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The Eternal Twilight of the Sinclair Mind

Jon Leiberman was fired for challenging Sinclair Broadcasting's cardinal rule: partisanship before principle. But the company's decision to back away from its original plan reveals the high price of playing politics.
 
 
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Golly, gee whiz! That’s what Mark Hyman, VP of Corporate Relations at the Sinclair Broadcast Group, seemed to be saying when asked if his company, the largest owner of local TV stations in the country, is biased against John Kerry: "Why would you say that? … I certainly hope not. There shouldn’t be."

Goodness, how could anyone come to such an outlandish conclusion?

Here’s how: in mid-September, 10 commentaries delivered on-air by Hyman in a 12-day period bashed the Democratic candidate. He accused Kerry of joining "the Navy … to avoid being drafted into the Army" and of "a lifetime of supporting communist forces opposed to the U.S."

Then there’s the fact that nearly 90 percent of the $2.3 million in political contributions made by Sinclair and its executives within the last eight years went to Republicans (including 97 percent of the nearly $68,000 donated this cycle alone).

And, oh yeah, the company first planned to pre-empt regular programming on all 62 of its stations to air an anti-Kerry film days before the presidential election – during primetime, without commercials, and without the opportunity for an equal response by Kerry or his supporters. "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal" brands Kerry as a traitor and a "willing accomplice" of the enemy for his activism against the Vietnam War.

That Sinclair has since backed away from its original plan – announcing Tuesday that it would only air a special one-hour news program, entitled "A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media" – is in itself the sign of the power of grassroots organizing. The company refuses to admit that the protests – which resulted in a $105,000,000 financial loss since Oct. 8 – had any impact on its decision. According to its press release, "Contrary to numerous inaccurate political and press accounts, the Sinclair stations will not be airing the documentary 'Stolen Honor' in its entirety. At no time did Sinclair ever publicly announce that it intended to do so."

Right!

More genuinely shocking than Sinclair's rabidly partisan bias or its disingenuous attempt to hide the same is that someone actually had the courage to burst Hyman’s bubble of feigned innocence. On Monday, one of Sinclair’s own, Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman, told the Baltimore Sun that the company’s planned airing of "Stolen Honor" is "biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election."

By 5 p.m. on the same day, Leiberman had been tagged a "disgruntled employee" who let his "political leanings get in the way." He was escorted from the company headquarters in Maryland, and shut out of the Sinclair e-mail system.

"I got fired because I spoke out," he said in an interview with AlterNet. For months he’d been complaining to his news director, managing editor, and even CEO David Smith about Sinclair’s news slant, which he says tilts 10-to-1 against Democrats. But when his complaints were ignored, he went public.

"Nobody will speak out at Sinclair. It’s a culture of fear. But I know in my heart what they’re doing is wrong. It’s not fair and balanced … It’s pure propaganda, and they’re trying to shoehorn what should be a format for editorials or commentary into news," Leiberman says.

"News" is an iffy term at Sinclair. The anti-Kerry documentary is labeled as newsworthy despite the dubious journalistic background of its creator Carlton Sherwood – a past employee of Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge, a former Washington Times columnist, and fawning biographer of the paper’s owner Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

ABC’s Nightline's reading of the names of 700 military personnel killed in Iraq, however, failed to meet Sinclair's definition of "news." In that now-infamous case, Sinclair refused to air the Nightline program in April 2004 on the grounds that the broadcast was "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq."

Democrats and media reformers allege that it is Sinclair that is undermining the democratic process by refusing to adhere to Federal Election Commission rules; they say the film amounts to an illegal in-kind donation to the Republican Party.

Even the name of their flagship product, NewsCentral, indicates a curious approach to journalism: local news that isn’t. One-size-fits-all news segments are created at the home office in Hunt Valley, Md., and piped to its affiliate stations cross-country. The local station – be it an affiliate of ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, UPN, or the WB – then mixes the segments with live broadcasting to create the illusion of local news. In some cases, personnel at the local station have to coach on-air personalities at Sinclair central casting on tough regional pronunciation of town names.

This top-down model reflects the authoritarian, hierarchical structure at Sinclair described by Leiberman: "Everything is dictated. Ideas are funneled down from the highest levels." He says CEO David Smith would often appear "in the newsroom and toss out ideas that ended up in the evening broadcasts." In fact, several days ago, Leiberman says, a proposed story on a new report critical of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of the Iraq war was quickly spiked.

