It was on October 9 that the Los Angeles Times reported that Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation, a 62-station television chain, was ordering its stations to preempt regular programming just days before the November 2 election to air a film, Stolen Honor, that “attacks Sen. John F. Kerry’s activism against the Vietnam War.”
The Times cited “network and station executives familiar with the plan,” as if Sinclair had been caught sinning against the journalism establishment by threatening to run such a program. Sinclair claimed that it never intended to show the whole film but that the charges from the former Vietnam POWs in the film were significant and newsworthy.
The film featured the chilling testimony of 13 former U.S. Vietnam POWs, including two Congressional Medal of Honor winners, who say that Kerry’s anti-war testimony in 1971 caused them physical and mental torture. They say that Kerry’s false claims that U.S. soldiers committed massive war crimes in Vietnam was used and cited by their communist captors against them. Kerry never apologized for this smear.
A Right To Know?
Critics who had never seen the film were quick to denounce it.
Did the people have a right to know that their possible future president had been partly responsible for the torture of American POWs?
The controversy was amplified by the fact the company owns network news affiliates in swing states and the program would run days before the election. Could the film swing the election against Kerry?
The timing was delicate, but there was no way around this. Stolen Honor had just been completed, and Sinclair believed that it was essential to get this vital information into the hands of the American people so they would have all relevant information about Kerry on Election Day.
It was significant that an independent documentary film producer?rather than a “mainstream” news organization?brought these allegations against Kerry to light. This fact alone demonstrated the pro-Kerry bias of much of the rest of the media.
Where was the Washington Post, the New York Times, or even CBS News in digging into this story much earlier?
In terms of timing, wasn’t it the Los Angeles Times?the same paper than ran the anti-Sinclair story?that came under fire when it ran a critical piece on sexual harassment charges against Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger close to his election as California governor?
The Los Angeles Times story attacking Sinclair started a campaign that took its toll, as the company was threatened with possible action from the federal government, lawsuits, and boycotts. On October 22, however, Sinclair went ahead and aired a one-hour news program, “A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media,” incorporating about five minutes of the 42-minute film.
On the federal level, Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Edward Markey led the attack, urging the Federal Communications Commission to act against Sinclair on the grounds that the broadcast might violate serving the “public interest,” a condition of getting a government license to use the public airwaves. The FCC declined to intervene in advance of the broadcast. FCC chairman Michael Powell pointed out that “There is no FCC rule of prior restraint.” He argued that it would interfere with their First Amendment right to free speech.
Despite outrage and controversy, the facts supported the decision to air the charges. The hard-hitting film was produced by Vietnam veteran Carlton Sherwood, formerly of the Washington Times, who has received a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody, journalism’s highest awards. He has a proven track record of over 30 years in journalism.
The confusion about Sinclair’s real intention?whether it was going to air all or just parts of the film?was conveyed by Gary Hill, chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. He was unclear about what decisions had actually been made by the network but insisted what it did was wrong anyway.
More headlines were generated when Sinclair’s Washington bureau chief, Jon Leiberman, criticized Stolen Honor and violated company policy by talking publicly about private meetings held by the company on the matter. He was fired as a result and became an instant martyr for the liberal media.
It seemed that Sinclair couldn’t win no matter what it did. Even a decision to show only part of the film, and build a legitimate news program around the allegations, was regarded as objectionable.
One criticism was that it was being aired too close to the election. But Sinclair did offer time to Kerry to respond, which was its only possible legal obligation under “equal time” provisions of federal communications law. Kerry declined the offer.
However, the “equal time” provisions don’t apply to a news program, which is what the Sinclair broadcast was designed to be.
A related complaint was that other news outlets would not have sufficient time to investigate (and confirm or deny) the charges. But they could have themselves investigated the story earlier.
Another criticism was that the decision was reported to have emanated not from the newsroom, but from the business or editorial side of the news company.
Sinclair Vice President Mark Hyman is known for his conservative on-air commentaries, and while no news professional can begrudge Sinclair the right to air conservative commentaries, critics said that it’s a different thing for executives or board members to order production of “news” programs or to run material advertised as “news.” That helped explain why Sinclair executives came in for criticism in this case.
But Hyman noted that the POWs featured in Stolen Honor had offered their stories, which were compelling and newsworthy, to other networks and there was no interest.
Were it not for Sinclair, therefore, the charges would never have been aired nationally by any network in the U.S. They were critical to understanding what the Los Angeles Times euphemistically called Kerry’s “activism.”
The claims against Sinclair, especially the charge that the program was airing too close to an election, rang hollow, especially from the Los Angeles Times, which had run that sexual harassment story against Schwarzenegger right before that election.
In a conversation with Accuracy in Media, Gary Hill, chairman of the Ethics Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, said that “most journalists” accepted that the Times got the piece out as rapidly as they could, whereas the timing of the Sinclair affair is “more suspect.” Sorry, but that’s inconsistent.
