How To Deal With Sinclair Broadcast Group's Attempt To Play Kingmaker
The next time our GOP friends charge the media with being liberal, remember this story. Sinclair Broadcast Group, a publicly-traded company with direct control over the programming of 62 TV stations around the country, is ordering its TV outlets to run an anti-Kerry piece of propaganda on the public’s television airwaves in the days leading up to the election.
The conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose television outlets reach nearly a quarter of the nation's homes with TV, is ordering its stations to preempt regular programming just days before the Nov. 2 election to air a film that attacks Sen. John F. Kerry's activism against the Vietnam War, network and station executives familiar with the plan said Friday.
Sinclair has told its stations — many of them in political swing states such as Ohio and Florida — to air "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," sources said. The film, funded by Pennsylvania veterans and produced by a veteran and former Washington Times reporter, features former POWs accusing Kerry — a decorated Navy veteran turned war protester — of worsening their ordeal by prolonging the war. Sinclair will preempt regular prime-time programming from the networks to show the film, which may be classified as news programming, according to TV executives familiar with the plan.
Comparisons between this smear and “Fahrenheit 911” are disingenuous at best simply because you could choose to go, pay, and see a movie even if propaganda, whereas this piece of propaganda is being beamed into your home on the public airwaves with the specific intention of swinging the election by using taxpayer-subsidized airwaves.
Second, Sinclair is being as usual grossly hypocritical here. Back in April they ordered their affiliates not to air a Ted Koppel “Nightline” segment in which Koppel was simply reading the names of fallen US service personnel in Iraq because ABC was supposedly "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq," and because supposedly "ABC is disguising political statements as news content." So what exactly is telling your affiliates to preempt regular programming in swing states to run an anti-Kerry piece of propaganda? Is that not a political statement and a political agenda?
Third, what will the networks do if they find out that Sinclair is preempting network programming to carry this piece of propaganda? ABC has already demonstrated the willingness to deal with Sinclair’s political agenda when it went around its own Sinclair affiliates to offer the “Nightline” episode to nonaffiliates in those same Sinclair markets. Will ABC intervene here again with Sinclair, on the premise that such a blatant political agenda by a major affiliate group harms ABC by association as well? And what will ABC do if the Sinclair pre-emptions affect ABC programming? Perhaps letters and emails to each of the network VPs for affiliate relations asking what the network plans to do about this would be warranted.
But what can be done on this in the time between now and the election?
Chris Bowers over at Jerome Armstrong’s MyDD wrote about this on Saturday, and ChicagoProgressive over at Daily Kos is all over it as well, with a thread that shows how quickly the blogosphere can react in this case. There is information in both threads on how to contact the FCC, and local organizing efforts to contact stations and arrange pickets. I think that in the short time we have left to deal with this before the election, informational picket lines at each Sinclair affiliate pointing out to the local competing media that each of these stations that carry the film upon Sinclair’s orders are nothing more than taxpayer subsidized extensions of the Bush/Cheney 2004 election campaign is about all that can be done. Writing your member of Congress and Senators, including John McCain, would also be a way to get some national notice similar to what McCain and others saw happen when the FCC considered relaxing its media ownership rules earlier. But what else can be done here to make Sinclair pay for this?
The usual way to lean on broadcasters is to arrange boycotts of them or pressure their advertisers, as Chris indicated in his piece on MyDD, and this is already being worked on. There are groups out there with experience in holding the media accountable, such as the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Alliance for Better Campaigns. They could be brought in to coordinate a national letter writing campaign to the FCC that may make a dent before the election, as would any protests and boycotts locally at each station to get media coverage in the week before the election to show that the station is nothing more than a partisan front for the Bush campaign.
But what isn't done a lot which requires the broadcaster to rack up expensive legal fees, is to challenge every one of their affiliates' FCC license renewals as they come up this year and next.
The FCC rules state that anyone who has an interest, presumably a local interest, in the renewal of a TV license may file either an informal objection or a more formal petition that must meet specific requirements. Note that Petitions to Deny are required to be filed with the FCC one month in advance of the station’s license expiration date. According to the FCC’s schedule of station expiration dates by state, any move to file Petitions to Deny or objections in advance of the station’s license expiration date are already too late to be accepted for Sinclair stations in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, or the District of Columbia, as the expiration date has passed and the file has closed. However, note that there still is time to organize and file Petitions or objections by November 1, 2004 for Sinclair stations in North Carolina and South Carolina, and for Florida by January 1, 2005.
Bloggers could link up with local media law attorneys of like mind in each of these Sinclair affiliate towns to gather informal objections and formal petitions challenging the renewal of these Sinclair licenses, which would then be forwarded to the FCC for inclusion in the station's renewal file at least one month prior to the license expiration date for consideration at the time of the upcoming license renewals this year and in 2005-2007. For example, here are the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida stations with upcoming license expirations, for which objections and petitions must be filed by November 1, 2004 for the Carolina stations, and by January 1, 2005 for the Florida stations.
I have no illusions that the FCC and Michael Powell may actually reject some Sinclair licenses over this, but the commission would have a hard time ignoring a station's application for renewal if each file had hundreds or thousands of letters of complaint or petitions on file. Plus, Sinclair would have to defend each one and incur the legal costs of doing so.
Sinclair assumes that this would not happen because a national campaign opposing a major media conglomerate would cost their opponents way too much. Yet they are not counting on how cheaply the weblog community, working with outfits like the Alliance for Better Campaigns, the Center for Digital Democracy, Take Back the Media, and others that would join in, could organize the opposition by working with local media law attorneys who could work pro bono on organizing the license renewal opposition campaign, while of course getting some local and national media coverage themselves.
I think if the major weblogs starting talking about this, it could happen. As for what to do about Sinclair's last-minute attempt to swing this campaign for Bush, as I said earlier the only thing I see that local Democratic activists can do on short notice is to organize pickets and get media attention by calling these affiliates out as fronts for the Bush/Cheney reelection campaign through their ownership and affiliation with Sinclair. That will be enough to get the media attention and to plant the image in local voters' minds that Sinclair and its affiliates are really nothing more than biased abusers of the public's airwaves. But I don't really expect Sinclair to back down on this because this was sprung on us (by design I expect) too late for us to organize sufficiently to do them damage on this, as is the case in Maryland and the Virginias.
But on the longer term, I think the license challenge campaign can really send a message and point media coverage to this issue and to Sinclair's detriment. And more importantly, it would demonstrate that the Internet can be used to take on a major right wing media conglomerate and hold them accountable for the corporate welfare they receive in the form of these public airwave licenses, and their abuse of those public airwaves for partisan politics obviously aimed at influencing elections to their benefit through an organized smear campaign with connections to the White House.