BALTIMORE - Thirty years ago, the Sinclair broadcasting company consisted of one family-owned Baltimore channel on the UHF dial, which was made up of high-numbered stations whose signals were so weak that viewers had to adjust a flimsy little antenna get a clear picture.
Now Sinclair owns more TV stations than anyone outside the major networks. And it is not at all shy about using its clout to advance a conservative agenda.
The company, run by the Smith family, finds itself in the middle of a political storm over an anti-John Kerry documentary that it plans to air before the election. The company has asked its 62 television stations many of them in swing states to pre-empt regular programming to run the documentary, which is critical of Kerry's anti-war activities after he returned home from Vietnam three decades ago.
The impact of the documentary could be large, considering the Sinclair Broadcast Group reaches about a quarter of all U.S. television households from California to Maine.
Critics say the Baltimore-based company is abusing the public's trust, and Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, said the decision to run the documentary is "proof positive of media consolidation run amok."
"The problem here is that Sinclair is clearly unwilling to use its airways responsibly and permit opposing points of view," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Mark Hyman, a vice president of corporate relations for Sinclair who also is a commentator for the company, said Monday that Kerry has been invited to appear on the hour-long program. The company has also posted a note on its Web site urging people to call Kerry's headquarters to ask him to appear.
The controversy is nothing new to the company.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Sinclair ordered anchors at its stations to read editorials supporting the Bush administration. Earlier this year, it refused to carry on its ABC stations a "Nightline" broadcast in which the names of Americans killed in Iraq were read aloud.
The company is run by David Smith, 53, and his three brothers, Frederick, Robert and J. Duncan, who started with their father's small UHF station in Baltimore and acquired a string of other UHF stations long the poor stepchildren of the TV industry because of their higher channel numbers in the days before cable.
The company amassed its stations as federal regulations were relaxed on station ownership. At the same time, it became a generous political donor, giving $172,454 to Republican causes and only $6,750 to Democratic campaigns since 1994.
Robert Zelnick, chairman of the journalism department at Boston University, said Sinclair is more conservative than the Fox network. But he said that while Fox "maintains at least a public claim of objectivity: `We report, you decide,'" Sinclair is blatant about its conservative bent, putting Hyman on the air to deliver conservative commentaries.
The company has also been criticized for producing a national news insert for its local stations from its studios at its headquarters. The company says that allows it to introduce local news programming in markets that otherwise could not support news.
Zelnick said he does not have a problem with the concept, adding, "Let's have a new Sinclair of the left and let them produce inserts for local stations."
Sinclair has also been known to involve itself in local politics.
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, made eight flights during and immediately after his 2002 gubernatorial campaign on a helicopter owned by a company set up by one of the Smith brothers. Campaign officials later said they erred in not listing the flights on campaign finance reports and said the campaign would pay full price, instead of the discounted rate it was originally billed.
Telephone messages left Tuesday and Wednesday by The Associated Press at Sinclair headquarters seeking more comment were not immediately returned.
Schwartzmann said Sinclair has "pushed the envelope repeatedly over the years," pressing ownership regulations and producing newscasts for stations from its headquarters.
"No one company should have the ability to control the program on 62 stations across the country," Schwartzman said. "That's too much power for any company."
On the Net:
Sinclair Broadcast Group: http://www.sbgi.net
Media Access Project: http://www.mediaaccess.org
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