Leiberman, a registered Democrat who voted for George W. Bush in 2000, insists that right and wrong, not left or right, should govern decisions in the newsroom. It's why the graduate of Northwestern’s Medhill School of Journalism took a textbook approach when he accompanied Hyman to Iraq in February 2004 to, in Hyman’s words, report the "good news" of what was going on there. While Leiberman filed a range of stories from how horseracing affected the local economies to profiles of members of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Hyman "was only over there to pump the positive side."

These cheerleading sessions broadcast from Iraq seem all the more ironic in the light of the Oct. 5 edition of Hyman's regular commentary, "The Point," which criticized CBS’s recent "Memogate" scandal. Hyman accused CBS of pushing "their political views in what was supposed to be an honest newscast" and providing "the latest episode in the trend of major news organizations abandoning their pact with the public of providing truthful, unbiased, and balanced news."

Hyman's statement – in yet another instance of irony – nails the essence of the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, repealed by Reagan's FCC in 1987. The doctrine required broadcast licensees to serve the "public interest" by presenting controversial issues of public importance, and to do so in a balanced, fair manner. Only two aspects of the doctrine remain in effect today: the personal attack rule, which offers a person the opportunity to respond once a character attack has been broadcast; and the political editorial rule, which offers candidates the opportunity to respond to a station's endorsement or criticism. While Sinclair has offered Kerry a chance to appear as part of the "Stolen Honor" programming, it's unlikely that the appearance will be fair or equal in terms of time and political impact.

While most critics cite Sinclair’s conservative bias for their desire to air "Stolen Honor," other experts suggest an alternative explanation. "This initiative is not for political interests but business interests," says Timothy Karr, executive director of Media for Democracy. "They [were] doing this to ensure their survival – and to ensure that the next four years there’s an administration that’s as industry-friendly as the last four years have been."

Recent comments by Sumner Redstone, a longtime liberal Democrat and head of CBS’ and MTV’s parent company, seem to back up Karr's analysis: "I vote for what’s good for Viacom." From a "Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration is a better deal," Redstone said, "because the Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on." (Viacom’s own foray into tricky political speech turf happened early this week when the company announced its refusal to air political advocacy ads on MTV, Comedy Central and VH-1.)

It's true that if Kerry wins the election, Democrats will gain a majority on the five-member Federal Communications Commission, says Jane Kirtley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Silha Center on Media Ethics and Law. The FCC, headed by Bush appointee Michael "Son of Colin" Powell, defied public opinion when it decided to loosen ownership caps in 2003. Some two million comments flooded Congress and the FCC, overwhelmingly opposed to allowing media companies to own more print and broadcast entities in a given market. In the end, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s rule changes, putting such items as the relaxed Duopoly Rule lobbied for by Sinclair (which would’ve allowed the company to own more than one station in certain markets) on the backburner.

The temporary victory aside, the FCC has long lacked the regulatory teeth to crack down on corporate excesses. "With the demise of the Fairness Doctrine and the evisceration of the various rules governing political editorials, the reality is that the FCC really has very limited authority," says Kirtley. Another four years of Bush and a Republican Congress could be fatal for any remaining power held by the FCC – and more importantly for the nascent media reform movement that may yet put some real muscle back in federal oversight.

Given the company’s long-term financial woes, four more years of sympathetic regulators may be just what Sinclair needs – an FCC open to Sinclair's mission to, as CEO Smith once said, get "as many TV stations as we can." The debt-laden corporation posted a modest $24.4 million in net income last year on revenues of $738.7 million – a marked improvement from the previous year when it finished $565 million in the hole. Its stocks are currently down 52.9 percent from this time last year.

But while the "Stolen Honor" controversy may have made a Bush-league broadcaster a household name – and attempted to help the Bush re-election effort – the effect of such partisan pandering may prove to be the company's undoing in the long run.

"If I was a shareholder in Sinclair, I’d be absolutely mortified," says John Dunbar, project manager in media and telecommunications at the Center for Public Integrity. "All it’ll do is create controversy, lose advertisers and create a lot of animosity." According to the New York Times, investment bankers agree. As Blair Levin of Legg Mason and formerly of the FCC put it, "Deregulation usually happens when you do it quietly." A report from his bank delivered its verdict on the controversy: "Is this good for investors in terms of increasing the odds of favorable deregulation? … We think not."

The controversy already fueled a grassroots protest targeting not just Sinclair, but also its advertisers. And Leiberman predicts that the stations will lose viewers "by being skewed to one side." So in the end, the GOP's most ardent supporter may yet pay a heavy price for sacrificing principle to partisanship and profit. So it's no wonder even Bush's die-hard corporate supporter is having second thoughts.

Paul Schmelzer is a writer based in Minneapolis. An editor at Adbusters magazine, he has written for Ode, The Progressive, Raw Vision and Utne.