Democrats seeking equal time on Sinclair

Kerry campaign says program is not a journalistic effort

October 16, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry yesterday demanded equal air time for his supporters from the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group in advance of an hourlong program that will claim Kerry's anti-war activism three decades ago inspired the torture of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam.

In a letter to Sinclair, the top lawyer for the campaign of John Kerry and John Edwards invoked a 34-year-old ruling by the Federal Communications Commission requiring that a broadcast station lending its facilities to support one candidate's cause must provide "quasi-equal opportunities" for the backers of the opposing candidate.

"This program constitutes an attack on Senator Kerry by supporters of President Bush," Marc E. Elias, general counsel for the Kerry campaign, wrote to Sinclair CEO David D. Smith. "The documentary is clearly intended to advance the campaign of President Bush by attacking Senator Kerry's record."

Mark Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate communications, who contributes daily conservative commentaries to more than 40 Sinclair stations, is helping to report and shape the disputed program. He said yesterday that he would be willing to consider interviews with Kerry backers only after the Massachusetts senator has given a "last and final response" refusing to be interviewed himself for the show.

"We're sympathetic - if they are to offer someone who had some kind of standing to address these charges," Hyman said.

The Sinclair show is to be based largely on the allegations raised in a documentary called Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal. In that documentary, produced by Vietnam veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Carlton Sherwood, former U.S. prisoners of war held in Vietnam charge that their torture at the hands of North Vietnamese captors was spurred by Kerry's nationally televised testimony in 1971 about atrocities committed there by American troops. Hyman said this week that he found the allegations credible. News Central, the corporately produced news program that is broadcast by most Sinclair stations, covered the charges in a story. But they deserve wider circulation, he said.

Typically, federal laws and regulations requiring fairness of broadcasting stations do not apply to news programs. But Democrats argue that this show - scheduled to be run next week without commercials and instead of scheduled network prime time fare - is not truly a news program. And they say it is unfair for such a pointed show to be shown so close to Election Day in early November.

Sherwood, who was forced from a job as an investigative reporter after a story on the Vietnam War Memorial came under sharp attack, has close ties to prominent Republicans. He worked for Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge when the Bush administration official was governor of Pennsylvania.

A spokesman for Kerry's campaign said the invitation for the candidate to appear on the show was a ruse. "That's not a serious offer - especially from a big media company with such a fierce partisan agenda," said Kerry aide Chad Clanton. "What we're asking for in the letter is legitimate equal time - not under their control."

Sinclair executives have been consistent political donors to conservative causes and candidates, including President Bush. The members of the controlling Smith family have contributed more than $200,000 to Republicans since 1999, but only a small fraction of that figure to Democrats. And the company has taken a strong stance in favor of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. Sinclair refused to broadcast a Nightline program devoted to reading the names of U.S. troops killed in Iraq on seven of its ABC stations, saying the show was intended as an anti-war statement. (ABC News angrily denied that charge.)

The letter from the Kerry campaign is the latest in a series of acts by Democrats to try to blunt the force of Sinclair's hourlong program, scheduled to air on 60 local television stations across the country. Sinclair officials previously said that the program would run on all 62 television stations owned or operated by the Hunt Valley-based company. But that figure wrongly included two stations that only have business arrangements with Sinclair, Hyman said yesterday.

Michael K. Powell, a Republican who is chairman of the FCC, on Thursday rejected calls from congressional Democrats to investigate the program before its broadcast. And the Democratic Party earlier filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission charging that the show was not a journalistic effort but an illegal "in-kind" corporate contribution from Sinclair. So far, the FEC has not taken action.

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