Fox, who were dismissed after Nexstar determined the memo circulated among staff at WOOD-TV (Channel 8, NBC) was inconsistent with company policy.

The pair allege the memo followed Nexstar’s policy in achieving balance across news stories, and that Nexstar unfairly maligned the two after the memo was leaked to The Desk and other publications. The disclosure of the memo, coupled with comments made by company spokesperson Gary Weitman and other Nexstar executives, ultimately led to unflattering news coverage by The Desk and other news outlets that cast Fox and Tang in an unfavorable light and which damaged their reputation, they say.

DOCUMENTS: Download a copy of the lawsuits filed by Tang and Fox [Pro Access]

Last June, Tang asked Fox to write and send a memo that encouraged reporters to pull back on coverage of Pride Month out of concern that the stories might cause controversy with the station’s politically conservative viewers.

“We know that West Michigan is a Conservative area in many ways,” Fox wrote in the memo, which came at Tang’s urging. “We need to recognize that some stories related to LGBTQ issues are going to be controversial and polarizing in our community. While you personally may not agree with a certain position, people are entitled to their opinions, and they are our viewers.”

Fox went on to write that the station could not “cover every event or festival that happens in West Michigan,” citing a lack of staff to commit to those stories and time available within WOOD-TV’s newscasts.

“We should not cover every Pride event that we learn about,” Fox affirmed. “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. Fox and Tang did not respond to requests for comment at the time, and have not spoken with The Desk since then.

Producers and reporters within WOOD-TV’s newsroom decided not to follow the mandate, and moved forward with Pride Month coverage in spite of the memo. The Desk was the first to publish the memo publicly, after a paywalled story on the website of television industry blog FTV Live referenced it.

For several weeks, The Desk heard from numerous individuals within WOOD-TV’s newsrooms, many of whom described Tang’s behavior that created an environment of hostility and anxiety among already-stressed local television journalists.

One employee who spoke with The Desk on condition of anonymity said Tang often interjected in the planning stages of news stories, encouraging reporters to pursue angles that were influenced by his consumption of right-of-center news websites, blogs and social media accounts.

Two years ago, when the Associated Press distributed a test of election results linked to the Republican Primary in Michigan — which WOOD-TV initially included on its website, then retracted after the AP made clear the test was erroneously sent to its clients — Tang encouraged a reporter to look into whether the AP deliberately skewed the test results in favor of a candidate who spoke openly against Trump, according to a source. The station ultimately did not pursue that story.

Tang also circulated a memo in July 2022 that warned journalists about voting in Michigan’s gubernatorial primary election. The memo noted that the political affiliations and party preferences of journalists might be learned if activists sought voter identification logs through open records requests (a voter’s ballot is not disclosable under state law if it can be traced back to a person’s identity).

“You do not want to be the one they catch displaying your political preference,” Tang wrote in the memo, which was first disclosed by The Desk.

The note was seen by many in the newsroom as an attempt to intimidate reporters from voting; legal experts who spoke with The Desk said the memo could have violated a state law on that matter. After the election, Tang told some staffers that he voted in the election, according to a WOOD-TV employee.

Amy Fox, the former assistant news director at Nexstar-owned NBC affiliate WOOD-TV. (Photo via LinkedIn)

The Pride Month memo was just the latest newsroom incident involving Tang, but it was the one that received the most external attention. Following an internal investigation by Nexstar, Tang and Fox were dismissed, as were two employees suspected of leaking the note to reporters. The firings, first reported by The Desk, received substantial media attention from larger outlets like the AP, Fox News, CNN and others.

After his dismissal, Tang hired a law firm that specializes in labor and employment matters. The firm, Knecht Law, sent Nexstar a pre-litigation letter demanding they retract all statements that concerned Tang’s work as a news director at WOOD-TV.

The letter goes on to allege that “up to five or more WOOD-TV employees,” including “at least two executive producers,” subsequently leaked the Pride Month memo that was never meant to be viewed by anyone outside the station. A short time later, Weitman and other Nexstar executives began telling news reporters that the company was looking into the origins of the memo, and that the document was “not consistent with Nexstar’s values, the way we cover the news, or the respect we have for our viewers,” the demand letter says.

The statement amounted to “defamation by implication,” the law firm said, which accused Nexstar of omitting certain facts about the situation and its own editorial policies in order to save face with the public. That continued even after Tang, Fox and the other two employees were dismissed, the law firm alleged.