It looks like the media have two standards?one to justify last minute unsubstantiated charges against a Republican, and another that protects a Democrat from the work of a reputable journalist who has obtained eyewitness accounts and testimony.
The fact is that the charges against Schwarzenegger were from years ago, were never tested or verified in court or by the media, and were obviously resurrected to damage his campaign.
Smear Of Sinclair
Liberals contended that Sinclair is a Republican company, but the fact is that it has a first-rate news operation. One of Sinclair’s top news employees is Carl Gottlieb, a former Deputy Director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism. His passion and dedication to quality in journalism are impressive, and his determination to produce the best broadcast journalism, free of sensationalism, is admirable.
Conservatives like the network because they know their issues will be presented fairly?but without corporate executives with a Republican bent having to intervene in the newsroom to make it possible.
In April, Sinclair generated controversy when it barred its ABC stations from airing a special edition of ABC’s “Nightline” in which Ted Koppel read the names of U.S. service personnel killed in Iraq. “The action appears to be motivated by a political agenda,” Sinclair said at the time, adding, “We do not believe such political statements should be disguised as news content.”
While Sinclair had made a strong case against Koppel, the Stolen Honor controversy turned attention back on the executives in charge of the company.
Ironically, the charge, in effect, was that Sinclair executives were doing what they accused Koppel of doing. One of the reasons Sinclair found itself under fire was that some said that Stolen Honor framed the POW testimony in a polemical style, making it a documentary imbued with political sentiment?the same charge Sinclair lodged against the Koppel production.
In the Nightline case, critics said that Sinclair executives deprived viewers of the chance to judge for themselves. But many of these same critics wanted Sinclair to drop Stolen Honor.
From the start, the liberal media tried to dismiss Sinclair as a partisan operation. Note the L.A. Times’ initial headline: Conser-vative TV Group to Air Anti-Kerry Film, and the description, “The conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group.”
There should be a distinction between the Sinclair executives, who contribute to Republican causes, and the newsroom. It was the reported blurring of that boundary that so incensed media pundits against Sinclair. But why did Dan Rather’s anti-Bush broadcast of unsubstantiated charges, based on phony documents, not make CBS a liberal news agency? Rather himself raised money for a branch of the Texas Democratic Party.
A more balanced approach came from Gail Pennington, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch television critic, who cited a complaint from AIM editor Cliff Kincaid. He noted that he’d heard no objections when the Sundance Channel, a corporate sibling of CBS, aired five hours of the anti-Bush “Vote for Change” rock concert and other anti-Bush programs. He wrote, “The lesson: It’s perfectly acceptable to broadcast an anti-Bush concert, but it’s illegitimate to air a documentary showing how Vietnam veterans and former POWs are disgusted by John Kerry branding them as war criminals.”
Newsweek’s Evan Thomas captured the truth, admitting that most reporters “absolutely” wanted Kerry to win, and that the bias might be worth 5-15 percentage points on Election Day (5-20 million votes.) His comments were made on October 17 on CNN’s Reliable Sources. Ironically, they paled in significance next to the furor over Sinclair’s “attempt to influence the election.”
If Thomas is right, it’s arguable that the Democrats have already vicariously used the media to influence the election, and their fight against Sinclair was not based on ethics or fairness, but determination to prevent Republicans in the media from trying the same thing.
The fight against Sinclair took a new turn when powerhouse attorney William S. Lerach sent a letter of demand to Sinclair alleging insider trading, calling for an investigation and threatening a shareholder lawsuit. AP was there at the press conference. Reporter Alex Dominguez wrote that “a lawyer” said “he planned to sue on behalf of shareholders alleging insider trading by top executives as well as damage from the decision to air the film.”
Just a “lawyer?” Dominguez failed to adequately identify Lerach, a figure well-known even among liberals. He was named in the left-wing Mother Jones magazine’s 1996 MoJo Top 400 as the nation’s number 2 political contributor to Democratic causes.
Mother Jones reporter W. John Moore noted that four days after President Clinton and Lerach schmoozed at a private White House dinner on Dec. 15, 1996, the president vetoed the Securities Litigation Reform Act. The bill was designed to make it more difficult for shareholders to sue their own companies for securities fraud. The bill enjoyed wide bipartisan support, Moore noted, but Clinton startled his party with a last-minute veto. (In late December of that year, Congress overrode the veto.)
Lerach is one of “the most loathed men in Silicon Valley,” Moore wrote, “where vacillating stock prices open the door for shareholders to sue companies if executives make incorrect predictions of corporate success…”
Lerach didn’t just send a demand letter to Sinclair, though, and media failed to ask the question: If his concern was really just about the shareholders, why did he call a press conference to cause even more controversy for the company? How would this help the shareholders who were supposedly already being hurt? Newsweek finally conceded that the whole series of events was an orchestrated Democratic move, something Stolen Honor spokesman Charlie Gerow had said all along.
