Raising the stakes for Sinclair Broadcast Group, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s campaign late last week formally requested equal time to respond to Sinclair’s planned broadcasts of “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” a documentary critical of Sen. Kerry’s Vietnam-era antiwar activities.
Industry sources say Sinclair has directed all of its 62 TV stations in 39 markets to pre-empt regular programming to air the documentary over several days beginning later this week, sparking a firestorm of protest from Democrats who allege that the broadcaster is using its clout to try to influence the outcome of the Nov. 2 election.
Despite pleas by Democrats for intervention, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell told reporters earlier last week that the agency does not have the authority to block the broadcasts.
In an Oct. 15 letter to David Smith, Sinclair president and CEO, Sen. Kerry’s campaign charged that the FCC’s equal-time obligations require Sinclair to give Kerry campaign supporters air time to respond to the documentary.
“Please consider this a request that each Sinclair station that airs the documentary provide supporters of the Kerry-Edwards campaign with a similar amount of time on that station before the election at a time where an audience of similar size can be expected to be viewing the station,” Marc Elias, general counsel for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, said in the letter.
Industry lawyers said bona fide news shows are generally exempt from FCC equal time obligations. In a statement on the company’s Web site, Sinclair characterized its planned presentation as a “special news event” and said Sen. Kerry has been invited to “participate.”
In its letter to Sinclair, the Kerry campaign argued that the documentary does not meet the requirements for an exemption. “The content of the program will not be controlled by Sinclair or an independent journalistic organization,” the campaign said. “The program instead is intended to be an attack on Senator Kerry and thus is not the result of decisions made on the basis of newsworthiness.”
Mark Hyman, vice president of corporate relations for Sinclair Broadcasting, could not be reached for comment by press time. But sources said he is personally involved in a re-edit of the documentary, which was produced by former journalist Carlton Sherwood through his Red, White & Blue Productions.
It was unclear late last week what kinds of edits are being made or whether any attempt is being made by the Sinclair news department to independently confirm any of the content. A number of the claims made in the documentary have been refuted in recent weeks by other sources.
Sinclair, according to sources, is not paying any license fee for use of the documentary. A Web site for the producer said initial funding came from a group of Pennsylvania Vietnam War veterans, and since then from others who have contributed or paid to watch the documentary on pay-per-view over the Internet.
“The program has not been videotaped and the exact format of this unscripted event has not been finalized,” Sinclair said on its Web site. “Characterizations regarding the content are premature and are based on ill-informed sources.”
On a related front, Equity Broadcasting last week announced that it will carry the ABC-TV network programming Sinclair pre-empts for the documentary in St. Louis. Equity owns independent WPXS-TV in St. Louis, where Sinclair owns ABC affiliate KDNL-TV.