Making the critics' case?

October 13, 2004

MARYLAND'S own Sinclair Broadcast Group has made a name for itself for its unabashed conservative tub-thumping, so it is no wonder that Democrats have reacted with alarm to its decision to order all its affiliates to air a program about John Kerry during the Vietnam War.

They're expecting a smear - though they haven't actually seen the finished program yet - but their desire to prevent its showing is just wrong.

They argue that Sinclair is providing free advertising to President Bush's campaign. But there's a line where advertising ends and commentary begins - and it's hard to see how even the most scurrilous film would fall over that line, and out of the reach of the First Amendment.

No - prior restraint is never a good idea. But - meeting commonly accepted journalistic standards is never a bad idea.

The airwaves are considered public property, and are therefore regulated, though less so than in years past. An abuse of this public trust in order to attack a candidate with whom the licensee disagrees - and whose election may adversely affect its business interests - would surely be an invitation to re-regulation and license renewal challenges. And it might just drive viewers and advertisers away.

Grass-roots groups seeking a return of television's Fairness Doctrine and to discourage the formation of large media conglomerates report that the Sinclair controversy has stirred up enough interest to jam their e-mail and ring phones off the hook.

The furor arose over Sinclair's decision to order the 62 local television stations it owns in markets scattered around the country, including Baltimore, to carry a movie based on a documentary called Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal. The subject matter reportedly deals with Mr. Kerry's anti-war activism during the Vietnam era and its impact on American prisoners of war being held captive at the time.

It could be the basis for an interesting and relevant program. Democrats familiar with the documentary expect something quite different, though. They have charged that the commercial-free program will be little more than a vicious, personal attack on Mr. Kerry that amounts to an illegal campaign gift to President Bush by a sympathetic corporation that would be prohibited from donating to him directly.

The Federal Election Commission will determine whether that charge sticks sometime after the election. It seems unlikely.

But the family-owned corporation could be opening itself up to other accusations - if the film is as unfair as its critics think it will be. Sinclair has amassed the country's largest group of television stations not owned by a broadcast network - and Senator Kerry opposes the concentration of media ownership. Is Sinclair's business interest the real agenda?

The First Amendment protects free expression. Only sound judgment can protect an organization from shooting itself in the foot.

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