Sinclair's Right To Be Far Right
Committed to the First Amendment
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/17/2004 8:00:00 PM
Sinclair waved a big red flag in front of Democratic legislators last week, announcing that it would preempt programming on its 62 stations to air all or some of a documentary focusing on harsh criticisms of John Kerry's anti-war activities. Within three weeks of the election, that unusual move was guaranteed to draw fire from the Hill.
Now, to go along with the Republicans who screamed for Dan Rather's head after the National Guard story fell apart, here come Democrats gunning for Sinclair's decision to air a Kerry rant because it wasn't, well, fair and balanced.
Fortunately, journalists don't have to meet some government idea of balance, though clearly there are those who would like to change that. Sinclair is not CBS News, but the news decision-making of both have prompted calls for FCC and congressional probes. CBS's 60 Minutes Memogate pivoted on questionable judgment and some basic journalistic screw-ups. Sinclair's journalistic sin is wearing its conservatism like a badge of honor and opening itself up for attack when it preempts programming on all its stations for what is perceived as a partisan Kerry attack.
Ironically, Congress has been pushing the FCC to give greater freedom to stations to preempt for programming they feel is more relevant to their communities or to avoid network shows they believe are inappropriate. Sinclair goes its own way. It chooses to air frequent conservative commentaries by Mark Hyman, who is also Sinclair's vice president of corporate relations (see Q&A, page 16). It exhibited its independence from network hegemony with its preemption of Nightlinethe evening that Ted Koppel devoted it to a roll call of the U.S. war dead in Iraq. And it is doing it again by slating Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal. Powerful legislators—and a lot of other people—didn't like those calls.
The scent of prior restraint was all over a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell from two powerful Democratic congressmen who want the commission to investigate a show that hasn't even aired yet. Fortunately, Powell still has enough spine to recognize suppression of free speech when he sees it, and came out strongly last week against suggestions the FCC censor Sinclair. (See Two Cents, right)
But Sinclair's move also emboldened activist groups, with the blessing of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, to seek a reinstatement of the personal-attack rules, and the return of the fairness doctrine that broadcast journalists fought for three decades to escape.
"Fairness" sounds so unassailable. Who can be against a policy billed as fair and balanced? Well, for one, the kind of people who believe that the government should not be making editorial decisions, even if the content is biased and politically motivated.
Obviously, Congress is feeling emboldened after getting the FCC to crack down on indecent content. But when it calls on the FCC to investigate "a program that is no more than a one-sided propaganda piece," it is clear that content regulation has become the preferred currency in Washington. We're not buying it. Yes, the director of Stolen Honor has, to say the least, a questionable journalistic record. But attempting to stifle Sinclair is no solution. Letting viewers make up their own minds, about the documentary and then about Sinclair for showing it, is the way to go.
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