Sinclair's disgrace

The right-wing network's decision to force its affiliates to air anti-Kerry propaganda is one of the lowest moments in the history of television news, says the former head of the FCC. And it may unleash a backlash.

Published October 14, 2004 7:06PM (EDT)

"We do not believe political statements should be disguised as news content."

Policy statement, Sinclair Broadcasting, April 2004.

Kerry campaign officials aren't the only ones outraged over Sinclair Broadcasting's order to its 62 television stations nationwide to preempt regular programming days before votes are cast Nov. 2 to air "Stolen Honor," a highly charged documentary critical of Sen. John Kerry. The move breaks with a long-standing tradition among broadcasters of covering presidential campaigns as part of their obligation to serve the public interest, and to do so with at least a patina of honesty.

Sinclair's unprecedented move once again raises questions about the effects of rampant media consolidation, the deregulation that allows a small number of large conglomerates to own so many outlets, let alone use them to advance an obvious political agenda. The controversy over "Stolen Honor" has also thrust little-known Sinclair before the klieg lights, drawing attention to its news department, whose public spokesman has no experience whatsoever in journalism. And it reveals a publicly held corporation, operating on the public airwaves, run by a hypocritical chief executive, preaching conservatives values by which he himself has been unable to live.

"Ordering stations to carry propaganda? It's absolutely off the charts," says former Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt, who served under President Clinton. "Any FCC chairman, from the left or the right, would agree with me. I'd be shocked if you could find any other broadcast conduct like this" in the history of American television.

Bob Zelnick, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University, a self-described conservative who says he intends to vote for President Bush, calls Sinclair's decision "an unfortunate precedent" that runs counter to "good journalism" and "is not what network news ought to be about." A former Pentagon correspondent for ABC News, Zelnick says, "Whether you're liberal or conservative, if you have roots in the journalism profession, there are core values that transcend and need to survive election to election. You avoid airing, very close to election, highly charged, partisan material that takes the guise of a documentary."

"If I were a Sinclair news director I'd quit," says Dow Smith, professor of journalism at Syracuse University and a former NBC news director in Detroit. "I'm certainly not going to encourage any of my students to work for Sinclair."

But for many Sinclair employees, already embarrassed by the company's blatant political agenda, which is broadcast daily through partisan, name-calling commentaries that local stations are commanded to air, without even the pretense of balance, the controversy hasn't been shocking. Instead, they have a feeling of déjà vu. "It's so bizarre it's almost dreamlike," one Sinclair manager told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. (Sinclair employees are warned that talking to the press represents grounds for dismissal.) "I can't imagine this isn't going to blow up in their faces.

"Working for Sinclair," says the manager, "you're used to news decisions being made that are influenced by marketing and promotion. You get that stuff. You understand that's the way the world works. With this, you just go, 'What's the point?' What are they trying to do?' This shows me that Sinclair doesn't give a shit about their employees because there's no communication plan [about "Stolen Honor"]. They just decide it [at corporate headquarters] and let everybody deal with the mess."

Six months ago many Sinclair employees were embarrassed when Sinclair took the extraordinary step of banning its ABC affiliates from showing a special edition of "Nightline" in which anchor Ted Koppel read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. The move prompted picket lines at some its affiliates and blew out phones lines and e-mail servers at others. Yet that may have been only a dry run for the current controversy, which is shaping up as perhaps the media battle of the election. Angry Democrats are contacting Sinclair's advertisers urging them to pull their business or face consumer boycotts. On Friday, organizers from will deliver a protest petition with 100,000 signatures to Sinclair's headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md. On Wednesday, 85 members of Congress demanded that the FCC investigate Sinclair. The main phone line to Sinclair was alternately busy or went unanswered for virtually the entire business day, making it impossible to get a response from company officials for this story. "They have no idea what they've unleashed," says the local Sinclair manager.

