Sinclair fallout could linger

Experts say flap over film may spur new regulations on ownership of stations

Firm could see `turbulence'

Broadcast licenses safe

new ones likely to come under added scrutiny

October 24, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Its controversial program about political documentaries is behind it, but the political ramifications for Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. likely aren't over.

Sinclair, one of the largest independent owners of television stations, found itself the latest media company in controversy's glare when its plans to air an anti-John Kerry documentary drew fierce opposition from Democrats in Washington, advertisers and, in turn, shareholders.

Shares of the Hunt Valley company fell nearly 17 percent, then mostly recovered after it announced it would not air all of the documentary critical of Kerry's actions some 30 years ago after he returned from combat in Vietnam.

Historically, the Federal Communications Commission has revoked or denied renewal of broadcast licenses for negligence, but not for arguments over political speech that are protected by the First Amendment -- making it unlikely Sinclair would lose any of its licenses. But Sinclair could be affected in other ways. Media analysts said the flap could lead regulators to re-examine rules that govern how many stations a company can own in one market and that deal with the political content of newscasts.

And depending on the outcome of next week's election, and its effect on the control of the FCC, which regulates the public airwaves, Sinclair might not get the rubber stamp that television outlets routinely receive when renewing broadcast licenses.

"I wouldn't bet on anybody losing their license unless the FCC receives a sudden spine transplant, but Sinclair could unquestionably see some turbulence," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and chief executive officer of the Media Access Project, a public interest group.

The issue flared Oct. 9 after the Los Angeles Times reported that Sinclair instructed its stations to pre-empt regular programming to air a news program based on Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal. The documentary included allegations from former prisoners of war that Kerry's anti-war testimony before Congress in 1971 caused further torture to soldiers held captive in Vietnam.

A plummeting stock, threats of lawsuits by shareholders and a backlash from its advertisers prompted Sinclair to switch gears and air a show Friday on political documentaries in general. Sinclair also shrunk the number of stations to air the show to 40 from 60. The company's stock closed up 4 cents to $7.17 on Friday.

Although the company declined to comment last week, it released a statement Friday evening that it was "gratified" by an opinion piece in The New York Times and a Wall Street Journal editorial in support of airing the documentary.

Reed Hundt, who led the FCC from 1993 to 1997 under President Bill Clinton, said that Sinclair has jeopardized a longstanding relationship the federal government had with broadcasters that they would gain free access to the public airwaves -- worth billions of dollars if sold -- in exchange for fair and responsible coverage.

"Since it's one universal medium, they've been given very special privileges to sustain that universality," Hundt said. "If broadcasters start to behave to the degree the way Sinclair is uniquely behaving, the whole industry will find that they'll be on the short end of the political stick."

Political targets

Media companies have been political targets before. President Richard M. Nixon pursued the licenses of television stations that he perceived as foes, including those owned by the Washington Post Co. In 1973, Republicans challenged the licenses of two Florida stations owned by the company. But the Republican chairman of the FCC at the time, Dean Burch, did not keep the stations from getting their licenses renewed.

"Nixon would obsessively monitor media coverage of his administration," said Philip Napoli, an associate professor at Fordham University in New York and director of the Donald McGannon Communications Research Center. "If he didn't like the way they were covering them, he directed the FCC to put a lot of pressure on them."

Last year, Cumulus Media Inc. drew criticism for ordering its radio stations not to play songs by the Dixie Chicks after the lead singer of the popular country music group said during a concert in London that she was ashamed that President Bush was from her home state of Texas.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in a Senate hearing that Cumulus was threatening to erode the First Amendment by censoring political views the company didn't agree with and said it exemplified the problem of media power consolidated in a few hands.

Until 1987, broadcasters were regulated by a "fairness doctrine." It required television stations to make the best attempt to include contrasting views on issues of public importance. But the FCC and courts repealed the doctrine, arguing that it interfered with free speech rights. Some journalists also argued the stricture was a burden and discouraged them from covering controversial issues.

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