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October 16, 2004

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..."

On the Sinclair Broadcast Group beat: Kerry campaign demands equal time, but not for Kerry! One of its attorneys, Mark Elias, sent a letter to David D. Smith, Sinclair CEO. “Please consider this a request that each Sinclair station that airs the documentary provide supporters of the Kerry-Edwards campaign with a similar amount of time on that station before the election at a time where an audience of similar size can be expected to be viewing the station,” Elias wrote.

So supporters should be given equal time, the Kerry camp now says. But Sinclair had already offered more than that to Kerry himself. The campaign ridiculed the invitation. For a while it looked like my scoop on October 9th—arguing that Kerry should accept Sinclair’s kind invitation to appear—would remain, as they say in some newsrooms, “forever exclusive.” That means nobody ever picked it up because you were way, way off.

Am I way, way off? I will tell you what others have to say on that. But first some additional facts about Sinclair, in follow up to my last post, Agnew with TV Stations, where I argued that Sinclair’s inexact plan to air Stolen Honor in the weeks before the election is an unprecedented move, which signals the arrival of a new combination in broadcasting: a political empire made of television stations.

I don’t think we understand well what Sinclair actually is. Nor do we know how to interpret the significance of its moves this week. As Frank Rich will be saying in this Sunday’s New York Times, “this company gets little press scrutiny because it is invisible in New York City, Washington and Los Angeles, where it has no stations.”

There’s been little press scrutiny of the actual offer before John Kerry, or the program Sinclair is prepared to show. Everyone’s assuming the same deal but as far as I can tell, there is no hard information there. It’s widely believed the 62 company stations will run the 40 minute documentary, and add 20-minutes of “panel” where guests discuss it. Rich writes: “Sinclair has ordered that it be run in prime time during a specific four nights in late October, when it is likely to be sandwiched in with network hits like ‘CSI,’ ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Desperate Housewives.’” He sounds pretty definite.

But if you listen to the only source of information there is on Sinclair’s plans, Vice President for Corporate Relations Mark Hyman, Sinclair only wants the news out. The POWS have spoken about Kerry and their captors; what is the Senator’s response? Investigative reporters will tell you: You have to attend carefully to what a company like this one officially says.

Hyman’s most “official” statements came, I think, when he appeared on the PBS Newshour October 12 (with Terrence Smith) and said, “We haven’t made any formal plans as to what is going to be in the one-hour program that we envision.” No plans. He did say there was news that deserved to be aired. For example, the POW’s in Stolen Honor think Kerry prolonged their suffering and gave encouragement to their captors.

“All we know is that we’ve invited one guest, Sen. John Kerry. We’ve made no other offers to anyone else.” No offers. People complaining about Sinclair’s decision ought to realize there hasn’t been any decision, he said. “If John Kerry sat down with us for two hours, we may end up with a 60-minute program that has 57 minutes of John Kerry presenting his side of the issues,” Hyman told the Newshour. “That’s fine. That’s what this is all about. We’ve made an open invitation.”

How much clearer can it get? Sinclair has made no commitment to run the film. It wants Kerry to answer the POW’s. “We want to put his view on the air,” Hyman said. “Putting on a few clips of what the allegations are, that will satisfy the concerns.” (Come on: Have you seen any press accounts highlighting that quote? I have not.)

What Mark Hyman has been saying to the point of braying it is— nothing’s firm, let’s negotiate. John Kerry can keep the documentary off the air by replacing it with himself. (And why not? Then it’s like appearing on any other “show.”) Sinclair has no other invitations out. So I say send Mike McCurry and Richard Holbrooke to Baltimore. Let them negotiate. Five minutes of film, 55 minutes of Kerry responding to questions sounds about right to me.

The deal breakers: this has to be one-on-one with Sinclair— Kerry and Mark Hyman, no other guests. Must be live and unedited, like a debate. Must be made available for free to C-SPAN, the cable news networks, the broadcast networks, armed forces network and overseas. News event, right?

