If the stunt that Sinclair Broadcasting Group is pulling isn't against the law, it ought to be. Sinclair, owner of more American television stations than any other company, has ordered all 62 of its holdings -- which collectively reach a quarter of American households -- to suspend normal programming for one evening just before the upcoming presidential election. The stations are instead to air a one-hour conservative diatribe against Sen. John Kerry. This is a flagrant and cynical abuse of the public's airwaves for a partisan political purpose, an action that should put Sinclair's federal broadcast licenses in jeopardy. For comparison, imagine that WCCO's owner, CBS, ordered it to broadcast Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."
Indeed, Moore's film, while avowedly anti-Bush, is tame compared to the so-called documentary Sinclair plans to broadcast. "Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal" focuses on Kerry's antiwar activities 30 years ago. A Web site for the film says it exposes Kerry's "record of betrayal." In the film, one Vietnam POW asserts that Kerry "committed an act of treason. He lied, he besmirched our name and he did it for self-interest. And now he wants us to forget." More than a dozen of the television stations required to air this screed are in the key battleground states of Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Sinclair's stable of stations includes franchises for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, which makes the problem all the worse because it generates so much viewer confusion. Normally, none of those networks, not even Fox, would broadcast such programming. And all of them should be worried about what Sinclair is doing to their credibility.
This is not an hourlong ad (although that will be its effect). To sidestep requirements of fairness, Sinclair is broadcasting "Stolen Honor" as a news program -- even though it wasn't produced by any sort of credible news organization. It was written by a former reporter for the off-the-wall Washington Times and paid for -- at least initially -- by a group of Pennsylvania veterans.
Asked to justify the "news" label, a spokesman for Sinclair said the topic is important and "hasn't been out in the marketplace, and in the news marketplace," ignoring completely the controversy that claimed so much air time in August over the barrage of hateful ads by the Swift Boat Vets for Truth.
There's a reason shock jock Howard Stern is moving to satellite radio. It's the same reason that porn is available via cable or satellite television. It's the same reason the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to fine CBS $550,000 for showing Janet Jackson's bare breast. Cable and satellite, with their almost unlimited capacities, are unregulated, and companies can do pretty much what they want.
But in broadcast radio and television, stations are licensed by the FCC and required to serve the public interest, in return for being able to use a bit of the finite, publicly owned airwaves. Sinclair is thumbing its political nose at its public-interest responsibilities.
It's not the first time. Last April, Sinclair forbade its ABC affiliates to broadcast a program of "Nightline" that was devoted to reading the names of U.S. dead in Iraq. Sinclair said that program was politically motivated. Just reading the names of war dead is too political, but accusing a presidential nominee of treason qualifies as news?
Many people argue over whether this network or that has a political bias. But those arguments are over nuance -- small stuff compared to this. Here we have a non-network owner of television stations using its properties to inject a bitterly partisan work into the closing weeks of a very close presidential race -- and calling it "news." It's outrageous. If the FCC lets this one by after all the fuss made about Jackson's breast, then we need a new FCC, not to mention new laws reversing the consolidation of media ownership that gives unscrupulous companies such as Sinclair so much power.
2004 Star Tribune