When a Media Company Runs Amok

It’s time for our first annual Ben Bagdikian Media Monopoly Award. Who or what has done the most to curb the dangerously rising power of media companies in America?

Is it Michael Copps, the rebel FCC commissioner who over the past couple of years helped build a broad left/right coalition against the growing concentration in media ownership?

Is it the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which slowed the tide of media deregulation when it told the FCC it could deregulate no further, and sent the commission back to the drawing board?

Worthy competitors, but they’re just runners-up. Our winner is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which this week is unwittingly providing perhaps the clearest example yet of what can happen when a single company controls too many media outlets.

As the world is learning this week, Sinclair owns or operates 62 television stations that collectively reach 24 percent of the American market. Some of those stations are in swing states in the razor-thin presidential race. The company, not normally known for journalistic enterprise, decided that it would be a good idea in the few remaining days before November 2 to air large chunks of “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” a highly partisan (and disputed) documentary attacking John Kerry’s antiwar activities after he got back from Vietnam. Sinclair is packaging “Stolen Honor” as news and directing 40 of its stations to run a program about it, uninterrupted, in prime time Friday night. In a last-minute maneuver, the company announced today that the repackaged program would bear the title “A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media.”

What’s wrong with all this? It’s hard to know where to begin, but we can start with the words of the company’s ex-Washington bureau chief, Jon Leiberman. “It’s biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway the election,” Leiberman told the Baltimore Sun Monday. “For me, it’s not about right or left — it’s about what’s right or wrong in news coverage this close to an election.” For these words Lieberman was summarily fired. He gets our first annual Katharine Graham Ethics in Journalism award. (After his dismissal, Leiberman explained to CNN’s Paula Zahn how unlikely it is for Sinclair to devote an hour to any serious topic. “We haven’t done an hour-long special on anything else, not the war in Iraq, not the war in Afghanistan, not the election, not the debates.”)

Vietnam divided us in 1971 and it divides us still. What John Kerry did or didn’t do, there and back home, in the 1970s is clearly a valid subject for a real documentary. To be intellectually honest, such a documentary would provide context and history. It would point out that the country was deeply divided over the war and that morale in the armed services by the 1970s was at a rock-bottom low. It would further point out that one reason for that low morale was that we were fighting in a situation in which it was not easy to tell soldier from civilian. And that atrocities occurred.

Kerry, in Detroit in 1971, heard a series of emotional confessions about atrocities from a contingent of Vietnam veterans who had turned against the war. Some of their testimony was likely exaggerated. Kerry subsequently testified before Congress about the war, including a recounting of what he had heard in Detroit. To some Americans, then and now, his words undermined the fighting men still in Vietnam and gave fodder to enemy propagandists. To others, then and now, he exhibited the courage to stand up for U.S. soldiers who were still in Vietnam dying in an unjustified and futile war.

No such balance is even faked in “Stolen Honor.” Its logic is simple — by protesting the Vietnam War Kerry (and other antiwar protestors) undermined American resolve and thus lengthened the imprisonment and deepened the torture of American POWs. Several former POWs in “Stolen Honor” describe their torture; in fact, some torture is reenacted, accompanied by eerie piano music. The documentary has no curiosity about any other interpretation of these events — or any possible honorable interpretation of Kerry’s actions. Kerry is a traitor; end of story.

As Jonathan Leiberman says, that’s not news; it’s propaganda, which no amount of re-packaging will effectively hide.

Sinclair is an ideological company — the evidence is all over the place — and it has a right to be. We certainly don’t support any of the legal efforts under discussion to block airtime for “Stolen Honor,” nor do we think any government entity should ever define what is or is not news. But by packaging “Stolen Honor” as honest news and injecting it into so many American living rooms days before a close election, the company is abusing its media power. It has discredited its own journalists and angered some of its own advertisers and investors (“I don’t want my media companies that cover the news to be making news,” Barry Lucas of Gabelli &Co., which owns about four percent of Sinclair, told USA Today). Its stock is tanking. Some of its shareholders are threatening to sue.

Like most media companies, Sinclair would like the freedom to buy more stations in more markets and reach more and more Americans. A Bush administration would help that cause; Kerry would not, and thus Sinclair would like to help Bush. By doing so in this manner, however, the company has become a poster child for the citizen groups who would like to limit such raw media power.

Therefore, one last thought — we would like to award Sinclair the Colonel Klink Marksmanship Award as well, for managing to shoot itself in both feet.

Michael Hoyt

Michael Hoyt is the executive editor of Columbia Journalism Review, Campaign Desk’s parent.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.