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Sinclair's Shame

Angry citizens are hitting the right-wing broadcasting company where it hurts – in the wallet.
 
 
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In the world of right-wing corporate media, Sinclair Broadcasting has long been overshadowed by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and its cable mouthpiece Fox News.

But not any more.

Sinclair Broadcasting Group (SBGI) created an uproar last week when it announced its plans to force its affiliate stations to preempt regularly scheduled programming and air an anti-Kerry documentary, titled "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," just days before the election. It was a blatantly partisan move on the part of a company that owns 62 stations, many of which are in the critical swing states of Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin. For example, in the highly contested state of Ohio, there are Sinclair stations in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus.

Sinclair became an instant cause celebre, as diverse groups, individuals and activists instantly banded together to protest its decision. Within days, a vital and energetic grassroots movement was born.

A number of fast-acting blogs and web sites, including Daily Kos and Democratic Underground, quickly compiled lists of contact information to allow outraged citizens to take action. Others immediately constructed a web site, Boycottsbg.com, with a database of Sinclair advertisers so individuals could contact these companies and directly threaten to boycott their businesses if they did not pull their ads from Sinclair.

According to the media advocacy group Media Matters, an estimated 100,000 calls have been made to advertisers. And it's already taking effect – companies are pulling their ads in various parts of the country, including Maine and Wisconsin. According to the Portland Press Herald in Maine, Sinclair television station WGME's plan to air the anti-Kerry documentary prompted three Maine companies – Hannaford supermarkets, the Lee Auto Malls, and the law offices of Joe Bornstein – to pull their advertising from the Portland TV station.

Hitting Sinclair Where It Hurts

The rapidly growing, aggressive advertising boycott effort has already had a measurable financial impact on Sinclair, whose stock dropped 10 percent over the past week, closing on Friday at an all-time low of $7.04 – a $60 million loss in value.

The boycott is just one among Sinclair's increasing list of woes. A financial analyst from Lehman Brothers has warned that showing the film is "potentially damaging, both financially and politically." William M. Meyers wrote in his analysis for the company: "In a best case scenario, we believe that this decision could result in lost ad revenues. In a worst case scenario ... the decision may lead to higher political risk. As management has increased the company's political risk, we are reducing our 12-month price target to $9 (from $10)."

Meanwhile legal experts such as Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig predict that Sinclair shareholders will surely file lawsuits against the company's management. According to David S. Bennahum, Senior Fellow at Media Matters:

[A]s a publically traded company, Sinclair Broadcasting Group directors have a responsibility to ensure that Sinclair takes actions consistent with enhancing shareholder value. Sinclair's decision to air "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal" places partisan political interests ahead of shareholder value by jeopardizing the renewal of FCC licenses, stimulating grassroots advertiser boycotts and triggering potential investigations into the company's misuse of its licenses to use the public airwaves.

Media Matters is urging anyone who may be a shareholder in one of 20 mutual funds and six pension funds that invest in the company to request that their fund manager immediately divest their funds from Sinclair.

What Liberal Media?

The reason for the widespread anger is summed up by the blogger at Grass Roots Nation:

While Sinclair is hiding behind labels, claiming that this film and its subsequent programming is considered news, everybody – both conservative and progressive – can see what it really is: an in-kind donation to the Bush/Cheney campaign in the final stretch of the election cycle. This is the same company that refused to broadcast the Nightline episode of some months ago where Ted Koppel read the names of the soldiers killed in Iraq. At the time, they claimed it was too politically motivated. I guess they've come around, conveniently in time for the general election and conveniently in support of Bush/Cheney who happen to be their biggest hope for further media deregulation.

Sinclair is already a formidable force in the broadcasting industry. Its presence in 39 markets accounts for 24 percent of the national TV audience. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Sinclair owns or operates two stations, called "duopolies," in more markets (20) than any other media company in the country. The company, which reported 2003 revenues of $738 million, also owns or operates more television stations (62) than any media company.

The company is using its unmatched power to air a rabidly anti-Kerry documentary that slams the senator for his anti-war testimony in front of Congress in 1971, where he testified that U.S. forces routinely committed atrocities in Vietnam. The movie directly links – without offering any concrete evidence – his testimony to the suffering of American POWs who were being held in Vietnam at the time.

