Friday, October 15, 2004

Dangerous Territory

The New York Times
October 15, 2004

Dangerous Territory

The Sinclair Broadcasting Group, one of the nation's most powerful television conglomerates, has a sad record of using its public license to promote Republican causes. Earlier this year, Sinclair tried to censor an installment of "Nightline" on its 62 stations when Ted Koppel announced plans to read out the names of soldiers killed in Iraq. Now the company, owned by financial backers of President Bush and other Republican politicians, plans to actively join the re-election campaign.

Its plan sounds like the plot of a bad political novel, or an actual election in post-Soviet Russia. The Times and other newspapers reported this week that Sinclair, a Maryland-based company that reaches nearly a quarter of American households, would broadcast a propaganda film in the next two weeks that labels Senator John Kerry a liar, a traitor and a "willing accomplice" of the enemy during the Vietnam War. It claims, falsely, that his antiwar statements inspired the North Vietnamese to step up the torture of American prisoners, and it is filled with other distortions about the war in Vietnam.

Sinclair has instructed its stations, which are heavily represented in swing states like Florida and Wisconsin, to run the film without commercials in the evening. The company already compels them to broadcast editorials and commentaries favorable to Mr. Bush and his policies. But this is a whole new arena, and little different from making the stations give donations to the Republican campaign.

We would be just as appalled if one of the major networks forced its affiliates to broadcast "Fahrenheit 9/11" next week and call it a news program.

The movie that caught Sinclair's eye, a 45-minute diatribe called "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," rehashes Republican charges that are familiar to everyone from the latest round of ads attacking Mr. Kerry's antiwar activities: primarily that he lied to the Senate in 1971 about atrocities in Vietnam and that his testimony and the antiwar movement in general aided the North Vietnamese and harmed American soldiers. This line of reasoning neatly dovetails with the Bush campaign's assertions that criticizing Mr. Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq is unpatriotic and harms American soldiers.

Eighteen Democratic senators asked the Federal Communications Commission to stop Sinclair from broadcasting the new film, but the commission was right to refuse. As painful as it is to defend this agency, which has shown more interest in Janet Jackson's breast than in really doing its job, we believe that the federal government cannot indulge in that sort of prior restraint.

But the F.C.C. also cannot ignore Sinclair's poor record when it comes to meeting its obligation to act responsibly and fairly in the public interest, a duty it assumed when it accepted custody of a license to broadcast on the public airwaves. Broadcasting "Stolen Honor" within two weeks of the election would clearly violate those commitments.

Sinclair says it is just trying to give its viewers news. Unfortunately, this film is not news, and not journalism. It makes no attempt at balance or fairness. Its interviews with 17 men who were imprisoned and tortured in Hanoi are powerful. But the narrator and producer, Carlton Sherwood, a former journalist on leave from his job in a company that provides "homeland security" services to the government, exploits these brave men and their distinguished service for a cause that he openly says is personal.

Sinclair's First Amendment defenses lack credibility because it denied those rights to "Nightline." At the time, Sinclair's spokesman, Mark Hyman, who doubles as a conservative commentator, said Mr. Koppel's program did not deserve to be broadcast because it had "no proportionality" and ignored other aspects of the issues. It was hard to see how that could describe a tribute to the war dead, but it's a perfect description of "Stolen Honor."

Yesterday, Mr. Hyman seemed to be hedging a bit on Sinclair's plans, saying the program was not finished and would be balanced. But it was unnerving to hear him adhere to his bizarre claim that the major broadcast networks who wisely declined to run "Stolen Honor" when Mr. Sherwood offered it to them were no different than "Holocaust deniers."

If the company is thinking about seriously changing course, it should do it quickly. Sinclair is in dangerous territory. If television companies force their local stations to campaign blatantly, it will not be long before the administrations that have the power to grant licenses begin expecting such favors as a quid pro quo. And the public will question whether it can afford to allow such concentrations of power in the hands of huge media corporations.