Sinclair's stock, which is already underperforming, dragged down by the weight of the company's enormous debt, a consequence of mismanagement at the top, drooped even more following the "Stolen Honor" announcement. And that comes on the heels of the stock hitting its 52-week low in late September. (Sinclair trades for roughly $7. In 1995 the stock traded for $45, and that was before the late '90s stock market surge.)

"Sinclair corporate has an identity they've decided on, but they're having a hard time getting folks in the hinterland to jump onboard," said one television news insider. Referring to the directive to local stations to run daily right-wing commentaries dubbed "The Point," delivered by Sinclair's vice president of corporate relations Mark Hyman, the source says, "People who work at the local stations hate it. They just cringe."

The "Nightline" imbroglio was bad enough. In a written statement, Sinclair claimed ABC's "action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq." Sinclair's general counsel said of "Nightline's" tribute to the American dead, "We find it to be contrary to the public interest."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blasted Sinclair's decision: "There is no valid reason for Sinclair to shirk its responsibility in what I assume is a very misguided attempt to prevent your viewers from completely appreciating the extraordinary sacrifices made on their behalf by Americans serving in Iraq." In response, Sinclair V.P. Hyman tried to demean the military service of the decorated former prisoner of war, "To be perfectly honest, it's been 25 years since [McCain's] worn a military uniform."

But the "Stolen Honor" flap has gotten uglier. The film was made by Carlton Sherwood, a Vietnam veteran and former reporter for the conservative Washington Times. He also authored a book that served as a vigorous defense of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the alleged cult leader who owns the newspaper. Sherwood is a personal friend of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and worked as a media consultant for Ridge while he was Pennsylvania governor. Appearing on Fox News this week, Sherwood insisted he had been "slandered and vilified" by Kerry's antiwar activities more than three decades ago. Two of the Vietnam veterans who appear in "Stolen Honor" were also part of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign this summer.

Prominently featured in "Stolen Honor" is retired Air Force Col. Leo Thorsness, a Vietnam prisoner of war for six years, with a long political career as a Republican. In South Dakota, he ran for the U.S. Senate against George McGovern in 1974 and Tom Daschle in 1978, losing both times. Then he moved to Washington state, where he was elected a state senator. Thorsness claims Kerry's antiwar activity helped prolong the war and made POW's suffer. Twelve years ago during the 1992 presidential campaign Thorsness made the same accusations against Democratic candidate Bill Clinton -- that his antiwar protests as a student had aided and abetted the enemy.

Although "Stolen Honor" is available online on DVD, Sinclair insists that airing the tilted documentary constitutes a news event, which thereby lifts any obligation Sinclair has to grant Kerry equal time. (It was during the "Nightline" controversy that Sinclair issued a statement: "We do not believe political statements should be disguised as news content.")

The Fairness Doctrine, which required television and radio stations to present an opposing side, was destroyed by President Reagan's veto of congressional renewal. Still, broadcast stations -- in exchange for being given broadcast spectrum for free -- are obligated during campaigns to offer each candidate equal time.

"Sinclair's acting more like a cable channel," says Hundt, who notes that broadcasters have unique responsibilities. "Broadcasters are given spectrum for free with a quid pro quo to serve the public interest."

Founded by Julian Smith, Sinclair started out as a single UHF station in Baltimore in 1971. In 33 years it has grown into 62 stations in 39 markets, capturing 24 percent of the national TV audience. The company touts itself as "the nation's largest commercial television broadcasting company not owned by a network." Sinclair's stations air a variety of programming from all the various networks. Most of Sinclair's stations are second- and third-tier outlets -- the company doesn't have any ABC, CBS or NBC affiliates in top 10 markets. Instead, a typical Sinclair station would be WMMP, a UPN affiliate in Charleston, S.C. Sinclair is now run by four of Smith's sons, including CEO David Smith.

According to the Washington Post, "Little is known about the views of David Smith, who told the Baltimore Sun in a rare 1995 interview that he and his brothers try 'to maintain as much anonymity as we can.' As for Smith's view, he was quoted in a January 5th 'Television Week' article, complaining about the 'political agenda' of the 'liberal media.'"