The documentary is more evidence of a carefully coordinated strategy between a variety of right-wing groups. The movie itself was produced independently by Carlton Sherwood, a former reporter for the Rev. Moon-owned Washington Times who has worked for his friend, Tom Ridge, at the Department of Homeland Security. While Sherwood has refused to name his financiers – he claims that the film was funded by "individuals and entities nationwide" – the anti-Kerry group, Swift Vets and POWs for Truth (formerly Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) is cross-promoting the film as part of its $1.4 million advertising campaign. And, of course, there's Sinclair, a company that gave 97 percent of its campaign contributions to the GOP, which plans to air the documentary as "news."

Sinclair's behavior challenges the absurd but persistent notion that the media in America is liberal. Imagine the uproar if ABC told its affiliate stations to pre-empt its primetime programming for a special showing of "Fahrenheit 9/11" or perhaps more appropriately "Going Upriver," the powerfully positive biography of John Kerry that focuses on the same time period as "Stolen Honor."

Of course it would never happen. And Lawrence Lessig explains why:

The Sinclair case demonstrates the contrast between the aggressive political stance of the ideologically conservative media corporations like Fox and Sinclair. In a world where "mainstream" broadcasters such as CBS are too timid to broadcast a plainly relevant story about war "too close" to an election, or where NBC refuses to license clips from "Meet the Press" because it wants to stay "neutral" in a political debate, the action by a concentrated, powerful, right-wing network to use its power to direct the election is bad. If we could break up the government supported monopolies of broadcasters, and change the culture among broadcasters generally, I'd have no problem with it. But now, in this culture, in an election this close, the decision stinks.

Now that Sinclair's right-wing bias has been outed to some extent, it is easier for the public to understand how unfair the corporate media system is to Democratic candidates like John Kerry and John Edwards. The Fox News Channel is essentially a 24/7 infomercial for the Republicans and the Bush campaign. Robert Greenwald's film "Outfoxed" documents in hilarious and stunning detail how language and frames coming out of the White House are repeated verbatim every hour of every day by Fox newscasters and commentators. For example, Sean Hannity says after every one of his shows, "Only [blank] days until George Bush is elected President." Can you imagine Larry King, Chris Matthews or Tim Russert saying anything similar?

Sinclair's Right-wing Record

But this current imbroglio is hardly the first time that Sinclair has made its conservative bias blatantly clear. For example, Sinclair's Fox affiliate in Madison, Wisc. – Fox 47 – was the only one among four local stations to refuse to air ads produced by the Democratic National Committee during the summer.

According to the Baltimore Sun, Sinclair also recently directed its stations to broadcast spots "declaring support for efforts of President Bush and other government leaders." Local anchors were drafted to tape the messages, "stirring internal fears that they were compromising their professional objectivity."

The company's best known for a program called "The Point," extreme right-wing commentary produced at its corporate headquarters in Maryland that its affiliates must air as part of their local evening news. It's delivered by Sinclair vice president of corporate relations Mark Hyman, who has claimed, among other things, that Sen. Kerry supported Communists, falsified military records and dodged the Army draft by enlisting in the Navy. Hyman routinely denounces leftist agendas and calls animal rights advocates "whackos."

Worse, viewers are tricked into thinking that Hyman's commentary is part of local news coverage, when in fact like much of the local coverage on Sinclair affiliates, it's produced at the corporate headquarters.

"Sinclair has turned localism on its head," Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, told the Chicago Tribune. "Instead of using its right to pre-empt national programming to preserve a local voice, it wants to impose its political will on 62 local stations."

"Their whole business model is about cutting operating costs," Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, said in the same article. "They fake the localism by presenting the hometown station feel but without any of the presence and journalism that local communities deserve."

Fighting Back

As the controversy has heated up, Sinclair has become more vague about its plans to air "Stolen Honor." A telephone recording at the company's headquarters claims, "The program has not been videotaped and the exact format of this unscripted event has not been finalized. Characterizations regarding the content are premature and are being promoted by groups pushing a political agenda." Nevertheless, Hyman says that criticisms about the documentary "are absurd." He told the AP: "Would they suggest a car bomb in Iraq is an in kind contribution to the Kerry campaign? Would they say that job losses is an in-kind contribution to the Kerry campaign? It is the news."

It may be that Sinclair underestimated the outrage that their decision would provoke and they are looking for a way out of the mess. Or maybe they are figuring the attention will help them, as it has Fox News. The station keeps on insisting that they have invited John Kerry on the air to respond to the allegations contained in the documentary. But Kerry campaign representatives, wary of being set up by the film, are demanding equal time for a program whose content will be determined by them. Stay tuned – literally – and we'll see how this latest skirmish in the media wars turns out.

Don Hazen is the Executive Editor of AlterNet.