Not all in media have been missing in action

October 24, 2004|By Paul Moore

In a time when the lines between partisan politics and the media are often blurred, nothing has been more provocative than Sinclair Broadcasting Group's decision to air a program featuring allegations that Sen. John Kerry's anti-war activism contributed to the torture of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam.

Sinclair was forced to alter its controversial plan last week after intense pressure from advertisers and investors, who appeared to understand the importance of separating news from advocacy better than the company's executives.

The decision by the 62-station Baltimore-based TV network to show a polemic film produced by Carlton Sherwood, a journalist with close ties to Bush administration, was first revealed more than two weeks ago by the Los Angeles Times.

On Monday, The Sun's David Folkenflik broke the news that Sinclair's Washington bureau chief and top political reporter, Jon Leiberman, had become disenchanted with the company's intention to label its program "news," and not "commentary." Leiberman denounced Sinclair's effort as "biased political propaganda with clear intentions to sway the election."

Folkenflik and others reported Tuesday that Sinclair had fired Leiberman. "I just think it's a shame that a journalist should be fired for telling the truth," the reporter responded.

Folkenflik's stories sparked a national furor and by Wednesday The Sun reported that the Sinclair would show only excerpts of the film. In a statement announcing the change in plans, Sinclair executives complained about outrageous personal attacks.

Most readers of The Sun saw it differently.

"It is commendable that The Sun is giving this story the coverage it deserves," said reader Adam Fine. "However, your article failed to mention something important. Namely that thousands of citizens (other than investors) are upset with Sinclair. ... They are boycotting all Sinclair stations and advertisers."

In some ways, citizens have been displaying more spine than much of the media when it comes to defending the principle of journalistic independence in this bitterly fought campaign season.

The media's reaction to 60 Minutes' discredited broadcast about George W. Bush's Air National Guard service, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's allegations about Kerry's war service and the Sinclair story has mostly been supine. Two exceptions are ABC's Nightline and Folkenflik.

It was Sinclair's decision to present the documentary as "news" - which allowed it to avoid federal mandates for equal-time provisions - that turned this controversy into a firestorm. It would be like a network using Michael Moore's blatantly partisan Fahrenheit 9/11 as the basis for a program and calling it news.

"Jon Leiberman is acting in the finest traditions of the media," said Robert E. Reynolds, one of dozens of Sun readers who voiced opinions about the articles. "It's rare these days to see a reporter or editor willing to risk his job as a matter of principle."

Sheila LePage thanked The Sun for good reporting on "the bravery of this young man." But Julian Schreibman said, "It is not amazing that The Sun, whose reporting often is strongly tinged with editorial comment, would react in this way. Why isn't it news to report on what seems to be almost traitorous behavior of some veterans?"

Like the Leiberman story, Nightline's Oct. 14 broadcast used fresh reporting to bring a new perspective to a continuing story. John O'Neill, a leader of the Swift boat veterans group and the officer who followed Kerry as the commander of a Swift boat, has raised specific questions about the incident for which the future senator won the Silver Star.

The issue is whether Kerry engaged a numerically superior force in combat or, as O'Neill has charged, confronted a single soldier. A Nightline team traveled to the remote village where the incident occurred and found eyewitnesses who had not been interviewed before. (Only one had ever heard of Kerry.) In the end, Nightline's reporting confirmed the essence of Kerry's version of events.

O'Neill was given time by Nightline to offer his opinion. He disputed many of the findings, noting that the witnesses' statements were suspect because "they live in a closed society." But the key point is that the issue was revisited and presented in context of new reporting.

Why is this Nightline report about events more 30 years ago important? It's because questions have been raised about Kerry's character and honesty. The Nightline report offered the chance to set part of the record straight.

This is the same opportunity afforded Sinclair's program, A POW Story: Power, Politics and Media, which aired Friday night. The show sometimes lacked focus but presented a more varied report than expected. It offered two views of Kerry's military service and anti-war activities, President Bush's Air National Guard service and the media's role in the controversy. In the end, Sinclair's program turned out to be journalism rather than the propaganda that was feared.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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