PHILADELPHIA - A television group's decision to air a documentary critical of Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam antiwar activities has sparked a backlash from media watchdog groups and advertisers, and a lawsuit from a Vietnam veteran featured in the film.
Shares in Sinclair Broadcast Group, which intends to air the anti-Kerry film, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," on all 62 of its stations across the country, traded at an all-time low Monday on Wall Street.
Monday, Kenneth J. Campbell, a University of Delaware professor who is one of the veterans depicted in the 41-minute film, sued the movie's producer for libel, saying the film falsely portrayed him as a fraud and a liar. The civil lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.
Last week, the Kerry campaign called the film a politically motivated attack that is unfair and inaccurate.
In his suit, Campbell, said the film combined footage of his appearance at a 1971 war protest with a voice-over. The voice-over claims that many of the supposed veterans who took part in the event were later "discovered as frauds," who "never set foot on the battlefield, or left the comfort of the States, or even served in uniform."
"They put me in it as almost a centerpiece example of a fraudulent, lying pseudo-veteran," said Campbell, an associate professor who teaches political science and international relations, including an honors course called Lessons of Vietnam. "I thought about it, and could not let it pass. I nearly lost my life in Vietnam multiple times and to have someone say I am a fake and a fraud and didn't even serve in Vietnam is utterly despicable."
The movie is scheduled to replace regular programming during prime time in such swing states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, during a four-day period this month.
The film "has taken on a life of its own," its producer, Carlton Sherwood, of Harrisburg, Pa., said Monday. "I was told that throughout the country there are hundreds of places where small and large groups are getting together to watch this."
The film was to have been shown at the Baederwood Mall theater in Jenkintown, Pa., Tuesday night, but an employee at the theater said last night that it had been cancelled.
Campbell said he sent the Jenkintown theater and Sinclair Broadcast Group a letter notifying them that if they aired the film, they would be named in his lawsuit as additional defendants. He has retained Philadelphia attorney James E. Beasley.
The Sinclair stock has taken a hit since the controversy surfaced. The stock has fallen 53 percent this year. It dropped 7 cents, or 1 percent, on Friday to close at $7.04. It traded at a 52-week low Monday of $6.49. Before Sinclair's plans to show the documentary more than a week ago was first reported, the stock was at $7.50.
"In our opinion, Sinclair's decision to pre-empt programming to air `Stolen Honor' is potentially damaging - both financially and politically," analyst William Meyers of Lehman Brothers Equity Research wrote in a report dated Friday. "In a best case scenario, we believe that this decision could result in lost ad revenues. In a worst case scenario, we believe the decision may lead to higher political risk."
Some car and furniture companies in battleground states, such as Minnesota, have pulled ads from local Sinclair stations, according to the New York Times. Sinclair is a major campaign contributor to the Bush campaign.
Media watchdog groups joined Common Cause last week in challenging Sinclair's decision to air the film right before the election.
"The public airwaves should not be used by television executives to promote their partisan political agenda," Common Cause president Chellie Pingree told reporters on a telephone news conference. "This action crosses a line."
Bob Steele, at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., who focuses on journalism ethics and media standards, said the fallout will be mostly felt by the stations.
"I believe that broadcast stations, as well as newspapers and magazines, have an obligation to fairly and meaningfully cover the issues in an election and the candidates in the election," Steele said. "The evidence indicates that Sinclair Broadcasting has moved away from a sense of fairness, and they have taken a radical approach to presenting information.
"The weight of this particular documentary is bound to fall on the news departments of those stations and its bound to hurt their credibility," he said.
Mark Hyman, vice president of corporate relations for Sinclair Broadcast Group, said the decision to air the documentary was "just one of many" that are made daily by the parent company.
He said reports that Sinclair forced the stations to air the documentary were "totally absurd," he said. "We make programming decisions, from public service campaigns to news programming, on a day-to-day basis.
"It's almost like Sears telling all of its stores to sell Craftsman tools," he said. "It's not unusual. It's across the board."
Hyman said they offered the Democratic presidential nominee equal time on the stations.
"We had delayed production on what the 60-minute news special would look like because sources close to the Kerry campaign informed us that the campaign was under tremendous pressure to have John Kerry participate," he said. "So we pushed back production."
The Kerry campaign, however, says it declined the offer of equal time.
"It's hard to take an offer seriously from a partisan corporate interest that's more interested in doing George Bush's dirty work than telling truth," said Mark Nevins, Pennsylvania Kerry campaign spokesman.
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