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Sinclair Under Fire for Decision to Air Anti-Senator Kerry Film

October 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: In an unusual move, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest independent operator of television stations in the United States, has ordered all 62 of its stations to preempt regular programming next week to air a documentary that is harshly critical of Sen. John Kerry’s anti-war activities in the early 1970s.

The senator, decorated for valor as a navy lieutenant, became a leading antiwar voice upon his return from Vietnam. Sinclair defends its decision, saying that Kerry’s Vietnam military and protest record have not received enough coverage.

The producer of the film, called “Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal,” is Carlton Sherwood, a Vietnam veteran and a former reporter for the Washington Times.

Sinclair is calling the documentary a special news event, which could exempt it from FCC equal time provisions. Sinclair says Sen. Kerry has been invited to join a discussion of the film after it airs.

The Sinclair move has caused an uproar from Democrats who accuse the broadcaster of using the public airwaves in an attempt to unfairly influence an election and of making what is in effect an illegal contribution to the president’s reelection campaign.

The Democratic Party and 20 senators have sent letters to the Federal Communications Commission in protest. The senators’ letters said in part, to allow a broadcasting company to air such a blatantly partisan attack in lieu of regular programming and to classify that attack as news programming, as has been suggested, would violate the spirit and we think the text of current law and regulation.

The Smith family, which runs Sinclair broadcasting, and many of the company’s executives, have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations over the last five years, almost all of it to Republican candidates and causes.

Sinclair Broadcasting stations reach 25 percent of the U.S. population. Sinclair owns affiliates of all the major broadcast networks. Many of their stations are in pivotal swing states. This is not the first time Sinclair has been accused of partisan motivations.

This past April, Sinclair ordered its ABC affiliates not to run an edition of the ABC News program Nightline that honored American military personnel killed in Iraq. Sinclair accused ABC News of promoting an antiwar agenda, which ABC denied.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now to discuss this controversy are Mark Hyman, vice president of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, who also delivers on-air commentaries on some of its stations; and Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee. Welcome to you both.

Howard Wolfson, what’s your basic argument against running this film?

HOWARD WOLFSON: Well, Democrats have no problem with good and fair journalism, but there’s no pretense to objectivity in this film. It’s essentially a 90-minute political commercial masquerading as a documentary.

And if the individuals behind it or the Sinclair Corporation wants to run a political advertisement attacking John Kerry, they have the right to do so, but they ought to pay for it.

So, we filed a complaint with the FEC arguing that this was essentially an in-kind contribution, an illegal in-kind contribution to the Bush campaign. Now, the Sinclair Corporation has a little history here. Top executives there have given well over $100,000 to George Bush and the RNC.

They refused to run a Democratic National Committee ad, presumably because they didn’t agree with its content. And they refused to run a Nightline special that was honoring our fallen soldiers in Iraq, presumably because they didn’t agree with its content.

So, there is a history of unbiased, unfair, leaning towards the right on the part of this corporation, and we think political speech is a great thing. If you want to run a commercial attacking John Kerry, pay for it, but don’t put it on the air, force your stations to put it on the air, for free.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, Mark Hyman, what’s your response to that and your basic argument in favor of running this film, as you intend your stations to do?

MARK HYMAN: Well, a couple of thoughts, first of all, Terry. First of all, it’s kind of ironic that an adviser for a political party would suggest that somebody else has a political agenda.

Second of all, he made mention about a 90-minute documentary. This is a 40-minute documentary, which tells me that he’s never even watched the documentary, so he probably has no idea what’s actually in it.

Third, I have to let you know right up front that we haven’t made any formal plans as to what is going to be in the one-hour program that we envision. All we know is that we’ve invited one guest, Sen. John Kerry. We’ve made no other offers to anyone else.

We haven’t made any final decisions on what this final product is going to look at, look like. So anyone who’s complaining about the content of a product that does not yet exist is like someone complaining about a referee’s call in a sporting match that hasn’t even taken place yet.

But the bottom line in this is these are Vietnam prisoners of war, former POW’s, who after years of horrific abuse and unspeakable torture have ended their 31 years of silence and have come forward and wanted to rebut some claims made by John Kerry that statements he made in his 1971 testimony he said were an act of conscience and didn’t affect anyone adversely.

