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Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005 07:19 am

Taking aim

A coalition of influential left-wing political organizations has initiated a campaign to hit Sinclair Broadcast Group where it hurts -- in the pocketbook.

The group, led by Media Matters for America, has launched a national letter-writing campaign to Sinclair's advertisers that charges the company with misusing the public airwaves.

"[Sinclair is] unfairly using its assets as a broadcaster to promote a political agenda in its news programming, placing partisan interest ahead of the public interest," the group wrote in a letter dated Dec. 13 to Sinclair president David Smith.

Smith also gets a lashing in the current (Jan. 10) issue of Business Week, in which he is named to a list of the worst corporate managers for 2004.

Owner of 62 television stations nationwide, including WICS-TV (Channel 20) in Springfield, Sinclair incited much controversy during the past election year.

The first dust-up came last spring, when Sinclair barred its ABC affiliates from airing an episode of Nightline in which news anchor Ted Koppel read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

Then, in October, liberals called for an advertising boycott against Sinclair for planning to broadcast an anti-John Kerry documentary days before the presidential election.

Now under fire is Sinclair's right-wing commentary segment The Point, which is recorded in the company's Maryland-based headquarters and broadcast on about 40 of its stations, including affiliates in Springfield, Champaign, and Peoria/Bloomington.

Mark Hyman -- who provides commentary for "The Point" and serves as Sinclair's vice president and spokesman -- dismisses his opponents as "fringe groups and obscure individuals." Hyman maintains that protests about his segment have only increased ratings.

Already more than 36,000 letters and e-mails voicing complaint have been sent to Sinclair's several dozen advertisers, which include Best Buy, Kraft, McDonald's, Sprint, Target, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart. Staples, the office-supply chain, announced this week that it will stop running ads on Sinclair stations.

Sinclair was similarly squeezed over its plans to air Stolen Honor, a documentary that was sharply critical of Kerry's Vietnam War service and his anti-war activity [John K. Wilson, "Broadcast Ooze," Oct. 14].

As a result, 150,000 phone calls were made to Sinclair sponsors, calling for them to pull their ads. When Democrats on Capitol Hill criticized the company, its stock fell by 17 percent to a three-year low. After the company announced it would run only excerpts of Stolen Honor as part of a more balanced report, the stock rebounded.

Liberals are now calling for Sinclair to offer commentaries that provide opposing viewpoints to those made by Hyman, a staunch Bush supporter who often refers to Democrats as "the angry left."

"As stewards of public airwaves, Sinclair has a responsibility to share both sides of every issue -- something it has not done," says Sally Aman, spokeswoman for Media Matters.

Tough luck, says Hyman. "The left has had a near monopoly on news broadcasting for decades," he says. "I am the opposing point of view. I am the counter-point."

Other organizations and individuals involved in the anti-Sinclair effort include AlterNet, MoveOn, MediaChannel, the Campaign for America's Future, Working Assets, and documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald. For more information, go to sinclairaction.com.

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