Drama Over a Documentary
Sinclair exec defends planned airing of anti-Kerry film
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/17/2004 8:00:00 PM
Sinclair Broadcasting found itself in the middle of controversy again last week after theLos Angeles Times revealed the company's plans to air all or part of a documentary attacking presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry. The film, Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, charges that Kerry's protests against the Vietnam War in the 1970s were used by the North Vietnamese to demoralize U.S. POWs. Amid the uproar, Democratic lawmakers called for an investigation by the Federal Election Commission and demanded that the FCC investigate whether Sinclair, the largest station group in the country with 62 outlets, is meeting its public interest obligations. Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and others called on the FCC to revive rules that once let individuals respond to broadcast personal attacks. And media activists threaten to challenge Sinclair TV licenses. But controversy is nothing new for Sinclair. The group was accused of pro-Bush bias in April, when its ABC affiliates dropped the edition of Nightline with Ted Koppel's reading of the names of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.B&C's Bill McConnell talked with Mark Hyman, Sinclair on-air editorialist and VP of corporate relations, about the latest dust-up.
You had to have known there would be complaints that you're unfairly attacking Kerry.
Frankly, I'm a little disappointed that so many people assume the program would be entirely negative toward John Kerry. If he came on our program, he would have an opportunity to make a statement that could be very statesmanlike and sway a lot of undecided people.
You can't blame people for perceiving political bias. Editorials you deliver on The Pointare pro-Bush and support the war and are circulated to all Sinclair stations. Plus, Sinclair previously ordered its ABC affiliates not to carry a Nightlineepisode that could have made President Bush look bad.
I haven't hidden that I'm conservative in my political beliefs. But nobody here had anything to do with this documentary. When it was offered to us we spent 21/2 weeks vetting the people who made allegations. We didn't forge any documents or hire fake actors.
Our motivation? It looked like a news exclusive, especially if John Kerry sat down with us. If John Kerry comes in, it would be a huge get for us. He hasn't done a sit-down interview with a real news organization—with anybody besides Dr. Phil, Regis and Kelly, and Jon Stewart—since the Democratic Convention.
Are you motivated by corporate interests? Kerry says he'd like to roll back media consolidation. You're the biggest station group in terms of stations. He'd be a threat if he took the White House.
So we would put ourselves in his gunsight? Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton told Fox News, "They'd better hope we don't win."
Initial press reports said you were planning to air the entire documentary and perhaps a panel discussion afterward. When did you decide to do a news program on the film rather than air the whole thing?
That's always been the plan. If we had just wanted to air this by itself, we could have done it without anyone knowing about it until we aired it. We told Kerry before we produced anything that we wanted his participation, and we sent him a copy of the documentary. We were quietly waiting for his campaign to get back to us and tell us what he wanted to do when the L.A. Timesstory appeared [about Sinclair's plans to air the documentary].
Your critics say Kerry would give the documentary credibility if he showed up to discuss it, so he won't accept the invitation, and that gives you a free pass to air a hatchet job.
That's absurd. One candidate would have veto authority over the news by refusing to participate in a program. If it's news, it's news.
Isn't this a de facto attack ad against Kerry? The Democratic Party says this should really be treated as an illegal campaign contribution to President Bush.
Under that standard, every single news report of bombings in Iraq or the death of a soldier or stories of economic performance that is weaker than expected should be considered an in-kind contribution to John Kerry.
But why go with the documentary so close to the election? It seems a blatant attempt to hurt Kerry.
These men did not tell their story until they came forward in August. We believe these are important and newsworthy allegations. According to the filmmaker [Carlton Sherwood], none of the big broadcast networks wanted to speak with him. That's why he went shopping for other venues. We did our due diligence on his film and saw something to it.
Unlike other documentaries that received widespread media coverage, these allegations have gotten none. Michael Moore got three days on the Todayshow promoting Fahrenheit 9/11.
Moore has his critics, and so does Carlton Sherwood. Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe attacked Sherwood's credibility, noting that he had been fired from a TV reporting job and from the conservative Washington Times. Critics note that he wrote a book lauding the paper's owner, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and that Moon has bought tens of thousands of copies of the book.
If they can't discredit the message then they go after the messenger.
Almost every media outlet refers to him as a former Washington Times reporter. But most of his career was spent with Gannett and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He's won a Pulitzer. He's worked for several stations and won TV news awards. The shortest stop in his career was less than one year at the Washington Times.
Have you ever heard of a TV reporter who was never let go from some station? It's kind of transient industry. We verified where he'd been and what he'd done.
McAuliffe, indirectly, suggested you got paid to air the program, perhaps by a GOP backer.
That's also absurd. To my knowledge, we didn't pay anything for it either.
Do threats of FEC complaints or license renewal problems make you rethink plans to air the show?
I don't know how the FEC would act on something that doesn't exist yet. But we're standing on our principles. We're not letting outside influences dictate media coverage.