Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is ordering its 62 stations to air an anti-John Kerry documentary next week, is so conservative that it makes Fox News look, well, fair and balanced.
So far this year, Sinclair executives have given nearly 98 percent of their political contributions to Republican candidates. Sinclair newscasts, including those on WICS-TV in Springfield, are punctuated by almost daily commentaries attacking the Democratic nominee. Its cheerleading for the Bush administration's war in Iraq is so pronounced that it recently made its ABC affiliates pre-empt a program honoring fallen U.S. soldiers.
But the Maryland company's latest move -- telling its stations to carry a 90-minute-long program that critics say is little more than a free attack ad designed to influence the outcome of the Nov. 2 national election -- is its most controversial yet.
Democrats reacted angrily, filing a complaint Monday with the Federal Election Commission that accuses Sinclair of making an illegal contribution to the Bush campaign. Sixteen members of the U.S. Senate, including Illinois' Dick Durbin, also urged the Federal Communications Commission to take action against Sinclair.
The documentary, titled Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, includes interviews of former POWs who claim that Kerry's 1971 testimony to Congress was used by their captors to undermine morale. Producer Carlton Sherwood links Kerry's testimony to the torture of U.S. prisoners of war by North Vietnamese captors.
Sherwood is an investigative reporter who has received some of journalism's biggest honors, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Peabody Award. However, his career took a detour 20 years ago, when he reported allegations that backers of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had misused funds. A government audit failed to show any wrongdoing, and the Washington, D.C. television station where Sherwood was employed retracted the story and contributed $50,000 to the memorial's fund. Sherwood quit his job and joined the staff of the Washington Times, a daily newspaper controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. While there, Sherwood authored a book defending Moon against critics.
By the 1990s, Sherwood left journalism and became a security consultant, but Kerry's run for the presidency enticed the former journalist to produce the documentary.
A "poll" on the documentary's Web site leaves no doubt about its viewpoint: "What should John Kerry do to make amends for having slandered the honor, decency and courage of military veterans of Vietnam and other wars?" It is not altogether clear whether Sherwood thinks U.S. soldiers committed no atrocities in Vietnam or whether it is merely treasonous to mention the fact that atrocities did occur.
Sherwood's documentary has not reclaimed his journalistic reputation. When Sherwood screened his film at a Washington press conference last month, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole was scheduled to appear but canceled when he learned of the content of the movie. The Reserve Officers Association, which rented the space to Sherwood, put up signs distancing its group from his movie.
The documentary's audience most likely would have been limited to folks who foam at the mouth when they hear the words "Massachusetts liberal," but Sinclair's decision means it could be seen by 24 percent of the country.
Mark Hyman, Sinclair vice president for corporate relations, argues the company is offering an alternative point of view that the mainstream media, including the networks, are suppressing.
"The networks are acting like Holocaust deniers," Hyman told a reporter for Sinclair's NewsCentral operation, because they won't promote the story of the POWs.
Sinclair is a company accustomed to cozy relationships with Republican politicians. In 2000, Sinclair gave Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. free use of the corporate helicopter (which Ehrlich failed to report as a contribution) in his successful run for governor of Maryland; in 2001, Ehrlich wrote to the FCC urging them to help Sinclair.
This isn't the first effort by Sinclair to impose its conservative ideology on stations. In 2001, Sinclair stations were told to declare on the air that the management "stands behind the president and our nation's leaders in the vow that terrorism must be stopped."
In 2003, Sinclair prohibited its Madison affiliate from running a Democratic National Committee ad criticizing George W. Bush for making false claims about Saddam Hussein's procurement of nuclear material from Niger.
And in April, Sinclair barred its seven ABC affiliates from airing an episode of Nightline in which Ted Koppel read the names and showed pictures of the U.S. soldiers killed in the war on Iraq.
Hyman claimed that the show was "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq." U.S. Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, denounced the decision as "a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic." (Hyman's response to McCain: "To be perfectly honest, it's been 25 years since he's worn a military uniform.")
Hyman claimed that journalistic standards of objectivity demanded that the Nightline program be kept off the air: "Political statements should not be disguised as news content," Hyman told the Washington Times.
However, "news" content is exactly what Hyman claims the anti-Kerry documentary will provide. Hyman told the New York Times that the movie was newsworthy because it "hasn't been out in the marketplace, and the news marketplace."
By this reasoning, the more extreme and implausible an argument is, the more likely it is that Sinclair will try to present it as news.
In addition to WICS, Sinclair owns these stations in the region: WICD-TV (Channel 15) in Champaign, WYZZ-TV (Channel 43) in Peoria/Bloomington, and KDNL-TV (Channel 30) in St. Louis.