“These and the many other statements and comments in social media, news outlets, blogs and other media were and are false to the extent they alleged or implied that Stanton Tang had engaged in misconduct and/or that he acted unprofessionally in carrying out his duties as News Director,” the letter says.

Nexstar, ultimately, did not retract its statements. On Wednesday, Tang filed his lawsuit against the company.

In his complaint, Tang writes that his own internal performance evaluations while at WOOD-TV demonstrated that he “met or exceeded expectations,” and that he “brought stability to the newsroom,” which contradicts what some of his prior subordinates told this publication.

The controversial memo was written, Tang says, after a reporter emailed a pitch to cover a Pride Month event in the town of Three Rivers. After discussing the pitch with Fox, the pair determined that WOOD-TV had already covered a number of significant Pride Month events, and Tang asked Fox to write a memo “recommending that they provide more balanced coverage of Pride Month events in the West Michigan area,” the lawsuit says.

The evaluation and the memo itself was consistent with Nexstar’s editorial policy to achieve balance and fairness in news coverage, Tang says. In that respect, he was doing his job when he encouraged reporters to pull back on Pride Month coverage, the lawsuit contends.

“Its preparation and limited, internal distribution was consistent with [Tang]’s practice of advising and directing [Nexstar]’s staff reporters on matters pertaining to the manner of reporting the news,” the lawsuit says.

Moreover, Tang asserts that the memo was never intended to be “anti-gay,” despite the characteristics of WOOD-TV reporters and editors, as well as news reporters who covered the situation. Statements made by Weitman and another Nexstar executive, Julie Brinks, only further exacerbated the point of view that the memo was anti-gay, when, in reality, it was only editorial guidance that was consistent with Nexstar’s own policies, Tang said.

The lawsuit references a number of stories by The Desk, including one that Tang says described him as a “racist” and “falsely” claimed he attempted to influence news coverage by interjecting his own political and social views during editorial meetings.

Those allegations were exacerbated by Nexstar’s own reaction to the memo, Tang says. The company also did very little to “reject the accusations in the media, made by WOOD TV employees and repeated in publications like TheDesk.net and others,” the lawsuit says, which Tang says “falsely implied and/or stated directly that [he] had engaged in misconduct and/or acted unprofessionally.”

Tang is seeking at least $75,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. It was not clear how he came up with that amount. Tang now works as a business development representative for WCSG (91.3 FM), a Christian-oriented radio station in Michigan.

In a separate lawsuit filed on Tuesday, Fox also alleges defamation by Nexstar, saying the company “misled the public and defamed Fox by falsely implying to the public that she had somehow discriminated against LGBTQ person.”

“Nothing could have been farther from the truth,” Fox wrote in her complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Desk. “As Nexstar admitted privately, Fox did not discriminate against anyone. Rather, she simply was following Nexstar’s news reporting policies and as her supervisor had directed. Nexstar’s defamatory statements have destroyed Fox’s accomplished twenty-eight-year career in local TV news.”

Like Tang, Fox also referenced news stories by The Desk about the memo and its aftermath, characterizing one of them as “false and misleading,” though she offered no specifics. (The Desk is not a party to either lawsuit, but has retained an attorney.)

“As media coverage increased, Nexstar failed to reject false accusations in the media that were originally made by WOOD-TV employees and then repeated in publications such as The Desk, Blaze Media, Detroit Free-Press, Fox News and the Daily Mail,” the lawsuit says. “Public statements by Nexstar corporate representatives such as Weitman and Brinks, when juxtaposed with media coverage calling the Internal Memo, among other things, ‘anti-gay,’ falsely implied that Fox had engaged in misconduct and acted unprofessionally.”

While Tang was able to find another job in the broadcast industry, the same isn’t true for Fox, who complains that “since her termination of employment with Nexstar, Fox has been unable to secure new employment in her profession.” It was not immediately clear if Fox has a job in another field, or remains unemployed, but her lawsuit claims that she has suffered “substantial monetary and non-monetary damages,” including loss of income, “lost benefits, emotional distress, humiliation and reputational damage.”

Fox is seeking an unspecified amount of money in compensatory and punitive damages. Tang and Fox have each demanded a jury trial. Tang has retained Knecht Law for legal representation, while Fox has hired a Chicago-based law firm.

No one at Nexstar returned a request from The Desk seeking comment on the matter.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said Fox and Tang had hired the same law firm for their lawsuits against Nexstar. 

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.

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