[ Should Kerry get equal time? According to The Guardian (12 Oct. 2004),
Under US broadcasting rules, the film actually gives airtime to Mr Kerry. Andrew Jay Schwartzman, who heads the Media Access Project watchdog, said: “The way our equal time law works depends on what candidate is appearing on the air – so the equal time rule would run to Bush, not to Kerry. It does not provide Kerry a right to reply.”
The nation’s largest local television chain, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, has ordered its 62 television stations to pre-empt its regular prime-time programming to air a controversial documentary criticizing Senator John Kerry’s record in Vietnam. The chain has network affiliates in many key swing states including Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Yesterday 18 Democratic Senators urged the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Sinclair’s decision to air what they view as an unpaid 90-minute attack ad against Kerry. The film, “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” is produced by Carlton Sherwood, a former Washington Times reporter who used to work for Department of Homeland Security director Tom Ridge while he was governor of Pennsylvania. This marks the second time this year Sinclair made headlines for its programming decisions. In April, the network refused to run an episode of Nightline when the anchor Ted Koppel read the names of every U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.
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ACTION ALERT: Sinclair’s Partisan Ploy Cries Out for Equal Time
12 Oct. 2004 | FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)
In an unprecedented move, the Republican-friendly Sinclair Broadcasting company has ordered its 62 television stations to preempt regular prime-time broadcasting to air the anti-John Kerry documentary “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal” just two weeks before the election. The film is to be shown in several swing states, including Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.
“Stolen Honor”– much like the discredited Swift Boat Veterans ads– offers unsubstantiated claims by alleged Vietnam POWs that their Vietnamese captors used Kerry’s anti-war statements against them. In fact, the organization that paid for “Stolen Honor”– called POWs for Truth– recently merged with the Swift Boat Vets, forming a combined group called Swift Vets and POWS for Truth (Talking Points Memo, 10/11/04).
The film was made by Carlton Sherwood, a consultant to the Bush administration’s Department of Homeland Security and a personal friend of the department’s head, Tom Ridge. A former reporter for Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, Sherwood also wrote a book about Moon, Inquisition, that the self-proclaimed messiah was allowed to see before publication. After reviewing the book and giving Sherwood a list of changes, Moon aide James Gavin wrote to Moon: “In addition to silencing our critics now, the book should be invaluable in persuading others of our legitimacy for many years to come.” Moon reportedly ordered 100,000 advance copies of the book from the publisher, a subsidiary of the conservative imprint Regnery (Frontline, 1/21/92).
Sinclair’s ties to the right are no less strong. According to the Los Angeles Times (10/9/04), in the 2004 political cycle, 97 percent of contributions made by Sinclair executives went to Republicans. Sinclair has a record of allowing its conservative agenda to influence its programming decisions. For instance, in April, Sinclair ordered seven of its ABC-affiliated stations not to air an episode of Nightline that featured the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq, saying, “We do not believe such political statements should be disguised as news content.”
However, soon after the September 11 attacks, Sinclair stations were required to air editorial statements in support of the Bush administration (Extra!, 11-12/01). And most Sinclair stations are also required to air commentaries from the company’s vice president, Mark E. Hyman, during their newscasts. Hyman’s conservative commentaries routinely include harsh attacks on Kerry, who Hyman accuses of “a lifetime of supporting Communist forces opposed to the U.S.” (The Point, 9/22/04).
Questions have been raised about whether the extraordinary decision to force stations to carry the film violates FCC requirements that broadcasts provide equal time for electoral candidates. The rule does not apply to coverage of legitimate news stories, and Hyman appeared on CNN (10/12/04) to claim that “Stolen Honor” fell in this category:
“This is news. I can’t change the fact that these people decided to come forward today. The networks had this opportunity over a month ago to speak with these people. They chose to suppress them. They chose to ignore them. They are acting like Holocaust deniers, pretending these men don’t exist.”
Hyman’s bizarre analogy aside, Sinclair’s obvious attempt to affect the election by broadcasting the film is exactly the sort of use of public airwaves to promote station owners’ private political agendas that federal regulations have always been designed to prevent. “American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations,” Rep. Luther Johnson warned at the time of the passage of the Radio Act of 1927.
With growing numbers of stations controlled by chains like Sinclair– which controls more television licenses than any other operator– these concerns are more relevant than ever. As former FCC chairman Reed Hundt wrote to Sinclair (Talking Points Memo, 10/11/04):
“How can it be part of a broadcaster’s public interest obligation to aspire to alter the perceptions of the audience about a presidential candidate by showing biased content that in no way reflects either breaking news or even-handed treatment of the issues? Why should a broadcaster keep its licenses if it behaves in this manner?”
If Sinclair wants to give more exposure to “Stolen Honor,” it can do so fairly by providing equal time for an examination of the same subject from an opposing perspective. The documentary “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry,” a positive account of Kerry’s service in Vietnam and his anti-war activism upon his return, would seem to be an ideal candidate. The Chicago Tribune (10/1/04) called it “almost essential viewing… that anyone who intends to vote this November should make every effort to see.”
ACTION: Please call Sinclair Broadcasting and tell them that if it airs a partisan documentary attacking a presidential candidate just before the election, then it should give equal time to a documentary from an opposing perspective, like “Going Upriver.”
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