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Embattled Michigan news director threatened journalists who voted

Employees said they viewed a memo written by Stanton Tang as an intimidation tactic meant to limit their participation in last year's primary election.

Employees said they viewed a memo written by Stanton Tang as an intimidation tactic meant to limit their participation in last year's primary election.

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

A Grand Rapids-based television news director who drew criticism last week for discouraging journalists under his watch from covering Pride Month events had previously issued a newsroom-wide memo that was seen as an intimidation tactic meant to scare employees from voting.

Last year, WOOD-TV (Channel 8, NBC) News Director Stanton Tang issued a newsroom-wide warning that “anyone who casts a ballot in the primary election will be noted for their party preference,” and that voting in the election could ultimately lead viewers to conclude that a journalist is politically biased.

“We do not want the public to see our biases, whether they are subtle or obvious; identifying with a party is a fairly obvious giveaway,” Tang wrote in the memo, which The Desk obtained over the weekend. “As Americans, we have a right to vote; as a journalist, we also have a responsibility to be fair and impartial.”

Tang warned that an unnamed “activist group” might search “the primary election voter rolls for the names of working journalists to see what they can find.”

“You do not want to be the one they catch displaying your political preference,” Tang said.

The memo was sent on July 27, about a week before Michigan voters were set to cast their ballots in the gubernatorial and congressional primary election.  The email prompted some at WOOD-TV to reconsider whether it was worth voting in the election, with a few saying they felt they would lose their job if they were linked to a ballot after Tang’s warning.

The memo, written by WOOD-TV News Director Stanton Tang, warned journalists against voting in Michigan's primary election. (Exclusive to The Desk)
The memo, written by WOOD-TV News Director Stanton Tang, warned journalists against voting in Michigan’s primary election. (Exclusive to The Desk)

In Michigan, state law considers some voter registration information to be public record, but a voter’s ballot is not disclosable if it can trace back to a person’s identity; ballots that can’t be linked to a person’s identity can be inspected by the public, but only 30 days after an election has been certified.

Related: Stressed employees complained about WOOD-TV news director for months

Before the memo was sent out, Tang had encouraged reporters to cover stories that were centered around common themes relevant to Conservative viewers. Occasionally, he emailed reporters with links to Twitter posts made by right-of-center news outlets and commentators like Newsmax, One America News and Ben Shapiro, according to multiple people.

After the primary election, Tang made comments about casting his own ballot in the election, according to a current employee. His affirmation infuriated newsroom staffers, who believed Tang was creating a double standard where subordinates were expected to follow rules that apparently did not apply to him.

“This email was meant to do one thing: scare and intimidate his staff to follow his twisted ideology,” one employee said. “Even after that email went out, Stanton made comments about himself voting.”

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Nexstar Media Group, the parent company of WOOD-TV, forbids journalists from making in-name financial contributions to political parties or candidates, according to two employees who work at the company’s stations. But the policy doesn’t outright ban workers from exercising their right to vote in elections, the employees said.

The primary-related email could prove extremely problematic for Tang, who is already under investigation for the Pride Month memo. Legal experts who spoke with The Desk said the email likely runs afoul of a state law that prohibits individuals from discouraging others from voting.

“A person shall not attempt, by means of bribery, menace or other corrupt means or device, either directly or indirectly, to influence an elector in giving his or her vote, or to deter the elector from, or interrupt the elector in giving his or her vote at any election held in this state,” the law reads.

The law was mostly intended to prevent people from intimidating or harassing voters outside polling places, one attorney said. But Tang’s unsubstantiated claim that journalists who cast ballots could have their political preferences exposed, coupled with his position of authority where he could discipline and fire workers who ignore his warning, could be viewed as someone using “menace” in this case.

The note could also violate a federal statute that prohibits anyone from threatening someone who wants to cast a ballot in a presidential or congressional election. Both federal and state law prosecute the crime as a felony, each with a potential prison sentence of five years and various fines.

Tang did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Julie Brinks, the WOOD-TV general manager who was copied on Tang’s July e-mail, also did not return a request seeking comment.

Even if Tang escapes charges, the note almost certainly violates Nexstar’s code of business conduct, which states all employees “must comply fully with the laws and regulations that apply to the company.”

“While the company must compete vigorously to maximize profits, Nexstar will at the same time do so in strict compliance with all laws and regulations applicable to our activities,” the policy states. “No employee should at any time take any action on behalf of the company, which is known or should be known to violate any applicable law or regulation.”

A violation of Nexstar’s code of conduct could add to a mounting list of reasons why the company may ultimately fire Tang, whom current and former employees accuse of creating a hostile work environment at WOOD-TV since he joined the station in late 2021.

Tang is under investigation for being the architect of a memo circulated among newsroom employees early last week that discouraged reporters from covering Pride Month events in the Grand Rapids area unless they could find a newsworthy reason to do so.

That memo, written by Tang’s direct report Amy Fox, said a lack of resources and numerous complaints from Conservative viewers were the primary reasons why journalists were being told to find other news to cover.

“We need to recognize that some stories related to LGBTQ issues are going to be controversial and polarizing in our community,” the memo said. “While you personally may not agree with a certain position, people are entitled to their opinions, and they are our viewers.”

After The Desk reported on the memo last week, WOOD-TV journalists affirmed they were pressing on with coverage of Pride Month events (Fox and Tang are not allowed to participate in editorial-related discussions on that coverage). Nexstar later said it was launching an investigation against Fox and Tang, and vowed to “take appropriate action as necessary to address this situation.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).