I think there is a high probability Sinclair would accept those terms or something close to them. This is a company with a hungry ego, and a sense of its own importance in national politics. The people who run it believe absolutely in their own rectitude and they are not likely to doubt their initial judgment, or their capacity to win out in high stakes political television. Landing Kerry makes them big shots, nationally. Here was my initial judgment:

PressThink Oct. 9: Kerry Should Accept

If he takes the deal it sets up an historic broadcast. A final confrontation with the Right. Isn’t that what the Right wants too? A chance, indeed, to clear the air about Vietnam, and a lot of other things. Will America watch? America will watch. And if he can’t win that broadcast, he does not deserve to win the prize.

That’s my view, to which I have given brief defense so far. (If you agree, blog it. Now’s the time, too.)

Well at least James Taranto at Opinion Journal, who writes Best of the Web, and who once slammed me good for a post I did on Bush’s Thanksgiving trip to Iraq, had a more encouraging reaction this time. I wonder why.

James Taranto, The Sinclair Challenge

Blogger Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, has an interesting take on the Sinclair Broadcasting kerfuffle. The broadcaster has invited Kerry to appear on its stations to respond to “Stolen Honor,” a documentary about Kerry’s Vietnam antiwar activities, which will air next week. Rosen argues that the Kerry camp is wrong to dismiss the offer.

You should know Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media critic, copyright maven, and a faculty member at NYU. I attended his wedding in Amherst, New York. He said he had to think it over for three days before deciding whether I was crazy—legitimize the Swift Boat people by having Kerry go on TV to answer them? Here is the conclusion he reached while guest blogging at Eric Alterman’s space at MSNBC Alteraction. He was opposing FCC and FEC action to stop Sinclair when he said:

Siva Vaidhyanathan at Altercation:

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.

If local stations are going to push themselves into politics, more power to them (even if they do so on orders from corporate headquarters). I wish more local stations spent real money or pre-empted shows like “The Bachelor” in favor of political content, even propaganda. Let them deal with the fallout. Jay Rosen has a better idea. He says Kerry should accept Sinclair’s offer to respond. I agree with Jay.

Our broadcasters are timidly conservative. This is not acceptable on either count. Let’s encourage rich, loud, messy engagement with politics, even if it means allowing shallow, dishonest propaganda once in a while. We should just answer back with better information and more attractive answers. Sorry folks. This is what democracy is all about.

I also oppose FEC and FCC action against Sinclair. I favor political engagement. Notice Siva’s agenda: Let’s encourage rich, loud, messy engagement with politics. (And let’s win the election too, of course!) This is the year of messy engagement with politics— 2004, when the pros lost control of the game. That story isn’t over yet, people. Blogger and radical middle person Jeff Jarvis said: Jay, you’re wallowing in the mud. Oink, oink. (But see Jeff’s newest big lens take: “Keeping media and government apart.”)

Jeff Jarvis, The Dark Campaign

I don’t think we should keep pandering to the fringes, the nuts, the nasties, the mudmen. They are like bratty children off their meds: They do it for the attention. Give them attention and they’ll never behave. They deserve to be ignored and, in due course, they will go overboard and burn up like the latest trend in reality TV.

I think that Jay wishes for a Joseph-McCarthy-“Have-you-no-shame” moment. I wish for that, too. But I fear it will backfire. Attention to these guys is like more plutonium to a chain reaction.

You don’t go on television with these people, Jay. You ignore these people. Keep your sights on the mainstream, the middle is where the election is. So says Jeff. And of course he may be right. One of my readers (whom I quote a lot, Mark J. McPherson) thought my advice to Kerry was transparently nuts. I think he has a point.

Mark J. McPherson, comments

Kerry should accept an invitation to sit in on the post-mortem of his own character being assassinated? Why? Some sort of strategy thing? It’s so stupid it might just work! On the other hand, it might just be so stupid that its just plain stupid, stupid, stupid. Given the principals and the likely venue, it will be little better than a shouting match. I would guess the film itself will be so chock full of lies and misrepresentations that Kerry, or the rest of the informed, wouldn’t quite know where to begin…

The whole premise of accepting lends legitimacy to the smear. A lovely invitation to a panel discussion over the question of when or whether Kerry stopped beating his wife.

