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October 13, 2004

Agnew with TV Stations: Sinclair Broadcasting Takes On John Kerry and The Liberal Media

In a commercial empire it makes no sense to invite a storm like "Stolen Honor." But imagine a firm built for that sort of storm. Is Sinclair Broadcasting a media company with a political interest, or a political interest that's gotten hold of a media company and intends to use it? There are plenty of signs that a different animal is emerging.

Just posted (Oct. 15). PressThink, Sinclair Broadcast Group: What Are They Doing in the Middle of Our Election?

We welcome your comments regarding the upcoming special news event featuring the topic of Americans held as prisoners of war in Vietnam. The program has not been videotaped and the exact format of this unscripted event has not been finalized. Characterizations regarding the content are premature and are based on ill-informed sources. Sinclair Broadcast Group web page, Oct. 12, 2004 and currently…

Sinclair Broadcast’s inexact plan to air Stolen Honor in the weeks before the election is an unprecedented move, and it signals the arrival of a new combination in broadcasting: a political empire made of television stations.

Sinclair has been saying for some time that it intends to be that: something new on the American scene. The empire it has assembled so far reaches 25 percent of the U.S., and it can increase that portion by buying up more stations. Or more newspapers.

Will it be allowed to buy more stations? Will it be allowed to buy your local newspaper when it already owns your local Fox station? Ultimately that is a political question— regulators, courts, Congress, the White House will decide. It has a great deal to do with who wins in November.

Sinclair wants something to do with who wins in November. And it’s willing to take actions once unthinkable because the company thinks differently about what is permitted in political television. To risk a public fight over interference in an election is a major departure for a local broadcaster. Not only law, but broadly understood custom once prohibited it.

During California’s recall election in 2003, Sci Fi channel and FX both canceled plans to run Arnold Schwarzenegger films until after the special election. (See this article.) They didn’t want to be seen as “helping” one side win. Regulators actually have very little power over cable channels; rather, it was public opinion—the storm of criticism—that Sci Fi and FX feared when they decided to play it safe.

In a commercial empire it makes no sense to invite a storm like that. But what if a company were built for that sort of storm? A lot depends on how we define Sinclair Broadcast Group: as a media company with a political agenda, or a political actor that’s gotten hold of a media company and is re-shaping it for bigger battles ahead.

There are plenty of signs that Sinclair is a different animal. Supporters and critics of showing Stolen Honor should both understand that.

Joe Flint of the Wall Street Journal said it yesterday: Sinclair Broadcasting “quietly has become an empire of 62 television stations.” Remarkably little has been said about the nature of this empire— its tendencies, or plans, and what it’s organized to accomplish.

A political force in broadcasting is something intrinsically different. It seeks dynastic ends, goodies greater than ownership: power, influence, reputation, a booming voice, or even a political destiny, merging with national destiny, as with Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. (More on him later.)

We’ve had media barons with political ambitions before, plenty of them. But they did not own 62 local television stations (a record) that reach a quarter of all American homes. The Sinclair situation is new. No prior broadcasting empire has chosen to insert itself into an election this way— although some say CBS tried and failed this season with its Sixty Minutes story on Bush’s years in the National Guard.

Sinclair’s decision to acquire Stolen Honor is consistent with a series of prior moves. These include:

When these moves are plotted on a commercial grid, or against the history of station ownership, they make limited sense— or none. So it’s not surprising that market-wise, Sinclair is a poor performer: “With its heavy concentration of Fox and WB affiliates, ranking in the middle of the pack in mostly midsize markets, Sinclair is barely profitable and laden with debt,” wrote David Lieberman in USA Today. Net profit in 2003 was $14 million on revenue of $739 million. (This in one of the most lucrative businesses in America: owning TV stations.)

The pressure put on advertisers by opponents of Sinclair’s October Surprise has yet to be calculated, but it could be severe. I doubt very much that the company factored into its Stolen Honor strategy how the greatly reduced costs for getting like-minded (and angry) people together—one of 2004’s great political lessons courtesy of the Net—might make for a surge in effective activism against the firm and its stations, aimed especially at Sinclair’s local advertisers. (See this too.)

It’s hard to make sense of these risky and unorthodox actions in market terms or the tradition of station ownership that held up to now. You can hear the puzzlement in Lieberman’s report from Tuesday:

NEW YORK — Wall Streeters, political activists and media critics Monday were trying to answer a perplexing question: Why would Sinclair Broadcasting CEO David Smith embroil himself in controversy by ordering his stations to air Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal — a documentary challenging Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam service — within days of the presidential election?

Dumb move, said the Street; we’re going to punish you the way we know how:

The decision annoyed investors. Sinclair’s shares, which have lost about half their value in 2004, closed Monday at $7.38, down 12 cents. That’s about as low as they’ve been since 1995.

