Sherwood no stranger to conflict

Filmmaker has critics as well as defenders

October 20, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - It's a sign of how controversial Carlton Sherwood is right now that when asked where he would be last night, the man who inspired Sinclair Broadcast Group's upcoming anti-Kerry program said: quite possibly, jail.

The journalist who produced Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, the film that Maryland-based Sinclair will use as part of a show on many of its 62 stations nationwide this week, said he would hand out free copies of his film at a Philadelphia area theater last night. When threatened demonstrations led to the cancellation of the premiere, Sherwood predicted protests, and headed into the fray.

"This has a pretty high potential for trouble," the filmmaker said by cell phone yesterday, sounding not entirely displeased as he prepared to leave the Harrisburg office of his Red, White and Blue Productions for Philadelphia. "I'm going there to try to stop any trouble, but you never know. Blessed be the peacemakers - and throw away the key."

To some, Sherwood is no peacemaker; he is the producer of an incendiary documentary that critics call little more than partisan propaganda. To others, he is a former Marine-turned-journalist whose aggressive reporting reveals a neglected story about Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

It is the latest conflict for Sherwood, 57, who dropped out of high school to join the Marines after John F. Kennedy's assassination, served as a scout sniper in Vietnam - where he lost three-quarters of his battalion - and then returned home to start a career in journalism. He would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize while a reporter at Gannett News Service in 1980 - the only public-service Pulitzer ever awarded to a news service - as well as a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for his work in television.

But his career also has provided fodder for critics trying to discredit his film.

Opponents note that the journalist who says he has no ties to the Republican Party had worked in the mid-1990s for then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. Sherwood said he took the job because of his friendship with Ridge, now secretary of Homeland Security.

Now comes the documentary, which Sherwood released in September to almost no buzz. Notice came only this month, when Sinclair announced plans to draw from the 42-minute film for an anti-Kerry program it would air as news, not commentary. The film features former Vietnam prisoners of war alleging that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, threatened their safety by his anti-war actions after he returned from combat.

"I told my wife, it's unfortunate but in today's world I'll know how successful I am with this by the amount of blood I'll spill by the end of the day - and frankly I didn't even get nicked when this first came out," said Sherwood. "But when the Sinclair release went out saying they were going to air this, that's when I anticipated what would happen really started to happen - that's when everything started to become a flat-out blur, and it hasn't stopped."

Sherwood said the film, which cost about $120,000, was financed entirely with donations from Pennsylvania veterans; he said he never requested an interview with Kerry for the documentary. Sherwood said he sent hundreds of copies of the film to news outlets, but only Sinclair responded; he gave it free of charge.

Independent-minded

Some who disagree with the film's message defend Sherwood as a journalist with a fiercely independent streak who has never fit inside the Beltway establishment.

"I would say the film is no doubt very useful to the Republicans, but Carlton is his own man - and this is something I know and feel very strongly about even if I don't particularly agree with him," said longtime friend James H. Webb Jr., a highly decorated Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary who does not plan to watch the film. "Carlton represents the best of reporting in that he never tried to endear himself to the prevailing powers."

Critics note that at least two of the former prisoners of war listed on the film's Web site have ties to the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth - which recently changed its name to Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth - and several soldiers interviewed in the film have worked on Republican campaigns, even though Sherwood defends them as nonbiased.

On Monday, Vietnam veteran Kenneth Campbell filed a libel lawsuit against Sherwood and his production company alleging he was falsely portrayed in the film as a fraud and a liar. Sherwood has called the suit a "public relations stunt" to silence his documentary.

Sherwood, who says he is a registered independent who has never worked on any campaigns, said he produced the film because he considers Kerry a turncoat.

"I would never trust this man to actually be in control of the military," he said. "That's as far as my politics on this goes; the rest of Kerry's record is not significant. I stop there."

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