The Democratic Party took aim at Sinclair Broadcast Group yesterday, saying a program the Maryland-based corporation plans to air criticizing John Kerry's anti-war activism amounts to an illegal corporate campaign contribution to President Bush. The show is to focus on Kerry's denunciation of the Vietnam War three decades ago.
Although not yet complete, it is based on a documentary called Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal. It alleges that North Vietnamese captors used Kerry's statements about atrocities committed by American troops during the conflict as an excuse to torture U.S. prisoners of war.
Party officials said they would file a formal complaint today with the Federal Election Commission over the plan to broadcast the program. Federal offices were closed yesterday in observance of Columbus Day.
Sinclair Vice President Mark Hyman dismissed the Democrats' grievances as unfounded. "This is news," Hyman said. "It is what it is."
Most news stories fall outside the jurisdiction of current broadcasting regulations or election laws. This is different, the Democrats contend. "It's a vicious, personal attack," said Joe Sandler, a lawyer for the Democrats. The party also is reviewing whether to challenge Sinclair when licenses for its local stations come up before the Federal Communications Commission for renewal.
Hyman, who appears daily on most Sinclair stations as the company's chief editorialist on a feature called The Point, said he is still developing the program from material contained in the documentary and has invited Kerry to rebut the charges. In Stolen Honor, former prisoners of war say the anti-war declarations by Kerry, a decorated Navy lieutenant, inspired their renewed torture.
"Theirs is a powerful story that the news gatekeepers have ignored," Hyman said yesterday. "It's a little unfair if the media allows a candidate to campaign on the basis of his Vietnam experience and to cherry-pick only certain parts."
The Democratic Party officials, including Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, took pains to say that the producer of Stolen Honor was a discredited journalist who held no standing in the profession.
Carlton Sherwood, the producer, was a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Marines. While working for the Gannett News Service in 1980, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting uncovering financial mismanagement by priests in the Catholic order of the Pauline Fathers.
But Sherwood was fired by a Washington television station in the early 1980s after a story he did on the Vietnam War memorial came under severe attack. He later joined the Washington Times. He could not be reached yesterday for comment.
"The owners of Sinclair Broadcasting aren't interested in news - they're interested in pro-Bush propaganda," McAuliffe said.
Stolen Honor previously was available only through purchase online. But M. William Butler, Sinclair's vice president for programming, sent a memo last week to the executives who control all the stations owned and operated by the company, saying Hyman's program would be carried by all 62 of them, commercial-free. As the show is to be aired during prime time within a several-day period at the end of next week, it is an extraordinary dedication of time. Stations will forgo significant advertising income.
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, which argues against media consolidation, said the Sinclair episode illustrates the danger of having many outlets in the same hands.
"No one company should be programming 62 stations," he said. "It's terrible. The public is entitled to receive opposing points of view on public issues."
Sinclair's stations - many of them in swing states critical to next month's presidential elections - reach about 25 percent of Americans. No company owns or controls as many local television stations. Sinclair has benefited, too, from the relaxing of rules against consolidation in recent years.
The company has been attacked by some critics - especially liberals and Democrats - as blatantly favoring Republicans and conservatives.
"I've never felt pressure to do things from one side or the other politically," said Morris Jones, a chief anchor of News Central, the corporately produced news program run by many Sinclair stations. "It may be a guilt by association, which is unfair. What we're doing at News Central I would match with anything at the networks."
Sinclair executives have openly embraced Republican causes in recent years. The members of the controlling Smith family have donated more than $200,000 to GOP coffers since 1999. Recipients have included the Republican National Committee, the Bush/Cheney campaign, and Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Democrats have received far less.
Conservative sympathies have emerged in other ways, too:
After the September 2001 attacks, Sinclair executives ordered news anchors at its local stations to run editorials announcing support for the Bush administration's response. Some news staffers, such as those at Sinclair's two Baltimore stations, WBFF and WNUV, objected, saying such statements could undermine public faith in their political objectivity. The editorials were read nonetheless, with language stating the support for Bush came from station management.
In fall 2002, a company owned by Sinclair director and Vice President J. Duncan Smith - the brother of CEO David D. Smith - provided helicopter trips free of charge to Ehrlich during the gubernatorial campaign worth a total of more than $34,000. After they were disclosed in The Sun, the Ehrlich camp paid for all but $7,700 of the cost. That figure stood as a contribution from Duncan Smith's aviation company.
In April, Sinclair pulled an edition of ABC News' Nightline from seven ABC stations because it was devoted to reading the names of troops killed in Iraq. In a statement, Sinclair officials said the show was intended to hurt President Bush. "The action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq."
Hyman's nightly commentaries have consistently attacked Kerry. A former Navy intelligence analyst who worked for Ehrlich on Capitol Hill, Hyman is a captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He traveled to Iraq earlier this year to document what he said were positive news stories ignored by much of the mainstream media.
Hyman's conservative views resemble those of David Smith, the Sinclair CEO, who believes that the mainstream media are overwhelmingly liberal.
But Hyman's commentaries are also part of the company's branding efforts to differentiate its news programs from those of the main network affiliates. The company adopts a brash tone for its newscasts as well as an opinionated edge.