“Accepting lends legitimacy to the smear,” Mark said, putting into six words the main argument for rejecting Sinclair’s offer, and the most popular one I have heard. “Kerry will never follow Rosen’s advice,” said Taranto of Opinion Journal. “For him, Vietnam isn’t a serious matter, just a political opportunity.” Perhaps some Bush supporters agree with most Kerry supporters: Kerry would be crazy to do it.

But maybe some of them—Brooding Republicans, I call them, in my imagination—are hoping Kerry sticks with his refusal. They realize what a nervous night of television it would be for the GOP: The prime time showdown between Kerry and Sinclair over Vietnam and the anti-war movement.

There you are, a Brooding Republican, sitting down with the wife and the popcorn and the liquor to watch Kerry get creamed by his past, and commit the incredible strategic blunder of going toe-to-toe with fellow veterans in the final week of the campaign.

You’re looking forward to watching John Kerry squirm, dodge, dissemble and finally fall apart. You’re surrounded by excited, happy, politically-informed people, clinking glasses and eager to observe Senator Kerry’s ruin by televised fact.

But then it occurs to you—as you watch Kerry, smiling and handsome, enter the studio, shake hands and take his place at Sinclair’s table—that were he able to handle the pressure of a live interview about Vietnam and what he did, way back then, the John F. Kerry of tonight would almost certainly have the 2004 election in the palm of his hand. He could mishandle it, of course. But he could also grab it and win it right there in that suburban Baltimore studio.

Mister Republican is brooding and feeling anxious, I say, because they’re prediciting big ratings for this show. And then it dawns: We’ve given Kerry a fourth debate and a national audience a week before the election. But it’s not our guy he’s up against— not the President of the United States, George W. Bush.

No, it’s Mark Hyman of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Carlton Sherwood, freelance documentarian. Bush, the President, is a bystander tonight. After all, there aren’t any doubts about his military service that need to be addressed on national television before the vote, right?

Our Republican, a brooder by nature, and one serious man, with a lot riding on the election, is not happy about any of this, I would imagine.

Meanwhile, there is Kerry, alone in the arena, who gets to make the case for himself as a warrior for democracy and the man of the hour. Symbolically, he gets to face his attackers, but after that he can actually leave Vietnam, put it behind him by the broadcast’s end, and emerge a forward-looking candidate. The pressure would be enormous; but this is exactly why he goes there. For a test of leadership that anyone watching can understand.

And that’s when our Brooding Republican might turn to his wife or just ask it of himself as the first drink, getting low, swirls in his glass: Sinclair Broadcast Group. Who are they? And what are they doing in the middle of our election?

I don’t think my story will be a forever exclusive. People are starting to sense that Sinclair is not a normal company; it’s a political actor seeking a role in the endgame of this election. Not quite a king maker, maybe. (Not yet.) Sinclair thought it could finally expose a pretender to the throne who almost took the prize. That’s a deed of service to the throne. It’s also a sign to others: we’re here. Instantly you’re a force in the Republican Party.

But Sinclair, I believe, made a strategic blunder. Its offer allows Kerry to grab the national spotlight one more time before the vote, turning Bush into a bystander next to the drama of Kerry’s confrontation with his past. The opportunity is there for John to admit some mistakes, and reconcile himself to what he did not know at the time. There would be the chance to invent, under fire, the John Kerry who actually can be president.

(And another thing, which I added Saturday night: where is the proving ground for presidents as we elect them nowadays? It is on television. We all know that.)

So riddle me this, political reporters, bloggers and news hounds: If you are a bright young Kerry advisor, and it’s your job to think of everything; and you can think of a way that Sinclair shows none or very few minutes of the 40 minutes of Swift Boat-style propaganda that are in Stolen Honor (giving all that TV time to Kerry, your boss, instead) do you raise it at a meeting? Or do you say: the bosses would have thought of that, if it made any sense?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Their own people are now denouncing it. Consult David Folkenflik, Baltimore Sun (Oct. 18): “Sinclair employee decries planned program on Kerry. D.C. bureau chief calls it ‘biased political propaganda.’”

