Fox31/CW2 news director Holly Gauntt is leaving her position at the sister stations shortly after they were sold to the controversial Sinclair Broadcast Group as part of a package deal valued at nearly $4 billion. In an emotional announcement to her now-former staffers yesterday, July 12, she revealed that she will soon take on the same role at Denver7.
Thus far, Gauntt, who grew up in Colorado and attended CU Boulder, hasn't responded to interview requests from Westword, nor has she weighed in publicly about whether the Sinclair purchase factored into her decision. But as we reported earlier this month, Sinclair has a history of forcing highly ideological material on stations in its portfolio whether news directors like Gauntt want to use it or not.
This revelation and others were part of an extended jeremiad against Sinclair by John Oliver, host of the HBO program Last Week Tonight. As Oliver acknowledged in the July 2 installment of the program, the firm's purchase of Fox31, CW2 and forty other outlets currently owned by Tribune Media is still awaiting approval from federal regulators. However, such an okay is widely considered to be a done deal.
In the meantime, Sinclair is already using its stations to spread a conservative message via commentaries by former executive Mark Hyman, whose subject matter has included attacks on so-called snowflakes and a defense of the Washington Redskins football team for refusing to replace a name that many people view as racist. And recently, Sinclair added to its mix Boris Epshteyn, a former adviser to President Donald Trump whose own invective flies with the right wing.
Oliver pointed out that Sinclair designates these packages as "must-run," meaning that affiliates have to include them in newscasts. And while some affiliates, like KOMO in Seattle, have tried to soften the blow of this edict by airing Hyman's screeds during the wee hours of the morning, the messages will still have an outsized impact.
Likewise, Sinclair also mandates that local stations run updates from its "Terrorism Alert Desk," many of which are dubiously sourced; Oliver highlighted one story about ISIS chopping victims in half that was never confirmed by any credible news or government agency.
To sum up the piece, Oliver introduced a public-service announcement that he encouraged incoming Sinclair signals to run. In it, comedian and former Sopranos cast member Steve Schirripa, whose appearance and cadence bear at least some similarity to Epshteyn's, gave folks who watch newscasts on Fox31 or CW2 a heads-up.
"The people at this station know that local news should never be about cheap scare-mongering or advancing the political agenda," Schirripa said. "It should only be about weather, sports, I-team investigations and human-interest stories featuring cute animals."
He concluded with this: "I'm Steve Schirripa telling you, if this becomes a Sinclair station, good luck with that shit."
Yesterday, against this backdrop, Fox31/CW2 personnel received the following e-mail from vice president and general manager Joan Barrett:
I wanted to let everyone know that Holly Gauntt will be leaving us — she has accepted the open news director position at KMGH. Holly told me this morning and said that, although it was a difficult decision, she thinks it is the best move for her and her family. Holly joined our team a little over two years ago, led significant news expansion and launched the “Problem Solvers” brand on FOX31. I’d like to thank her for her dedication, leadership and efforts to help us build our news product on FOX31 and KWGN.
Because she will (literally) be crossing the street, Holly will be leaving this morning after she says her good-byes. Linda Kicak will be the interim news director. We will begin an immediate search for a new news director.
I will be attending the editorial meeting this afternoon and tomorrow morning and will be available to answer any questions. And, as always, please feel free to stop by my office or give me a ring.
We have great momentum here at 100 East Speer, and that won’t change. We have built our success with the entire team — and our team will continue to execute our strong news, marketing and community strategies to better serve our viewers today and in the future. #WintheDay!
Sources tell us Gauntt did indeed exit the station promptly after bidding farewell. But she left behind the following e-mail:
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What an honor it has been for me to work with such an incredible group of people. Each and every one of you.
To the Journalists, I tip my hat! You are the best and the brightest and I am eternally grateful to have shared the past two and half years with you. From the engineers to the artist, the talent in this building is unmatched and I will miss you all.
For a variety of reasons, I have chosen to take a new path. Please know that this decision is bittersweet for me. I will miss you so very much. We’ve accomplished great things during the past two and half years and I know you will continue to do so. With Joan at the helm, you will continue to grow and thrive.
From the bottom of my heart, I wish you all the very best in life and in news!
With much affection,
Denver7's late-night announcement of the Gauntt hire includes the following quote from her: "I grew up watching Denver7 and couldn’t pass up this opportunity to work at the station I love in the city I love. I’ve seen for myself the quality work happening at this station and I look forward to working with the talented journalists as we serve our Denver audiences with news on any screen they want."
Given Gauntt's success at Fox31, which is arguably the number-two news station in the local market, trailing only perennial ratings leader 9News, Denver7 may have lured her away with a lucrative contract offer — one she might have taken regardless of its recent purchase. But the timing of her decision to jump ship before the Sinclair takeover has been finalized is intriguing and suggests that others at Fox31 and CW2 may take similar offers to change teams very, very seriously.