Sinclair softens its tone a notch

Program on Kerry gestures at balance while tilting to right

TV Review

October 23, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The one thing that can be said with certainty about A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media, a special report from the Sinclair Broadcast Group, is that there was nothing in the program as aired last night worth all the pyrotechnics that proceeded it the last two weeks.

This was not a program worth risking stockholder earnings or firing a respected journalist, as Sinclair did this week. The show seemed more an attempt by Sinclair to dig its way out of controversy than an examination of the Vietnam War record and anti-war protests of Democrat John Kerry, as promised.

In an opening statement, anchorman Jeff Barnd tried to cast Sinclair as a victim of those who would deny the broadcast company basic First Amendment rights. "It boils down to a fight over the First Amendment," Barnd said. "Some people are trying to suppress the rights of free speech."

He attempted to create the sense that Democrats in Congress, Kerry's campaign attorneys and others in government were trying to keep Sinclair from airing the show - all part of what Barnd called "spin alley."

In fact, the controversy during the week was about Sinclair's original plan to force its 62 stations in 39 markets to pre-empt regular programming to carry a show inspired by an anti-Kerry documentary, Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, on the eve of the election.

The film by Carlton Sherwood, a journalist with ties to the Bush administration, includes allegations by ex-POWs that Kerry's testimony to Congress in 1971, after returning from Vietnam, caused further torture of soldiers still held captive there. It paints Kerry as a traitor to his comrades.

Critics contended that Sinclair was using the airwaves to push the political beliefs of its executives. The Smith family, which owns controlling interest in the Hunt Valley-based broadcast company, has donated heavily to the Republican Party.

On Monday, Sinclair fired Jon Leiberman, its Washington bureau chief, after he was quoted in The Sun calling the documentary "biased political propaganda with clear intentions to sway this election."

Faced with mounting criticism and the threat of shareholder lawsuits over the price of its stock having dropped 16.5 percent since the controversy started, Sinclair retreated Wednesday, saying it would instead show a broader newscast about the political impact of documentaries on the election - the program viewers saw last night.

Some basic TV production tricks were used. For example, after showing about four minutes of Stolen Honor, including the harshest condemnations of Kerry by former POWs, four veterans were brought on-camera. The two sitting in the studio were anti-Kerry, while the Kerry supporters were in Washington.

"John Kerry is probably the first person in 200 years of American history to make Benedict Arnold look good," said vet Kevin McManus.

Barnd then called to the two "down in Washington" as if they were on another planet. They were visually confined in a box on-screen, their words heavily edited. TV imagery and technology were used to minimize them and their point of view.

The report was edited so that anti-Kerry voices almost always had the last word.

But Sinclair did labor to create the superficial appearance of balance by including Kerry supporters, like George Butler, who produced the pro-Kerry film Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. And while the report appeared to include as much of Going Upriver as Stolen Honor, the images and words were in no way equally as hot and emotionally loaded.

Sinclair shamelessly closed with an appeal to viewers to write to the Federal Communications Commission if they thought Sinclair had the right to air last night's show.

Again, the lie. The controversy wasn't about that right; it was about corporate executives injecting their politics into prime time and packaging propaganda as public affairs.

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