Bill Carter, New York Times, “Risks Seen for TV Chain Showing Film About Kerry” (Oct. 18): “If Mr. Bush is re-elected, Sinclair has created a circumstance where the deregulation it wants would be widely interpreted as what the Legg Mason report called ‘the Sinclair payback provision.’ If Mr. Kerry wins, he might try to lead the F.C.C. to consider regulations that could hurt Sinclair’s position.”

Josh Marshall is all over this story, as his readers expect. He has a Lehman Brothers Equity Research analyst report dated October 15th, 2004, which makes the following comments about Sinclair Broadcast Group, under the headline Mgmt Chooses Politics over Shareholders:

“In our opinion, Sinclair’s decision to pre-empt programming to air ‘Stolen Honor’ is potentially damaging — both financially and politically. In a best case scenario, we believe that this decision could result in lost ad revenues. In a worst case scenario, we believe the decision may lead to higher political risk. As mgmt has increased the co’s political risk, we are reducing our 12-month price target to $9 (from $10.)”

Anyone care to make the case for why Sinclair’s election gambit serves shareholders?

I don’t know why, but this strikes me as so apt; in any case, fascinating: Supermarket feels around for what “apolitical” means. Ray Routhier of the Portland Press Herald with the story:

One day after saying they were pulling their ads from Portland TV station WGME to avoid political controversy, officials at the Hannaford supermarket chain reversed their decision Friday for the same reason.

Hannaford on Thursday announced it was pulling its ads from WGME (Channel 13) because of the station’s planned airing of a documentary film critical of presidential candidate John Kerry.

Hannaford spokesperson Caren Epstein said Thursday the supermarket chain was “apolitical” and did not want to be associated with the growing controversy over the film.

On Friday, Epstein said the company was reversing its decision, again to try to remain out of the political storm.

New York Observer’s Robert Sam Anson on Stolen Honor:

Its subject: John Kerryís 1971 anti-war activities, and their alleged impact on then-captive U.S. P.O.W.ís

Its stars: Former, very bitter, very vocal residents of the Hanoi Hilton.

Its tone: Think Leni Riefenstahlís Triumph of the Will, made by the 16th assistant director.

Herewith a taste, in the words of some of the featured players, all former longtime P.O.W.ís :

“This man committed an act of treason. He lied, he besmirched our name and he did it for self-interest. And now he wants us to forget.”

“Heís been in Vietnam, now he swaps to the other side, and heís saying the same thing weíre being tortured to say. That was a very difficult time.”

“Iím convinced Kerry and his fellows, the anti-war people, cause the war to be extended two more years, throwing medals over the wall, speaking against our country in time of war. He knows it would extend the war and complicate things and probably hurt a lot of prisoners.”

Journalist David Neiwert: “Sinclair doesn’t seem even fazed by threats to its economic well-being — certainly its shareholders have not been well served to date. It’s more than a little remniscent of Edison Schools — the people who, as I’ve pointed out previously, are now contemplating resurrecting child labor as part of their business model — another political operation (to promote school privatization) working under the guise of a business. Edison’s fiscal performance is even more dismal, and yet somehow it stays alive.”

Harley makes a point at Tacitus, where they’re discussing Sinclair and Kerry: First, bondra of New Augustinian writes about the “potential judo effect” of accepting the offer. “If Kerry had serious juevos, he’d take that access and do some reverse damage by kicking the Swifties’ butts in front of all those people in glorious Panavision (again, if he’s really got the factual goods).” Harley says, “I think you’re right. And it’s the kind of move you might try early in a campaign, but never late. Too much that cannot be controlled.”

I must write something about that: too much that cannot be controlled, for that is indeed why many people are against Kerry doing the deal.

Double Standard, Double Standard! Instapundit and company had that reaction to the Sinclair furor. “Free speech for me but not for thee,” as one Insta-reader wrote. Go here for a typical Glenn Reynolds post with lots of links.

Also see PressThink, Oct. 13th: 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.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 16, 2004 11:49 PM