I believe this decision, perplexing perhaps to investors, makes more sense in light of Sinclair’s earlier steps to consolidate news control inside the firm itself. The company was being readied as a platform for a new political brand in television news, even though for most of the broadcast day it operates in the same fashion as the rest of the industry. (Sinclair distributes other brands; it has 20 Fox affiliates, eight ABC stations, four NBC, three CBS.)

With News Center up and running, control of the message from headquarters becomes practical. The Point creates a programming slot where political issues can be joined. Mark Hyman gives the company its Rush Limbaugh or Cal Thomas. By centralizing news production Sinclair also weakens the power of local traditions and craft norms in journalism. That’s a plus if you want to re-construct news.

Forces at the center de-throne and defang the local newsroom, making it the arm of a larger operation. At headquarters the necessary “perspective” in national affairs can more easily be added. But also, more headway can be made against holdovers from the Liberal Media who don’t have the message yet. They must be made to go.

The Sinclair strategy becomes a little clearer in this report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s television writer, Rob Owen, about the changeover to the News Center system. “News Central sinks ratings at WPGH.” (June 24, 2004)

What was once a solid local newscast changed overnight into an unusual hybrid, part local newscast, part carrier of national and international news and weather piped in from Sinclair’s headquarters in suburban Baltimore. It was an awkward mix from the start. The local news remained objective and fair, while national news reports came with a decidedly conservative bent.

Of course those phrases for characterizing the news—“objective and fair” vs. “decidedly conservative”—are themselves in bitter dispute. And this is another thing to realize about Sinclair: it’s like an action arm for the Liberal Media thesis, putting that whole critique into practice. Picture Spiro Agnew with TV stations and you have some idea of who David Smith is. (Who’s Agnew, again?)

Showing “Stolen Honor” in the final weeks of the campaign, during prime time, pre-empting regular programming for programming of your own, adjusts for the skewed priorities of the Liberal Media. (Which Hyman calls the “Axis of Drivel.”) That is how the Sinclair empire stands for truth, even when it looks to be intervening in politics. The cause of truth has an opponent, who skews things. Sinclair corrects these things. Here’s Mark Hyman explaining the decision to acquire Stolen Honor as another case of Big Media bias:

This is news. I can’t change the fact that these people decided to come forward today. The networks had this opportunity over a month ago to speak with these people. They chose to suppress them. They chose to ignore them. They are acting like Holocaust deniers, pretending these men don’t exist.

To oppose the Holocaust deniers: is there a cause more just and reasonable than that? All empires need glory to cover themselves in; and that, I think, is the meaning of Hyman’s remark. We’re proud to stand up for these guys, the POW’s with a story about Kerry.

In 21 of its markets, Sinclair comes through in stereo, since it owns not one but two TV stations, a situation with no parallel in broadcast history, but then Sinclair makes its history as the first firm through the gates when Barriers to Bigger are falling away. Here’s Lieberman in USA Today on the company’s plans:

Sinclair hopes to [start] solidifying its hold on local markets by controlling, for example, two stations in more cities and sharing operating and news-gathering costs. But it needs the federal government to relax several media ownership restrictions.

I’m still figuring this out, blog world. Hey, Political Animal, or anyone who can help in matters of definition: Is Sinclair a broadcasting empire getting what it needs from politics, or an ideological empire getting what it needs from broadcasting, possibly on the way to some larger and more potent combination? Tell me how you read this report:

Sinclair wants officials to permit a company to own two or more stations in more communities than allowed now. It also wants the FCC to ease a restriction that bars a company from owning TV stations reaching more than 35% of all homes, and to lift the rule that keeps companies from owning newspapers and TV stations in most markets.

Yesterday as Mark Hyman’s voice came through the speakers with the Sinclair argument: Stolen Honor, the film, is major campaign news ignored by Big Media, and we will pre-empt everything to correct that omission… I phoned Alexander Stille, a journalist and writer for the New York Review of Books and the author of several works on modern Italy. I knew he was writing a book about Italian Prime Minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. (Interview with Stille on the subject.)

I wanted to ask Stille if his case—Berlusconi’s political empire, where the original source of power is commercial broadcasting—shed any light on my case: Sinclair’s early steps to assemble its platform. Stille said everything changed inside Berlusconi’s media operations when he got involved in politics.

Before 1993, there was little attempt to coordinate programming, message, or “news” across the many Berlusconi properties in TV and the press. After ‘93 this coordination became vital because a media company was evolving rapidly into a political machine, capable of promoting the boss and his fortunes, but also able to attack opponents, and put them on the defensive in the news cycle.

Stille said that Berlusconi began lecturing the heads of his media properties on the need to attack and train “concentrated fire” on enemies and critics. A sudden shift took place as traditions of autonomy and professionalism ended overnight. People who couldn’t or wouldn’t perform under the new rules were replaced. Control from the center increased. Message coordination was openly discussed across Berlusconi properties, in ways that were unthinkable before.

But the “thinkable” had to change. One kind of empire was becoming another.

