Democratic Party leaders are expected to file a Federal Election Commission complaint against Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. Tuesday.
They charged that an anti-Kerry documentary the Baltimore-based station group plans to air would amount to an illegal contribution to the Bush campaign.
Sinclair -- which owns 62 TV stations and is the country’s largest station group in terms of number of stations -- plans to pre-empt regular programming during the week of Oct. 20 for a piece accusing John Kerry of demoralizing American prisoners of war held in Vietnam when he testified against the war in 1971.
Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe argued that the documentary does not qualify for a news exemption because the filmmaker has close ties to the Bush campaign and to “extreme” right-wing activists, such as former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and the pro-Republican nonprofit Club for Growth.
Sinclair officials refused to comment on the pending complaint Monday.
This isn’t the first time the company’s critics have accused it of playing politics with its newscasts. In April, the company ordered its seven ABC stations not to air a Nightline episode featuring a reading of the names of U.S. military killed in Iraq.
Sinclair chairman David Smith and other members of his family are contributors to Bush’s campaign. “Sinclair’s owners aren’t interested in news,” McAuliffe said.
The film, Stolen Honor, highlights Kerry’s antiwar testimony to Congress. The documentary includes interviews with former POWs, who said Kerry’s accusations of atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam were used by captors to damage prisoner morale.
The film is produced by Carlton Sherwood, whom McAuliffe describes as a disgraced former TV reporter who was forced to resign for falsely attacking a veterans’ group. McAuliffe added that it is “no surprise” that Sherwood also worked as a reporter for conservative newspaper The Washington Times.
Sherwood was co-winner of a Pulitzer Prize for a 1980 Gannett News Service series investigating a Catholic Church fund-raising scandal.
DNC legal counsel Joe Sandler said the documentary doesn’t qualify for the news exemption and must be disclosed as a paid campaign infomercial due to Sherwood’s ties to the Bush administration -- he once worked for Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge when Ridge was governor of Pennsylvania -- and because Sherwood isn’t a known filmmaker.
Sandler also characterized the documentary as a campaign attack ad akin to those funded by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. He suggested that Sinclair may have received payment from an outside source to air the documentary.
“It’s not clear who’s paying whom to air this film,” Sandler said. “In this circumstance, Sinclair is not acting as a press entity, but it is really using corporate resources simply as a donation to the Bush/Cheney campaign. For that reason, we believe the FEC should investigate this unlawful conduct.”
Sandler doubted that the FEC will act before the documentary airs, but the DNC filed the complaint anyway so Sinclair “would be held accountable.”
The party is considering filing other complaints at the Federal Communications Commission as well, he said, adding: “We are investigating other violations of the law by Sinclair, such as violations of the public-interest standard, but we haven’t made that determination yet. Nothing is off the table.”