The controversy over Sinclair Broadcasting's decision to force stations it owns to pre-empt regular programming to show the anti-John Kerry documentary Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal has reached Greater Cincinnati, as WSTR (WB64) will broadcast the film Thursday evening. Sinclair owns 62 stations across the U.S., including outlets in Dayton and Columbus. That's a lot of coverage in a so-called "battleground state" like Ohio.
Calls to WSTR officials here as well as to Program Director Rick White, based in Columbus, went unreturned, as did calls to Sinclair's headquarters in suburban Baltimore, Md. A recorded message from the corporate public relations department, however, invited callers to go to the Sinclair Web site (sbgi.net) to comment on the film.
Produced by Carlton Sherwood, Stolen Honor is sharply critical of congressional testimony given by Kerry in 1971. Sherwood is a Pulitzer Prize and Peabody Award winner, although he didn't achieve either of those honors individually. He won his Pulitzer as part of a three-reporter team while working for Gannett News Services in 1980. His Peabody, too, was a group effort awarded to KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City for a series assembled by both broadcast and print journalists in that market.
Many have raised questions about whether Sinclair's actions violate Federal Election Commission (FEC) laws, Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations or both. The broadcaster has attempted to navigate this controversy by offering Kerry an opportunity to appear in a 15-minute discussion following the film.
For good measure, they're also describing the film and subsequent conversation as "news reports."
That's probably because news stories are exempt from the FCC's "equal time" rule that states that "if a political candidate obtains time on a broadcast station, other candidates for the same office (or their appointed representatives) may obtain an 'equal opportunity' on that station. ... News shows are exempt" (from the FCC publication A Glossary of Telecommunications Terms).
According to USA Today, the FCC won't stop Sinclair from broadcasting the film, as Chairman Michael Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell) said there are no rules that would allow the agency to prevent the program from being aired. The FCC can take action, if any is warranted, only once a particular program has aired.
FCC Commissioner Michael J. Cropps took a different view, saying, "This is an abuse of the public trust. And it is proof positive of media consolidation run amok when one owner can use the public airwaves to blanket the country with its political ideology — whether liberal or conservative. ... It is a sad fact that the explicit public interest protections we once had to ensure balance continue to be weakened by the FCC while it allows media conglomerates to get even bigger. Sinclair, and the FCC, are taking us down a dangerous road."
Ironically, back in April, Sinclair chose to pre-empt an actual news broadcast, ordering its ABC affiliates not to run Nightline as the program was going to air the names of American service personnel killed in Iraq up to that time. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former POW in Vietnam, was among the many critics of that decision.
Locally, Channel 64 will pre-empt a 9 p.m. repeat of the WB's popular Charmed to air Stolen Honor. Viewers can see Charmed on Dayton's WBDT (Channel 26). If they have cable or satellite service, they can tune in via one of the "superstations" such as WPIX in New York or KTLA in Los Angeles, both WB affiliates.
In the interest of fairness, Paul Alexander, who produced the pro-Kerry film Brothers in Arms, has offered Sinclair the rights to show his film free of charge, according to Salon.com. He's even offering to edit it to fit any time constraints. As of press time, Sinclair hadn't responded to the offer.
This isn't the first time, of course, a documentary has caused a stir in this presidential election cycle. When Michael Moore released Fahrenheit 9/11, a group called Citizens United complained to the FEC and wanted to have the film's release blocked or at least restricted. They later relented on that position but still tried to keep Moore and his distributor from running Fahrenheit 9/11 radio and TV advertisements after July 31, something the filmmaker had no plans of doing anyway.
Moore had planned to run his film as a pay-per-view event Nov. 1, the night before the election, but late last week came word that the company he'd signed a deal with, iN DEMAND, had decided not to run it after all, vaguely citing "legitimate business and legal concerns." Moore is considering legal action in response.
On NBC's Tonight Show With Jay Leno last week, he also offered Sinclair Fahrenheit 9/11 at no charge. Again, there was no immediate response from Sinclair officials.
All three films — Stolen Honor, Brothers in Arms and Fahrenheit 9/11 — are currently available on DVD. ©