As Howard Kurtz reported in the Washington Post on Wednesday, Sinclair Broadcast Group backed away from its plan to carry a film attacking John Kerry's Vietnam War record, saying it would air only portions of the movie in an hour-long 'news special' scheduled for Friday, dubbed A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media. Sinclair executives even went so far as to say that they never intended to show the anti-Kerry documentary, Stolen Honor, in its entirety -- even though Sinclair commentator and vice president Mark Hyman had earlier told the newspaper the movie would air unless the Massachusetts senator agreed to do an interview.
The flap is far from over, though. That Sinclair even considered running the documentary, begs a number of crucial questions about media corporations, the pubic airwaves and politics. That they are still going to air a program that features portions of Stolen Honor is still troubling to progressives, who are urging that citizens continue to make noise about the network, which has become increasingly partisan.
In the mass media's echo chamber, the accepted version of events is that Sinclair bowed to financial pressure; including falling stock prices and the specter of losing skittish advertisers. And AlterNet's Paul Schmelzer contends that this financial pressure is a direct result of grassroots organizing,. But New York University Professor Jay Rosen doesn't think it's that simple. In his blog Pressthink, Rosen argues that something more sinister has been guiding the company's decisions in the past several weeks, including its shrewd, last-minute decision to switch their strategy -- namely, the desire to become a legitimate, FOX-like media empire.
What's more, according to Rosen and the journalists at Free Press, that such a media company has such aspirations could only have happened in this era of deregulation. For the most part, this deregulation has happened behind the scenes, through legal channels not worthy of major media headlines. Sinclair, for example, has a habit of swallowing up local news stations -- often purchasing two competing stations in the same city -- and replacing local news staff with programming from corporate headquarters, according to the producers of Sinclair and the Public Airwaves: A History of Abuse, a special report written for Sinclairwatch.org. As a result, an executive can preempt regular news programs to air a partisan documentary with no commercial breaks, all the while claiming it is not partisan at all. As Jon Leiberman, Sinclair's Washington Bureau Chief, who was fired for speaking out about his company's behavior in the Baltimore Sun, said Monday on CNN: 'We haven't done an hour-long special on anything else . . . and all of a sudden, two weeks before the election, we're doing an hour-long special based on this anti-Kerry documentary.'
It's a good guess that in the coming weeks, Leiberman's words, and his firing, will be forgotten. Especially now that Sinclair has chosen to run an hour long news show in place of Stolen Honor -- seemingly a concession. This is unfortunate, since there's no doubt Sinclair's show will be bias and its programming before and after will continue to reflect its ownership's political biases.
According to Media Matters for America, an organization that is threatening Sinclair with a shareholder lawsuit, an existing FCC rule has a provision for offering 'equal time' to candidates. Perhaps this clause was behind Sinclair's invitation to Kerry to respond to the documentary, an invitation Rosen thinks Kerry should have accepted. (Others have argued that if Kerry were to go on air to respond to the documentary, his presence would have served only to legitimize the documentary as a credible, alternate version of events.)
Whatever the case, the strongest legal arguments against Sinclair's overall behavior are being put forth by the Free Press, Media Matters for America, and others -- that Sinclair receives a license from the government to use public airwaves in the public interest, rather than in the interest of executives and shareholders. This is the thrust of the Citizen Complaint to the FCC written by the National Organization for Women, the Citizens for Media Literacy of North Carolina, Common Cause's letter writing campaign, and Concerts for Change's online petition.
The Free Press has compiled the most comprehensive index of information and action-based resources surrounding Sinclair. On the site you can find vital information: whether you live in a state where a Sinclair license is up for renewal, affiliate stations in your area, and access to all petitions. Media Matters offers a list of mutual and pension funds that invest in Sinclair. Meanwhile, the Daily Kos has created a Sinclair Resource Center, offering an encyclopedic volume of information on the Sinclair group and Disinfopedia has an entry on Carleton Sherwood, the producer of the documentary.
Make your voice heard now; even if the documentary doesn't air, corporate consolidation of media, the real ailment behind the symptom, continues.
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