“Where I see America Bertlusconi-izing is something that he is very good at: eliminating neutral ground,” Stille told me. “Accusing anyone who is critical of being an enemy. Then since you are attacked you have to defend yourself.” Pretty soon there is nothing but the cycle of attack and defend— “contending factions in a struggle for power,” as he put it. There are no institutions that can adjudicate disputes and say something happened or didn’t.

“In an unregulated media climate like ours,” Stille said, “where the media also have enormous power, and there’s a custom where people say, ‘you can’t do that,’ it’s very tempting to do it for just that reason.” This is something he had learned from studying Berlusconi, who created more power for himelf by breaking taboos on the political use of media. If a prohibition had been there, that was almost a good reason to try it.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

New PressThink, Sinclair Broadcast Group: What Are They Doing in the Middle of Our Election? “What Mark Hyman has been saying to the point of braying it is— let’s negotiate. John Kerry can keep Stolen Honor off the air by replacing it with himself. Sinclair has no other invitations out. So I say send Mike McCurry and Richard Holbrooke to Baltimore. They negotiate. Five minutes of film, 55 minutes of Kerry answering questions sounds about right to me…”

Sign of the times is this resource, Sinclair Broadcast Group, From dKosopedia, the free political encyclopedia.

No More Timid Media… My NYU colleague Siva Vaidhyanathan is guest-blogging at Altercation. He’s against using the FCC or FEC to stop Sinclair.

We should not be comfortable with policies and habits that make media more timid, regardless of political orientation. I don’t think either federal agency should be policing content as much as they do now.

We need a serious, bold politically engaged set of political voices on our airwaves, regardless of orientation. We need real conservative media and real liberal media (and perhaps libertarian media and socialist media and Silly Party media). Right now we have boring, spineless media.

Effective, link-filled round up from The American Street on Sinclair and affiliated companies— all from the political activist and corporate sleuth’s point of view: how the company fights, what it wants, who’s been fighting Sinclair, where the future battles will be found: “… Common Cause is ready to handle the license challenges, so the rest of us can focus on the boycott.”

Temptation? Former FCC head Reed Hundt writes to Josh Marshall on what was customary: “Part of this tradition is that broadcasters do not show propaganda for any candidate, no matter how much a station owner may personally favor one or dislike the other. Broadcasters understand that they have a special and conditional role in public discourse. They received their licenses from the public — licenses to use airwaves that, for instance, cellular companies bought in auctions — for free, and one condition is the obligation to help us hold a fair and free election… Sinclair has a different idea, and a wrong one in my view.”

Sinclair’s Mark Hyman on the PBS Newshour, Oct. 12: “Again, we’re talking about a program here that hasn’t even been developed. Gentlemen, this program doesn’t even exist. There is a documentary. That’s the basis upon which we want to put a program together. Again, John Kerry could have the bulk of this presentation if he just decides to join us.”

Brian Montopoli for Campaign Desk on CNN’s interview with Hyman, conducted Oct. 12 by Bill Hemmer:

Hemmer didn’t bother with the larger issue at stake during his interview with Hyman. Instead, he asked if there was a “bias at Sinclair against John Kerry” — an obvious question with an obvious answer, Hyman’s denial notwithstanding. If CNN is going to invite people like Hyman onto the air in a misguided attempt at balance, it needs to engage his argument, not let it pass without comment.

The Swift Boat veterans showed us what happens when a torpid media gives airtime to partisans without checking out their stories. CNN apparently still hasn’t learned that its credibility depends upon showing viewers the difference between news and spin.

Paul Schmelzer at AlterNet: The Death of Local News: “The corporate tactics of the Sinclair Broadcast Group offers a glimpse of the post-deregulation world where local news may be produced in one giant newsroom.”

This link gets you to the archive of Mark Hyman’s TV op-eds for The Point.

Alexander Stille in the New York Review…

On January 26, 1994, Silvio Berlusconi —the country’s richest man, owner of a vast real estate, publishing, financial, and media empire—appeared simultaneously on the three private TV networks he owns and announced that he was founding a new political party and running for prime minister. Berlusconi’s sudden appearance in the living rooms of most Italians, commandeering the airwaves for what sounded like a presidential address, created the bizarre sensation that he was somehow already prime minister even though the campaign was just beginning. It began to seem inevitable that he would be elected, and he was.

David Folkenflik, Baltimore Sun: Sinclair’s TV program on Kerry is called illegal donation to Bush.

“Theirs is a powerful story that the news gatekeepers have ignored,” Hyman said yesterday. “It’s a little unfair if the media allows a candidate to campaign on the basis of his Vietnam experience and to cherry-pick only certain parts.”

The Democratic Party officials, including Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, took pains to say that the producer of Stolen Honor was a discredited journalist who held no standing in the profession.

Dow Jones News Service, FCC Can’t Do Much On Sinclair Kerry Film Flap.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 13, 2004 2:00 PM