As to the insider-trading accusations, little information was available, and a lawsuit on such a matter requires very few people or shareholders claiming wrongdoing.
Another player, Deborah Rappaport, held a press conference to offer Sinclair over a million dollars to air Going Upriver, a positive portrayal of Kerry. But when AP reporter Alex Dominguez filed his report, he only referred to Rappaport as a “philanthropist.”
Rappaport and husband Andrew were introduced as contributors to “progressive” causes when in fact they were major contributors to the Democratic Party, having given over $5 million. They also recently landed on the list of major contributors to Democratic 527 organizations.
The descriptions of the major players as just “a lawyer” or “a philanthropist,” and so on, gave the impression of a popular revolt against Sinclair. But that was a false impression. It was a carefully orchestrated campaign to suppress damaging news about Kerry.
George Butler, director of the film Rappaport was pushing as “critically acclaimed,” and supposedly a world away from Stolen Honor’s slanted partisan propaganda, boasts of a 40-year friendship with John Kerry. Butler also worked on Kerry’s first campaign, and because of a staff shortage also became the photographer for the campaign.
Pro-Kerry Film Is “News”
The irony of high-profile Democrats demanding the opportunity to spend over $1 million to purchase air time for a film that was described as a partisan campaign ad for Kerry, days before the election?all in the name of indignation over Sinclair allegedly doing the same?seemed lost on mainstream media.
When asked whether purchasing the broadcast time would be considered illegal or an “in-kind” contribution to the Kerry campaign, Rappaport said no. Such a charge had been made against Sinclair. Indeed, 17 Democratic U.S. Senators had written to the Federal Election Commission, urging an investigation of Sinclair.
While Stolen Honor was deemed not newsworthy by the major media, Butler’s film was being sold as “newsworthy” because of its alleged “unique presentation of never-before-seen photographs and footage of Kerry.” Publishers Weekly claimed that Butler’s collection reveals “a side of Kerry that is rarely seen in the news: his private demeanor.” This is a liberal pro-Kerry definition of “news.”
In the end, however, Sinclair’s October 22 program did include about four minutes of Going Upriver. The show also featured Kerry supporters, including Vietnam veteran Robert Muller.
Bombast From Brock
Still another player, a group calling itself Media Matters, underwrote another shareholder complaint against Sinclair. Calling it a “media advocacy group,” the Associated Press also failed to relay the group’s liberal leanings and curious background of its founder. The group, whose full name is Media Matters for America (MMFA), is headed by David Brock, a former conservative whose dramatic turnabout included his confessing to having lied in his work as a conservative writer.
Brock, who had a relationship with Neal Lattimore, Hillary Clinton’s openly homosexual press secretary, subsequently announced that he was a homosexual.
MMFA research director Katie Barge worked in the research department of Senator John Edwards’ presidential campaign. MMFA senior advisor Jamison Foser has extensive experience in “progressive” research, communications, and strategy, having worked for nearly a decade in national politics. Most recently he served as Research Director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Those liberal affiliations do not render MMFA completely unnewsworthy, but reporters should as a matter of course clearly identify the leanings of subjects of their stories, especially when they are part of such a highly charged political controversy in a heated presidential election cycle.
Had there been a gaggle of Republican donors and activist groups lodging public and legal complaints against a media outlet, you can bet their affiliations would have been meticulously dissected in the press.
Fenton Communications handled both the Lerach and the Rappaport press conferences, which ran back-to-back. Trevor Fitzgibbon, director of media relations for Fenton, serves as Fenton’s primary liaison among clients, including musicians and celebrities, and handles press for MoveOn.org, the George Soros-funded group. His biography states that he regularly places guests on shows such as NBC’s “Meet the Press” and ABC’s “This Week.”
Despite this, the AP apparently saw no political connection to the moves against Sinclair. Other news organizations were more honest about the political motives, but they showed no concern about how supporters of Kerry were waging a determined legal, political and media campaign to keep the damaging and possibly fatal charges against Kerry off the air.
In another development, something called the “Veterans Institute for Security and Democracy” held a news conference at the National Press Club, announcing its intention to sue Sinclair if the company did not respond favorably to the group’s demands, including offering the pro-Kerry film Going Upriver to Sinclair affiliates.
Former Vietnam POW Pete Peterson, advertised as the leading participant in the news conference, didn’t show. A long-time Democrat, he was appointed by President Clinton as the first U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam. He formed a company to do business with Vietnam and other Asian countries and married a Vietnamese woman who conducts business with the communists. Given a platform by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, Peterson insisted that Kerry’s testimony had no negative impact on the POWs.
The news conference received virtually no press coverage, possibly because Sinclair had just announced that it was definitely not going to air the entire Stolen Honor film. This move was reported by the press as Sinclair capitulating to the pressure campaign waged against it.
Perhaps Sinclair got the message when Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton warned the company, “They better hope we don’t win.” This blatant threat against a free press was not greeted with indignation from the media that wanted Sinclair censored.
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