They’re saying they beg to differ. It was used in their torture just days after he testified. They’ve just now have come forward. This was made available to the broadcast television networks. They all turned it down. It came to us. We vetted it.

We made sure these people, who they were, they have some legitimate complaints. And what we said was, “John Kerry, we’d like you to respond to this,” and we’re still waiting for Sen. Kerry.

HOWARD WOLFSON: But they haven’t just come forward, sir. As you know, some of them have even appeared in the attack ads run by the Swift Boat Veterans. So, they haven’t just come forward.

They’ve been out there attacking John Kerry for some time. And, you’re right, I don’t expect a television network to have a political agenda. This is the United States of America. It’s not Russia.

We don’t expect that television networks are going to air phony documentaries that are essentially attack ads against one candidate or another.

We have a right in this country to expect good, balanced journalism on our airwaves and not the kind of a phony documentary attack piece that you’re running here.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, Mark Hyman, let me ask you this, please. How do you justify this, if indeed you do, as news programming?

MARK HYMAN: Well, first of all, I don’t think it was necessary for him to bring in CBS’s “Memogate” controversy and talk about phony documents. That’s immaterial to this entire process here.

But these men we know for fact were Vietnam prisoners of war. They were tortured. We know that. They’re making some very strong allegations and claims for the entire news industry.

The news gatekeepers, to act like they don’t exist and say “we’re not even going to consider your claims” is as irresponsible as it gets. These men, more than anybody else from Vietnam… may I finish speaking, please?

TERENCE SMITH: Yes.

MARK HYMAN: These men, more than anyone else, have earned their right to be heard, more than anybody else who served in Vietnam, for our industry to say it doesn’t count.

The second part of that is there have been suggestions that since they may have appeared in commercials that that satisfies the news reporting?

Our industry– broadcast television at the network and local level– has received criticism, probably much of it justified, because we aren’t covering enough issues in the political debate and instead we’re shuffling it off to paid commercial advertising.

That is absolutely the wrong way to address a topical news story. It should be discussed in news content, not simply saying, “please go off and advertise and that will cover all our responsibilities.”

TERENCE SMITH: Howard Wolfson?

HOWARD WOLFSON: Two points. One, Mr. Hyman previously referred to the networks in this context as “Holocaust-deniers.” He was criticized by the Anti- Defamation League for using that kind of language. I think it unfortunately is the kind of vituperation that he has waylaid John Kerry with now in so much of his daily commentary.

Secondly, every American has the right to speak out, and I hope every American does speak out. It’s election time. We all have that right. But we don’t all have the right to get a free 60 minutes or 40 minutes or however many minutes you want to put them on the air, a free 40 minutes to do that. We have laws in this country.

They say, if you’re going to attack a political candidate or support a political candidate in an advertisement, you have to pay for it.

And these individuals ought to be paying for their time and you ought to be making them pay for their time, not forcing your stations to run a free ad attacking John Kerry. It’s not the American way. We don’t do that.

TERENCE SMITH: Does John Kerry, Sen. John Kerry have any intention of accepting the invitation to participate in a discussion to follow the film?

HOWARD WOLFSON: I can’t speak for Sen. Kerry. I wouldn’t advise him to do that because you don’t… it’s not at all fair and balanced to have a 40-minute attack ad and then get five minutes or ten minutes or however many minutes to respond. That’s not good journalism.

Good, balanced journalism assesses news value. There is no news value here. These are people who have an issue with John Kerry. They’re allowed to air their concerns, but not in a free political attack ad.

TERENCE SMITH: Mark Hyman, what is your commitment and what is your requirement here for equal time or balance?

MARK HYMAN: Obviously, Mr. Wilson is already indicated he’s never seen the documentary and doesn’t know what’s in it.

If John Kerry sat down with us for two hours, we may end up with a 60-minute program that has 57 minutes of John Kerry presenting his side of the issues. That’s fine. That’s what this is all about. We’ve made an open invitation.

We told Sen. Kerry we would meet him anywhere, any time that he chooses, anywhere in this country to discuss this issue. We are going to as far as we can to make this available to him. And if he spends… if he offers us 30 seconds, it certainly makes it more difficult for us to get the whole story out.

