What if someone threw a controversy and nobody came?
After two weeks of furious media buildup and complaints from activists and legislators, Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. Friday aired its special news show about an anti-John Kerry documentary Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal. The show passed the smell test for activist critics, who claimed its balanced approach was the result of all the outside pressure.
Sinclair’s program, titled A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media, featured clips of the documentary and interviews of Vietnam vets and others who gave their views on John Kerry’s anti-Vietnam War protests in the early 1970s.Critics and supporters of Kerry’s activities both were featured.
George Butler, producer of Going Up River, a favorable documentary on Kerry’s Vietnam service was also interviewed. The program, hosted by Sinclair News Central anchor Jeff Barnd, also examined the controversy surrounding the Baltimore-based company's plans to air the program.
In the last two weeks Sinclair has faced threats of legal action by the Democratic National Committee and Sinclair shareholders, as well as letters from legislators and complaints to the FCC.
Media activists who rang alarm bells about Sinclair’s plans in the past two weeks declared victory, claiming they had forced Sinclair to air a balanced program rather than simply airing Stolen Honor in its entirety.
For its part, Sinclair continued to insist that it never intended to air Stolen Honor straight through.
“Tonight we heard a broadcast company do what the American people expect broadcasters to do,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior director for policy at Consumers Union. “We feel like what was presented tonight was far different from what was originally intended. In general, it appears that Sinclair listened to the American people.”
Kimmelman made his comments during a teleconference hosted by media activists shortly after Sinclair’s program aired. The activists said it would be up to the Democratic Party and Kerry campaign officials to scrutinize the program for specific misstatements and request equal time for a response.
Even though the program passed muster with the activists, they predicted momentum would keep building for a revival of extinct FCC rules that once required broadcasters to make airtime available to people who have been attacked by stations and to require broadcasters to air both sides of controversial issues.
The debate of the past two weeks “gives us more fuel to reinvigorate and revive the Fairness Doctrine and personal attack rules,” said Gloria Tristani, head of media policy advocacy for the United Church of Christ. “We wouldn’t have had to monitor this so strongly if those rules had been in place.”