Fairness loses in 2004

October 17, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON -- A question for supporters of George W. Bush.

Have you heard that CBS is planning to air Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 this week? And that, in order to get around equal time guidelines, they're going to classify it as news programming?

Does that hack you off? Good. Hold that thought.

The fact is, you haven't heard that news because it's not happening. But something similar is. It involves the Sinclair Broadcasting Group.

That Maryland-based company, a major donor to the Republican Party, owns, programs or operates 62 television stations in 39 U.S. markets.

It's ordered those stations to air a film this week that's reported to be harshly critical of John Kerry's activities as an anti-war protester in the early 1970s. Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal is said to portray Mr. Kerry as, in essence, a traitor. Filmmaker Carlton Sherwood gives voice to former prisoners of war who claim Mr. Kerry's protests gave aid and comfort to their Vietnamese captors.

Mr. Sherwood offered Mr. Kerry no chance to rebut the charges because "he's had 33 years of all the press coverage he's wanted."

Which is about as journalistically irresponsible as it gets.

Yet Sinclair is calling the movie a news program in order to skirt an Federal Communications Commission rule requiring television stations to provide equal time to candidates for federal office. Frankly, it's unclear whether the film would have violated at least the letter of that regulation. After all, Stolen Honor provides plenty of time to Mr. Kerry; it's just that it's all negative.

But since news broadcasts are exempt, Sinclair has chosen to take no chances and has slapped that label on.

Never mind that, by giving Mr. Kerry no voice, Stolen Honor fails the basic smell test of news: fairness and balance. Sinclair has attempted to cover its backside by inviting the senator to participate in a videotaped discussion of the film, which is not unlike inviting him to be the turkey at Thanksgiving.

My argument here is not -- I repeat, not -- about the content of the movie. Sell it on DVD or show it in theaters and maybe we'd have the luxury of that debate.

But by running an attack ad on public airwaves and masking it as news, Sinclair forces a different discussion, one about the depths to which partisans on both sides will go to influence an election.

A responsible broadcaster does not use the public airwaves for propaganda, particularly just days before an election. And make no mistake, that's what this is. Not "bias" with its suggestions of subtlety and subjectivity, but "propaganda," a tawdry attempt to swing an election.

The point would be precisely the same if the film offered one-sided praise of Mr. Kerry or condemnation of Mr. Bush. Or if CBS did decide to air Fahrenheit. That would be what this is. Flat-out wrong. Or, as the commissioner of the FCC has called it: an abuse of the public trust.

Thing is, people are so desperate to see Mr. Bush rejected or re-elected that they think the rules don't matter. They blow through them like a stop sign in the middle of nowhere.

That's the attitude that gave us the disastrous CBS News report about Mr. Bush and the Texas Air National Guard. How many violations of journalistic ethics do you suppose the network committed in its zeal to produce a story embarrassing to the president? Fair-minded people of whatever political affiliation should have been chagrined to learn the documents upon which the report was based were forgeries. But I remember an e-mail an anti-Bush zealot sent around in the wake of that debacle.

"Who cares," it asked, if the documents were fake.

That seems the prevailing attitude of an especially acrimonious political season. Who cares if rules are broken, who cares if ethics are bent, who cares if lies are told, so long as it helps my guy. Truth is, we should all care.

And we should all be appalled at the malleable morality and situational principles of those who do not.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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