Smiths anonymity was inadvertently peeled back during the summer of 1996 when he was arrested in Baltimore for picking up a female prostitute who performed what arresting police officers reported as a "perverted act" on him as he drove north on the Jones Falls Expressway in a company-owned Mercedes. Smith was charged with a misdemeanor sex offense.

The company expanded in the 1990s by taking advantage of local marketing agreements in which it effectively operated another company's stations, including selling the ad time. These arrangements allowed Sinclair to run more than one station in a single market, creating de facto duopolies. But Sinclair has been stuck at roughly the same number of television stations for several years. In order to grow dramatically it needs the federal government to further relax the number of outlets one company can own. Business Week noted last year, "If ownership restrictions are eased, Sinclair is poised to reap huge benefits by being able to add more TV stations, further reducing costs." As it happens, the Bush administration, and the Bush-appointed FCC chairman, are in favor further relaxation of media ownership rules, but they have run into bipartisan opposition in the Congress.

Sinclair has other business interests that may also explain its aggressive support of the Bush administration. The company happens to be a major investor in Jadoo Power Systems, a producer of portable power systems that was recently awarded a military contract from the Pentagon with U.S. Special Operations Command. (Sinclair Ventures, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group, is one of Jadoo's two major owners.)

Like Clear Channel Communications, which symbolizes deregulation on the radio side, inside the television business Sinclair is known for being cheap, playing hardball with its competitors and suppliers, rampant cost cutting, a conservative tilt, and centralized programming that takes decision-making away from local stations and coverage away from local communities. (Sinclair's even been labeled "the Clear Channel of local news.")

In St. Louis, Sinclair fired the entire 47-person news team at KDNL, making it among the first major-market television stations to broadcast without local news. At Sinclair's Rochester, N.Y., station, it fired the entire news, weather and sports anchor team, and half of the remaining staff. Variety reported that Smith assembled station employees in the company parking lot, climbed onto the hood of a car, read a list of names, and announced that those on the list were fired. (Smith denied the account.) On a smaller but still telling scale, after Sinclair took over WCWB in Pittsburgh, the company ditched the station's three public affairs programs, including "Girl Scouting Today," and replaced them with infomercials.

Typically, when Sinclair guts local news operations, it replaces them with a newscast beamed in from its Maryland studio, which is packaged as a homegrown broadcast. Dubbed "NewsCentral," the maneuver is first and foremost a money-saving enterprise. But an indirect consequence of beaming uniform newscasts across the country is that it has given Sinclair some political clout. "I don't think they anticipated the power they would generate with NewsCentral," says one news industry source. "They created a political animal."

But none of Sinclair's maneuvers, even the "Nightline" stunt, prepared observers for its most recent moves. Sinclair has shown no previous interest in documentaries. "It's never happened before -- ever," says filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who told Salon he offers all his films for Sinclair to broadcast, including "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War." George Butler, director of "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," as well as Paul Alexander, maker of "Brothers in Arms," a documentary of Kerry's Vietnam experience, have made similar offers, suggesting Sinclair, if it were interested in balance, would show their films to counter the attacks of "Stolen Honor." Sinclair has failed to respond to their offers.

Just days before Sinclair made its announcement, some conservatives posting on the far right Web site were tossing back and forth the idea of how they might convince Fox News to run "Stolen Honor." But the consensus among the Freepers was that the movie was too controversial and partisan even for Fox. "It's quite a world we live in when Fox appears to be the moderate," remarks Greenwald, whose recent documentary, "Outfoxed," examined the network's conservative bias.

Once obscure, Sinclair's peculiar brand of corporate leadership is at last receiving attention and scrutiny. While defending its "Stolen Honor" decision, Sinclair's obstreperous vice president Hyman twice this week turned heads by comparing network news organizations to "Holocaust deniers" for allegedly refusing to cover the anti-Kerry accusations of a small gaggle of Vietnam veterans. Aside from his incendiary language, Hyman obviously neglected to account for the wall-to-wall coverage the Republican-financed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth received during the month of August.