If he offers us an hour, guess what, John Kerry probably gets 45 minutes, 50 minutes of this entire program because he’s got a valid statement to make. We want to put his view on the air. Putting on a few clips of what the allegations are, that will satisfy the concerns.

We’ll give John Kerry the bulk of the time. He should be able to answer some good, solid questions.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Howard Wolfson, you suggested that this is a violation of, I guess, at least the spirit if not the letter of the law.

What law and what recourse do you have and do you want… what do you want to see done?

HOWARD WOLFSON: Well, it’s a clear violation of both the letter and the spirit of the law. The FEC says that if you’re going to run a political campaign, a commercial, you have to pay for it.

A station can’t give, for instance, George Bush free time to run a political ad against John Kerry in this context. It’s against the law. So we are arguing quite clearly that this is a violation of FEC law, of election law, if you will, that it constitutes an in-kind, an illegal in-kind corporate contribution.

Of course, it’s not, as I said earlier, the first time that Sinclair has tried help the Bush agenda. Over $100,000 in contributions, refusal to run a Democratic National Committee ad and refusal to put on a Nightline program honoring our fallen soldiers in Iraq.

You know, I would take Mr. Hyman’s claims more credibly if he had run a 90-minute news program on the president’s Iraq policy or the failed policy in Iraq, but he’s not doing that.

This is a focus on John Kerry. It’s a focus that John Kerry’s enemies want to make to distract the American people from the real issues in this election, and we’re not going to stand for it.

MARK HYMAN: Mr. Wolfson, we run stories on Iraq every single night…

HOWARD WOLFSON: 90 minutes? 90 minutes?

MARK HYMAN: Every single day.

HOWARD WOLFSON: You preempt prime-time programming and order all your stations to do it?

I would challenge you to do that, sir, run a 90-minute programming on the failure in Iraq, order all your stations to put it on and have it run and have it be produced by a critic of the Bush administration. That would be the equivalent. You’re not going to that.

MARK HYMAN: How many times do I need to say we haven’t asked for 90 minutes of anything?

HOWARD WOLFSON: 60 minutes, then.

MARK HYMAN: A 60-minute program. And if there’s valid information, we’re going to put it out. We run every single night something on Iraq.

Just one point, though, on the campaign commercial that Mr. Wolfson was referring to. There was a complaint lodged. They took a statement out of context. Removed words, didn’t put ellipsis in there.

We told the DNC that if they put the statement in context without the words that were missing and reinserted those, we’d be happy to run the ad. They refused.

HOWARD WOLFSON: I see, So on one hand you’re in favor of the First Amendment, but on the other hand, you want to suppress our political speech. You can’t have it both ways, sir. You can’t suppress our political speech…

MARK HYMAN: Mr. Wolfson, you took a statement out of context.

HOWARD WOLFSON: …And then argue for the First Amendment on the other hand.

MARK HYMAN: You can’t remove words from a statement…

HOWARD WOLFSON: …the only station in the country not to do that.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Mark Hyman, let me ask you this: When you were criticizing ABC’s Nightline for its broadcast that we referred to in the setup, you said this. You said, “political speech disguised as news content is not the way to serve the public good.” So how does that…

MARK HYMAN: That’s right. That was George Stephanopoulos who announced on April 25, it was a political statement when he said that Ted Koppel was going to read the names of the dead to mark the president’s “mission accomplished” speech.

Those were the words of George Stephanopoulos. Not us. He made it clear.

And then we contacted ABC and asked them if they could clarify what their intentions were. They immediately decided not to speak us to, which certainly heightened our concerns that there were other issues at stake.

Again, we’re talking about a program here that hasn’t even been developed. Gentlemen, this program doesn’t even exist. There is a documentary. That’s the basis upon which we want to put a program together.

Again, John Kerry could have the bulk of this presentation if he just decides to join us.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Let’s get a final comment now from Howard…

HOWARD WOLFSON: Thank you. I would ask the viewers at home: Does this seem like a debate between a Democratic partisan, which I am, and an objective newsman on the other side? Of course not.

It seems like a debate between somebody who is supporting John Kerry and somebody who opposes John Kerry. People have a right to oppose John Kerry in this country, but we don’t expect our news organizations to oppose or support individual political candidates in this country.

That’s what’s wrong with this. And that’s why it needs to be stopped.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you both. I’m afraid we’re out of times, but thank you for joining us.