Sinclair's Right To Be Far Right - Broadcasting & Cable

Sinclair's Right To Be Far Right

Committed to the First Amendment
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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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