Using FREE Airwaves for Dirty Tricks.
By: Steven Levy
Y OU MIGHT THINK IT UNLIKELY THAT A PROGRAMMING CHANGE from the relatively obscure Sinclair Broadcast Group would become a headline in its own right. But this was no ordinary announce-ment. Sinclair, which controls 62 TV stations in markets covering one fourth of the country, announced that it would pre-empt time this week October 25th, 2004, from the various networks it carries in favor of “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” a film about antiwar activities by Sen. John Kerry. As the title implies, the program is anything but an unbiased portrait of the man whom viewers will consider at ballot boxes only days after the screening. In fact, the film’s Web site boasts a “merger” between its sources and those who maligned Kerry in the widely discredited Swift Boat attacks.
Democrats are livid, and not just because they might miss “Desperate Housewives? Twenty senators have protested, and the DNC is suing under election laws. But the spokes-person for Sinclair’s controlling stockholders—CEO David Smith and three of his brothers—contends the company is simply presenting news.
Oh, really? Sinclair’s executives, heavy contributors to the Republican Party, are ordering its stations to pre-empt sitcoms, dramas and reality shows for a broadside attack on a candidate they oppose. They’ve offered to let Kerry respond, but not to give Kerry’s’s supporters an equal amount of time to present their own programming. Obviously, Sinclair’s bosses want to use its properties to affect the election.
You might ask, why shouldn’t they? What right does the government or any-body else have to meddle with what broadcasters put on the air? If you disagree with the Smiths’ program choices, you can simply change channels or, as some are talking about, boycott their advertisers. Anyway, with so many news sources in print, on cable television and on the Internet, aren’t equal-time provisions outdated?
Good points, but in this case irrelevant ones. As a broadcaster, Sinclair is the bene-ficiary of a government gift: the use of the public airwaves. If these rights were auctioned, they would be worth billions. But Sinclair and other broadcasters get those rights free, with the provision that they operate in the public interest. That means following a set of standards that include avoiding indecency and not running unpaid campaign advertisements for the guy the CEO wants you to vote for— without giving the other guy some time of his own.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps (a Democrat) has called Sinclair’s decision “an abuse of the public trust.” But FCC Chairman Michael Powell (who just happens to be the son of the secretary of State) has been more circumspect, noting (correctly) that it’s not the FCC’s job to engage in prior restraint, and not indicating what he’d do if Kerry’s supporters complained after the broadcast. Powell has been tough in using public-interest provisions to rebuke violations of indecency. That’s why CBS got whacked for the Super Bowl half-time “wardrobe malfunction,” and why, last week, Fox got nailed for showing a strip party in “Married by America?’ Powell has also been a champion of relaxing regulations that limit ownership of media outlets . As media power becomes consolidated, the potential for abuse becomes more serious . Sinclair is reportedly lobbying to be allowed to control more stations. (Attempts to reach Sinclair were unsuccessful.)
On some distant day, all of us may get our television from the Net. But as of now, wealthy corporations are continuing to benefit from a precious resource, given to them at no cost and held onto with dear life. If Janet Jackson’s anatomy draws a half-million-dollar fine the people who run Sinclair shouldn’t be allowed to perpetrate an equal-time malfunction with impunity.
October 25, 2004. (Pg. 22)
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