Sinclair backs down; or does it?

By Eric Boehlert
Published October 20, 2004 4:00AM (EDT)

Sinclair Broadcast Group is rethinking its controversial decision to use its more than 60-plus television stations nationwide for political purposes on the eve of the election by forcing them to air an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor." Under siege from angry Democrats, and hearing from unsettled advertisers, analysts and shareholders, the Maryland-based communications giant, with a heavy Republican slant, moved on Tuesday to clarify its plans. It now insists "Stolen Honor" will not air in its entirety, instead the news special "A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media" is scheduled and will be seen on 39 of its 62 stations.

What exactly is "A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media"? According to Sinclair's rather muddled press release, the "news special will focus in part on the use of documentaries and other media to influence voting, which emerged during the 2004 political campaigns, as well as on the content of certain of these documentaries. The program will also examine the role of the media in filtering the information contained in these documentaries, allegations of media bias by media organizations that ignore or filter legitimate news and the attempts by candidates and other organizations to influence media coverage."

If you're still wondering what "A POW Story" is, so are we. Although the obvious suspicion remains that the show will be a convenient vehicle to bash Kerry and his anti-war efforts in the early `70s. And why Sinclair, a television company known for its weak news division and which has little or no history of pre-empting primetime programming for news specials, feels the need to air a POW special on the eve of the election remains a question mark.

In its press release, Sinclair executives seemed to suggest the whole "Stolen Honor" story was a misunderstanding: "Contrary to numerous inaccurate political and press accounts, the Sinclair stations will not be airing the documentary 'Stolen Honor' in its entirety. At no time did Sinclair ever publicly announce that it intended to do so." The key phrase there is "publicly," because two weeks ago Sinclair headquarters made it perfectly clear to their stations around the country that "Stolen Honor" would be airing, in its entirety, and local affiliates had no say in that decision.

Whatever conciliatory, damage-control tone the Sinclair statement tried to strike at the outset soon vanishes however, as Sinclair CEO David Smith alternatively lashed out at company critics and played the victim, complaining how "executives have endured personal attacks of the vilest nature, as well as calls on our advertisers and our viewers to boycott our stations and on our shareholders to sell their stock." Smith also creates a straw man by suggesting "leading members of Congress [tried] to influence the Federal Communications Commission to stop Sinclair from broadcasting this news special." Smith goes on to note the company "took comfort in the words of Michael Powell, Chairman of the FCC, who refused to block the program, noting that to do so would be 'unconstitutional' and 'an absolute disservice to the First Amendment.'"

The truth is members of Congress never asked the FCC to block Sinclair's program because there's not a member of Congress who thinks the FCC has the power of pre-emption. It does not. What congressmen and women want is for the FCC to look into whether Sinclair would be operating outside traditional broadcasting guidelines and abusing its commitment to serving the public trust by taking the unprecedented move of airing a partisan attack show disguised as a news program on the eve of the election.

Bottom line: It appears Sinclair is trying to play a game of semantics by backing off showing "Stolen Honor" in its "entirety," while sticking by its plans to go after Kerry in primetime.

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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