Sinclair's sin

October 22, 2004|By Christopher Hanson

SINCLAIR BROADCAST Group's attempt to force an anti-John Kerry propaganda film onto prime time was the latest example of a disturbing trend: ideological programming that blurs the old distinction between news and opinion.

Conservative Fox News Network's "Fair and Balanced" slogan, for instance, belies a news operation that many see as anything but. While Bill O'Reilly's show boasts that it is a "no spin zone," it is well within the GOP's comfort zone most of the time.

For its part, Sinclair has required its 62 TV stations to run pro-Bush commentary provided by company headquarters. Reporters who have left the network complain that news stories were edited to reinforce themes of the commentary - for instance, the dubious claim that we are making significant progress in democratizing Iraq.

Most blatant was Sinclair's directive - later modified because of howls of protest - to its stations to run a program based on the anti-Kerry documentary Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal, 11 days before the election (the program airs tonight in prime time, but on fewer stations). Produced by Kerry opponent Carlton Sherwood, the film casts the Democratic presidential nominee as a treasonous liar whose anti-war testimony in Congress in 1971 prolonged the torture of American POWs in North Vietnam.

That charge is preposterous on its face, yet Sinclair proposed airing it as a "news" segment.

One of the central responsibilities of journalism is to separate fact from opinion in order to inoculate the voter against misleading propaganda, as press critic Walter Lippmann pointed out in the 1920s.

But the trend toward ideological journalism does exactly the opposite, making it easier for falsehood to masquerade as fact and for voters to cast ballots based on false assumptions. Some conservatives dismiss complaints about Sinclair as the hypocritical whining of liberals who refuse to admit that other broadcast TV networks have a pro-Kerry agenda.

"It's hardly an abuse of public trust ... for Sinclair to present an alternative view of Mr. Kerry's much-ballyhooed days as an anti-war protester," the conservative Boston Herald declared in an Oct. 15 editorial. "The other side of the story has been told ad nauseam ... What half-tuned-in voter can't picture young Lt. Kerry ... talking about the `last man' dying for a mistake."

Nonsense. There is a huge difference between presenting multiple sides of a news story and purveying the absurd allegation that young anti-war activist Kerry single-handedly prolonged the Vietnam War and thus the torture of American POWs.

Not to mention that the three major networks' record this year is hardly pro-Kerry. NBC, CBS and ABC reported heavily on claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that Mr. Kerry did not deserve some of his medals and had been sent stateside because of an unintentionally self-inflicted wound. Only after the damage was done did the mainstream press follow up to report that these charges were groundless.

Every reporter has biases and makes mistakes. But that is a far cry from Sinclair's unbridled electioneering.

Consider Dan Rather, the conservatives' No. 1 whipping boy. He might well have displayed bias, recklessness and incompetence when he relied on forged documents in a recent report on Mr. Bush's Air National Guard absenteeism.

But Mr. Rather apologized when he realized he had been duped. He is at heart a reporter who wants to get the facts right, not a propagandist.

Sinclair, by contrast, only climbed down when the Stolen Honor flap began to hurt the network financially. Its stock was falling in value, shareholders were on the warpath, and Wall Street analysts were predicting the company had undermined its hopes of buying even more stations.

Partisan, ideological media have fared well in niche markets such as talk radio and cable TV, where the audience is small and self-selected.

But Sinclair is a broadcast network. Its audience is large, geographically and demographically, and many viewers reacted with disgust to the planned documentary, spooking sponsors. Among those pulling ads was Burger King, which evidently did not want Democrats or independents to think it was selling Bush Burgers.

Critics correctly blame sensationalism and other news media ills on commercial pressure. But here was a case in which market forces had a healthier impact.

Let's just hope the folks who favor broadcast deregulation think long and hard before allowing Sinclair to buy more stations. Sixty-two propaganda mills is a more-than-adequate monument to this media company's lust for influence.

Christopher Hanson teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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