13 October 2004
The Sinclair flap
The documentary film Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal has been picked up by the 62-station Sinclair Broadcast Group for broadcast in late October, a fact which has drawn fire from Big Media even though Sinclair is pretty Big Media itself and has brought threats of retaliation from supporters of John Kerry, who is, shall we say, unflatteringly portrayed in the film.
As tempests go, this one won't fill a teapot; perhaps a thimble is more appropriate. Much has been made of the fact that Sinclair stations operate in areas containing 24 percent of the viewing audience, which is true. On the other hand, around 90 percent of said audience has access to, say, CBS television, which has had no apparent qualms about acting on behalf of the Kerry campaign.
And yes, Sinclair has stations in swing states. They also have stations in California, New York and Massachusetts, states which are almost certainly going to cast their electoral votes for Kerry, and stations in Texas, Oklahoma and the Carolinas, states which are a virtual lock for Bush. In none of those states will the broadcast of Stolen Honor have any substantial effect on the election.
What's more, in none of the markets in which Sinclair operates does it command a majority of the audience. In Oklahoma City, KOKH-TV, a Fox affiliate, does well, and KOCB-TV is claimed to be the highest-rated affiliate of The WB, but the combination of the two doesn't draw anywhere near 50 percent of the local TV audience. Nor does Sinclair operate in any markets where they have two of the Big Four network affiliates: this is forbidden by FCC rules.
This isn't the first time that Sinclair drew political heat. Back on 30 April, Sinclair's ABC affiliates did not carry ABC's Nightline program, which was given over to a reading of the names of servicemen killed in the war in Iraq; Sinclair claimed the broadcast "appear[ed] to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq." [Complete text reproduced here.] There was the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth. Still, only seven stations were affected, and ABC's ubiquitous radio network carried excerpts from the program; it strikes me as unlikely that a large number of people counted themselves as deprived as a result of Sinclair's actions.
I do quarrel with Sinclair's apparent belief that following a 45-minute film with a 15-minute panel discussion qualifies it as a "news event," exempt from FCC regulations or from McCain-Feingold. The Democratic National Committee has already said that it plans to file a complaint, claiming the broadcast is the equivalent of a contribution to Bush/Cheney. Still, how likely is it that the Democratic National Committee would object to, say, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 being broadcast before the election? "It depends on the, um, you know, on the circumstances," said DNC counsel Joe Sandler, who quickly pointed out that Moore is an "established, legitimate, documentary filmmaker," dismissing Stolen Honor producer Carlton Sherwood as a "disgraced former reporter." Sherwood, incidentally, won a Peabody Award and was a member of a Gannett team that won a Pulitzer. I should be so disgraced.
Sinclair is taking comments on the matter.
Prognosis: The day before the election, this whole thing will have been forgotten. I can hardly wait.