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Stressed employees levied complaints at WOOD-TV for months

Allegations of workplace harassment, bullying and mismanagement often went ignored by the station's general manager and parent company, Nexstar Media Group.

Allegations of workplace harassment, bullying and mismanagement often went ignored by the station's general manager and parent company, Nexstar Media Group.

WOOD-TV News Director Stanton Tang (left) and General Manager Julie Brinks. (Courtesy images)
WOOD-TV News Director Stanton Tang (left) and General Manager Julie Brinks. (Courtesy images)

Employees at a Michigan television station say they lost total confidence in their executive leadership well before a hastily-written memo urging reporters to limit their coverage of Pride Month events became public knowledge.

For months, workers at WOOD-TV (Channel 8, NBC) have privately complained about a hostile workplace created by news director Stanton Tang and overlooked by general manager Julie Brinks and her peers at the station’s parent company, Nexstar Media Group.

Those allegations ranged from overworked staff being asked to take on job duties well and above their typical responsibilities, leading to rampant stress and burnout within their newsroom, to more-serious accusations of workplace bullying and harassment by Tang and others that led some to take numerous personal days and others to leave the station entirely.

Details of the complaints were offered up in interviews with ten current and former employees at WOOD-TV, as well as internal emails and other documents provided by some of the workers, over the last week. The documents prove some station executives and top brass at Nexstar knew of the allegations against Tang and others, but did nothing to investigate or address them.

Tang has been under fire since last Tuesday, when he ordered WOOD-TV assistant news director Amy Fox to write and distribute a newsroom-wide memo urging reporters and producers to curb their coverage of LGBT events during Pride Month unless they could find a newsworthy angle and provide “both sides” of the matter.

In the memo, Fox said the station lacked resources to cover all Pride Month events happening in the Grand Rapids area, and said Conservative viewers had been contacting the station with complaints about the events they were covering.

Related: Calls grow for Michigan news director to resign over memo

Employees who spoke with The Desk said the few Pride Month stories that WOOD-TV has covered over the last few weeks did not elicit a higher amount of phone calls, emails or social media criticism from viewers than other stories on political or social matters. They affirmed Fox’s point that the station suffers from a lack of newsroom employees at the moment, but said the toxic workplace created by Tang and Fox — and ignored by Brinks and others at Nexstar — is the reason why there are so few reporters, producers and writers to cover the day’s events.

The environment has become so poor at WOOD-TV that it is not unusual for employees to redeem personal time off simply to recover from the stress and high workload associated with an already-demanding job. A few former employees have accepted jobs in smaller TV markets, even though it meant resetting their climb up the corporate ladder in an industry where “making it” at a big TV station really matters. More than one ex-worker has left the TV industry altogether, saying the burnout they experienced at the station turned their dream career into a nightmare job.

Almost immediately after Tang started as WOOD-TV’s news director in late 2021, employees began reaching out to Brinks, his boss, with concerns about his behavior. The initial complaints were that Tang appeared to get frustrated easily at subordinates who challenged his various directives, and that he did not appear satisfied with anyone’s level of job performance.

Like other newsroom, WOOD-TV was impacted by the negative health and economic effects of the three-year coronavirus health pandemic. When Tang joined, the station was starting to find its bearing, split between remote workers and essential employees who came into the studio on a regular basis. His arrival brought demands that employees work longer hours and take assignments on their days off. If he called or emailed an employee when they were at home, he expected a near-immediate response, and didn’t seem to mind that he might be interfering with family time.

Brinks mostly sided with Tang. She was easily dismissive of complaints, often calling them unsubstantiated. In one case, she told an employee they were lucky to have their job during the pandemic, and that they should do whatever they could to keep it. The overall tone of her response was: Tang was the leader of the newsroom, and the newsroom needed to follow his orders.

The lack of response from Brings had a demoralizing effect on WOOD-TV’s newsroom, and appeared to embolden Tang. His behavior escalated to include misogynistic and racist comments, according to several people who offered corroborating stories and documents. The Desk previously reported on some of these allegations. Tang has not returned numerous e-mails seeking requests for comment.

Related: Embattled WOOD-TV ND warned employees against voting

With their complaints unheard and Tang’s hostility reaching new heights by the week, some workers took time off simply to escape him. In Michigan, employers are required to provide workers with a certain amount of paid time off leave based on the number of hours they work. But when WOOD-TV employees tried to cash in their accrued paid time off, Tang often rejected their requests, unless they could actually prove they were sick, two people said. Often, workers with plenty of paid time off agreed to unpaid sick leave, which didn’t require approval. One employee who missed several days of work was later fired for “attendance issues,” with their departure announced by Brinks in a newsroom-wide email before Tang had an opportunity to personally notify the affected worker.

Tang also contacted people on their days off with various requests, and expected a near-instantaneous response. If people didn’t respond to his messages, they could expect to be reprimanded the next time they were in the newsroom.

The demand left such an impression on one former WOOD-TV employee that they ultimately contacted Nexstar after they left the station, according to a copy of their complaint obtained by The Desk. The complaint, sent to Nexstar earlier this year, said Tang’s insistence on contacting them outside normal working hours and other abusive behavior was taxing on their mental health. The former employee no longer works in the TV industry.

The complaint was one of several that Nexstar has received during Tang’s time as news director. Each time, the complaints were filed away, with practically no investigation.

This time, things appear different. After Tang was identified by The Desk as the author of the anti-gay memo circulated among workers this month — which journalists at WOOD-TV ultimately chose to ignore — Nexstar has launched a full probe into what happened.

Late last week, Nexstar sent a handful of executives to WOOD-TV’s main studio in Grand Rapids to interview workers about the memo, Tang’s behavior and other workplace issues, according to two people. The interviews are slated to last through this week; Nexstar has vowed to take “appropriate action” based on the outcome of their investigation.

Currently employees say they feel Tang’s days are numbered, but that firing him over the Pride Month memo does not go far enough. They also say Brinks needs to be held to account for ignoring their complaints for so long, and that heads might have to roll at Nexstar, too.

“I believe it is crucial for Nexstar to conduct an investigation into the station’s administration regarding their handling of employee concerns,” one worker said in a message to The Desk over the weekend. “The administration’s mishandling of genuine concerns has resulted in the departure of valuable individuals who either resigned or were unjustly terminated. It is crucial for Nexstar to address these issues, and ensure a more equitable and supportive work environment.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a photo with an erroneous caption that wrongly identified a woman as WOOD-TV General Manager Julie Brinks. The woman is a newsroom employee whom The Desk is not identifying by name at this time.

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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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