After the Democratic National Committee filed a complaint with the Federal Election Committee charging that Sinclair's airing of the one-sided "Stolen Honor" amounted to a corporate, in-kind donation to the Bush-Cheney campaign, Hyman told the Associated Press, "Would they suggest that our reporting a car bomb in Iraq is an in-kind contribution to the Kerry campaign?" Eighteen Democratic senators wrote to FCC chairman Michael Powell this week asking him to investigate Sinclairs move, but Thursday Powell said the FCC would do nothing to interfere with the network's plans.

"He's certifiable," says one Sinclair employee. "At least that's all coming out now. It's like the Wizard of Oz; the curtain gets pulled back and there's this weird guy running things."

In a profile of Hyman that appeared this summer, the Baltimore Sun reported wryly, "He came to journalism in a roundabout way." In fact, the public face of Sinclair's news department has no newsroom experience whatsoever. A 1981 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Hyman worked for the Office of Naval Intelligence and later as a weapons inspector focusing on arms reductions in former Soviet bloc countries. During the mid-1990s, during the heyday of the Gingrich Republican "revolution," Hyman served as a congressional fellow. After less than two years on Capitol Hill, Hyman in 1997 was tapped as Sinclair's chief lobbyist, director of government relations, and then promoted to vice president of corporate relations in July 1999.

For two years Hyman often made trade-industry headlines for challenging the FCC's guidelines on digital television. And then came Sept. 11. Sinclair went far beyond affixing American flags to the lapels of its news anchors. Its news team at the company's flagship station in Baltimore received edicts to read on air: "[The station] wants you to know that we stand 100 percent behind our President." Hyman has kept up the patriotic coverage: Last February, a Sinclair news crew set off for Iraq determined to find the "good news" stories that other news organizations were supposedly ignoring. Since that expedition, nearly 600 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq. During an interview last September with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a Sinclair reporter inquired, "Is negative press emboldening the terrorists in Iraq, do you think?"

Soon after Sept. 11, Hyman's commentaries, "The Point," became a daily must-carry on Sinclair stations. Critics of the Iraq war are "whack-jobs," the French are "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," progressives "loony left," and Democratic members of Congress who argued against Bush policies are "unpatriotic politicians who hate our military." At first only Sinclair stations that aired its NewsCentral broadcast were required to carry "The Point." But recently all Sinclair stations have been told to feature Hyman's broadsides, often by shortening their sportscasts.

Sinclair boasts that 1.8 million adult viewers see Hyman's "The Point" every day, making him among the most-watched conservative commentators on television. But the figure is somewhat misleading, because Sinclair news viewers in 39 markets across the country tune in for news, sports and weather. Hyman's simply there, part of the Sinclair package.

Sinclair is the only group owner, from either side of the political spectrum, beaming out editorials across the country to television stations without any local input. "Sinclair's always claiming they're the symbol of localism and that local broadcasters best reflect the values and tastes of the community," says Gene Kimmelman, director of the Washington office of Consumers Union. "How does running a so-called documentary which independent observers say is not factually accurate, how does that serve the community? And has Sinclair asked the communities if they wanted to see documentaries from the other side to balance it out?"

Smith at Syracuse University says the fracas represents a strategic defeat for the broadcast industry, which continues to lobby Congress and the FCC for further media ownership concentration. "This plays right into the hands of people who are opposed to media consolidation," he says. "Sinclair's become the poster child for abuse of consolidation. Broadcasters always claim consolidation doesn't hurt localism, but this [Sinclair episode] is incredibly damaging to localism. Privately, I think broadcasters are furious with Sinclair."

Reed Hundt, the former FCC chairman, encapsulates the latest Sinclair travesty in a line: "It's about a company that's forgotten the standard of behavior for broadcast television."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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