Committed to the First Amendment
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/2/2004 8:00:00 PM
With calculated and gross audacity, Sinclair Broadcasting last Friday was planning to deny millions of viewers the opportunity to see Nightline. Why? Because Ted Koppel planned to read the names of all the U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq while their pictures scrolled on the screen.
On one level, Sinclair, owner of eight ABC affiliates and, with 62 outlets, owner of the most stations in the country, simply exercised its prerogative to preempt the network. That is the right of responsible broadcasters, and it is much in the news these days (see page 54). So is the abuse of that right, which is what we have here.
"Mr. Koppel and Nightline are hiding behind this so-called tribute in an effort to highlight only one aspect of the war effort and, in doing so, to influence public opinion against the military action in Iraq," said Sinclair of its decision. "Based on published reports, we are aware of the spouse of one soldier who died in Iraq who opposes the reading of her husband's name to oppose our military action. We suspect she is not alone in this viewpoint. As a result, we have decided to preempt the broadcast of Nightline this Friday on each of our stations which air ABC programming."
So it was politics? ABC denied that. It said the special was meant to "honor those who have laid down their lives for this country."
But it was politics. It turns out David Smith's Sinclair Broadcasting Group has contributed $65,434 to political campaigns—98% of that to Republican candidates. That is a political statement that's made at the bank.
While Sinclair was hypocritically draping itself in the flag last week, senator, soldier, patriot, war hero—and Republican—John McCain was reading Sinclair President Smith the riot act: "War is an awful but sometimes necessary business. Your decision to deny your viewers an opportunity to be reminded of war's terrible costs, in all their heartbreaking detail, is a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves."
Frankly, we see sacrifice, not subterfuge, in the moving images Nightline planned. The Washington Post ran a three-page spread on April's war dead last week, and ABC points out that it aired a similar roll call of names after 9/11. The so-called liberal media gets slammed for not paying enough attention to the sacrifice of the troops, then for paying too much attention to it.
Sinclair has simply replaced Nightline's worthy tribute with its own political agenda. The broadcaster certainly has the freedom to program to its local communities but, by yanking the show, serves its own wrong-headed interests—not the public's.
Coincidentally, legislators—Democrats and Republicans—right now are fighting to strengthen the ability of station owners to preempt network programming. It's a worthy goal. But this is a horrendous example.
We hope, by the time you read this, Sinclair has been shamed into reversing its decision. It would be good for its viewers and good for broadcasters. Not to mention, patriotic.
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