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Abuse of Public Airwaves: Sinclair Revives Campaign to Restrict Media Ownership
Published on Thursday, October 14, 2004 by the Cox News Service
Sinclair's Plan to Air Kerry Film Angers Democrats
Abuse of Public Airwaves, Groups Say
by Marilyn Geewax
 

WASHINGTON—U.S. efforts to restrict media ownership, which appeared dead a week ago, are being revived following reports of Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.'s plan to force its 62 TV stations to air a politically controversial film.

"The fight ain't over till it's over," said Barry Piatt, spokesman for Democrat Senator Byron Dorgan, who has led the charge to limit the number of outlets a media company may own.


Big Media at its most despicable.
 
Timothy Karr, executive director of Media for Democracy
The conservative-leaning Sinclair plans to pre-empt prime-time programming to air portions of Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, which deals with the impact of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's 1971 anti-war testimony.

Last week, the U.S. Congress batted down an ownership-cap amendment that Dorgan had offered, which had been attached to a spending bill.

But yesterday, Piatt said the Sinclair controversy has given new life to Dorgan's drive by providing "a classic example of what happens when you allow ownership to concentrate."

Sinclair, a publicly traded company based in Maryland, owns enough stations to reach nearly a quarter of U.S. homes with televisions. Its stations include affiliates of Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC, WB and UPN.

When Congress returns following the Nov. 2 election, Dorgan will try again to attach a media-related amendment to a must-pass spending bill, Piatt said. The measure has considerable bipartisan support, but has been opposed by the Republican leadership.

Many of Sinclair's stations are located in election battleground states, such as Florida, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Critics say broadcasting an extremely one-sided program just before the election would be an abuse of public airwaves.

Sinclair has said Kerry is welcome to participate in the program, but has not promised equal time.

Repeated calls to the company went unanswered, but its web site said "the exact format of this unscripted event has not been finalized. Characterizations regarding the content are premature and are based on ill-informed sources."

Public-interest groups opposed to media concentration held a press conference yesterday to say that in light of Sinclair's plans, they, too, would be renewing efforts in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to restrict media ownership and increase local control of programming.

Sinclair offers an example "of Big Media at its most despicable," said Timothy Karr, executive director of Media for Democracy, a non-partisan public-interest group.

The groups also threatened to file license challenges at each station that airs the film, and to try to persuade Sinclair shareholders and advertisers that the company is abusing public airwaves.

Last year, the heavily indebted company earned $24 million on revenues of $739 million. It potentially could improve profit margins if it could control more stations and thereby lower operating and news-gathering costs.

In 2003, the FCC approved rules easing restrictions on the number of outlets a media company could own.

But this summer, a U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the FCC to reconsider the rules that would have permitted more combinations of newspaper, radio and TV outlets in a single market, as well as those that would have let companies own two or even three TV stations in a local market.

The Bush administration has supported the FCC's efforts to loosen restrictions, while Kerry supports tighter caps.

Yesterday, Democrat Representatives John Dingell and Ed Markey members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, sent a letter urging the FCC to investigate whether Sinclair is abusing the public trust.

Earlier this week, 18 Democratic senators made a similar request, but the agency is not expected to act before the film airs.

During the 2004 political cycle, Sinclair executives have given nearly $68,000 in political contributions, with 97 per cent going to Republicans, according to a campaign finance watchdog group.

In April, the company ordered seven of its stations not to air ABC's Nightline, which was showing the names and pictures of troops killed in Iraq. The company said the broadcast was a political statement "disguised as news content."

© Copyright 2004 Cox News Service

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