Shortly before the election, mainstream media expressed moral indignation over the Sinclair Broadcasting Company’s plan to air parts of the documentary Stolen Honor. The media said Sinclair’s move was designed to be an “October Surprise.” An October Surprise is an event that has a major impact on an election. It could also be described as a media event that has a major impact on an election.
The film included testimony from POW’s from the Vietnam War. These veterans said they were devastated to hear in prison, and afterwards, about John Kerry’s public testimony characterizing the U.S. as waging a criminal war and describing soldiers fighting in Vietnam as engaging in rape, torture and murder. The accusation echoed the propaganda of the North Vietnamese. It led to their torture.
Sinclair was accused of trying to influence the outcome of the presidential election. It’s taboo in the world of journalism ethics to run accusatory pieces against a candidate in the weeks before an election. But a serious media double standard remains unaddressed. In October 1992, just four days before the election, Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was indicted on Iran-Contra charges. Even though the indictment was later overturned, the publicized charges may have stopped Bush Sr.’s momentum. Clinton won.
In 1994 Republican Michael Huffington was running in the California Senate race against Diane Feinstein when a last minute “illegal-alien nanny” controversy erupted via the press. He was defeated by two percent. In October 2000, a little more than a week before the election, the Detroit Free Press published a litany of complaints addressed against Bush by the sister of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to death by three racists in Texas. In 2000, four days before the election, a Democratic operative in Maine uncovered court records from an earlier George W. Bush DUI stop. Media didn’t bat an eyelash over ethics when they rushed this scoop out. Bush’s five-point lead in Florida dwindled to a mere 537 votes.
In October 2003, California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger got hit by a last-minute L.A. Times article accusing him of sexual harassment. The Times editor defended the timing of the piece, explaining that the reporters got it out as fast as they could. He said the newspaper had collected even more examples but had not printed them because it had not had time to corroborate them. Unbelievably, the editor was using uncorroborated groping as grounds for defending the last-minute reporting. That’s nonsense.
We talked to a journalism ethics “expert” about the difference between the L.A. Times and the Sinclair affair, and we heard more nonsense. Gary Hill, chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists told us the L.A. Times “took a lot of heat” for that last-minute article. But he added that “most journalists” understood that the Times reporters did their best and that was the earliest they could get the story out. By contrast, he called the Sinclair timing suspicious. That’s a double standard. What’s worse, he doesn’t recognize it.