FCC won't halt film on Kerry

Chairman rejects calls by Democrats to block Sinclair's broadcast plans

October 15, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has rejected calls by congressional Democrats that he investigate Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group's plans to air a program blaming Sen. John Kerry's anti-war activism three decades ago for prolonging the torture of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam.

At least 20 senators and 85 representatives - all Democrats - asked the FCC to investigate whether plans to run a program on all 62 Sinclair stations based on the anti-Kerry documentary, Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal, amounted to an abuse of the public airwaves. The Democratic lawmakers charge the show could break guidelines calling for broadcast channels to grant equal time to competing candidates.

Yesterday, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell dismissed the idea of any such move before the show appears. "There is no rule that I'm aware of that would allow the commission - nor would it be prudent - to prevent the airing of a program," said Powell, a Republican, according to the Associated Press. "I think that would be an absolute disservice to the First Amendment, and I think it would be unconstitutional." The FCC typically waits until programs have been broadcast to investigate their content.

Mark Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate relations, hailed Powell's statement. "We applaud the FCC chairman for his defense of the First Amendment in the face of intense political pressure," said Hyman, who contributes daily conservative commentaries to more than 40 Sinclair stations.

But Reed Hundt, a Democrat who was FCC chairman during the Clinton administration, said Powell was merely providing cover for a political ally. "This is part of the Republican slime machine," Hundt said yesterday. "Everybody knows exactly what is happening here."

Powell, a Clinton appointee to the FCC, was designated chairman in January 2001 by President Bush, who faces Kerry in next month's general election. Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, also has close ties to the Bush White House.

Stolen Honor was produced by Carlton Sherwood, a Vietnam War veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who was subsequently forced out of a television job after an investigative report on the group behind the Vietnam War Memorial came under sharp attack.

In 1971, Kerry returned from Vietnam and described atrocities committed by some U.S. troops as he questioned the basis of the war in televised hearings. Among many veterans, it stirred long-lasting resentment. In the documentary, former prisoners say North Vietnamese captors used Kerry's statements as part of their torture.

Groups have sprung up to protest Sinclair's decision, and they appear to have influenced some advertisers' plans. Clive Cashman, a spokesman for furniture maker IKEA, issued this statement: "We have instructed our national advertising agency to contact Sinclair Broadcasting Group to ensure that our ads do not run during any show that has political bias."

Protests or not, Hyman said his company is resolute about running the program. He no longer is sure whether the show will carry a commentary label.

"We believe the specific allegations made by these POW's are credible," he said. Sinclair hopes to use the explosive claims in Sherwood's documentary to coax the Massachusetts Democrat into its studios for an interview, in part to provoke interest in News Central, the nightly newscasts produced at corporate headquarters in Baltimore County. "We're using all the resources at our disposal to compete with bigger, more established networks," he said.

In recent days, Hyman has been denounced by prominent Jewish groups for comparing news networks that have not covered Sherwood's allegations to people who denied the Holocaust occurred. But he stood by the analogy yesterday. "The 13 men in those videos collectively suffered almost 84 years of torture," Hyman said.

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