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October 21, 2004

Sinclair Goes to Air Friday Night: Notes and Comment on "A POW Story"

Sinclair wanted to play Mike Wallace. It imagined grilling Kerry about his actions against the war. The goal was never to air Stolen Honor, though the furor has been about Stolen Honor. The play they were making was: Get Kerry on video so we can edit his words (and splice in the POWs). Friday's show will be a much diluted version of that idea.

Sinclair’s announcement on Tuesday, Oct. 19 is the biggest news this week. A special program will air on Friday, ten days before the election, at either 7 or 8 pm in 40 markets.

The company said it would not run the 42-minute film, Stolen Honor, in full, but include its charges in a larger discussion of political documentaries, their treatment in the news, and possible bias in the media reception these films get. Sinclair also said it will not run the program twice in the 20+ markets where it owns two properties— “in order to minimize the interruption of normally scheduled programming.”

And so the tactical decision was made to back off a showing of Stolen Honor.

But keep in mind Sinclair’s incapacity to accept anything even remotely critical about itself. Only the purest of motives reside in the company’s heart. Only the wisest of moves is made by the company’s head. Thus, if something happens at Sinclair, Sinclair had always intended it to happen.

Although its plans evolve, the company never changes its mind. It never backs down. It never learns because it already knows. Most especially, it is always the innocent party, always under attack by the most unscrupulous and outrageous foes, a minority who never let up. These are the characteristic beliefs of all ideologically-driven groups that operate in the paranoid style of politics.

Attention Sinclair shareholders: the people who run the company are an ideologically-driven group. They operate in the paranoid style. Don’t believe me? Listen carefully to CEO David D. Smith. He’s talking about the period, Oct. 9-19, 2004:

The experience of preparing to air this news special has been trying for many of those involved. The company and many of its executives have endured personal attacks of the vilest nature, as well as calls on our advertisers and our viewers to boycott our stations and on our shareholders to sell their stock. In addition, and more shockingly, we have received threats of retribution from a member of Senator John Kerry’s campaign and have seen attempts by leading members of Congress to influence the Federal Communications Commission to stop Sinclair from broadcasting this news special. Moreover, these coordinated attacks have occurred without regard to the facts since they predated the broadcast of our news special.

Notice how criticism about airing Stolen Honor is invalid, according to Smith, because it is not based on an actual program. There are no facts yet because there’s been no broadcast. He is literally saying: you cannot criticize our intentions. You must wait for us to act. Therefore a citizen upset with the company for injecting propaganda into the campaign cannot, according to Smith, fairly criticize the company until the propaganda has been injected.

“A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media” is the special that will run Friday night. Here is my prediction for what the program will contain. You can check it against the actual broadcast tomorrow night, and we’ll see how close I was. (I will have to rely on those within reach of a Sinclair station.)

The program will be an attack, an anti-Kerry rant with some subtlety and just enough “issue” in it to deflect charges of airing propaganda. To accusations of bias, Sinclair’s reply is pre-ordained: our program corrects for mainstream media bias in suppressing the POWs’ claims, which Sinclair will call new and newsworthy. (PressThink readers in Sinclair markets: please post comments on what you saw.)

Jon Leiberman, who was fired Monday for speaking out about Sinclair’s way of turning news into propaganda, has continued to talk. (See my earlier post about him.) What he’s added is a portrait of the ideological pressure exerted on news producers from the very top of Sinclair Broadcast Group— meaning David Smith, and the man who is clearly Smith’s operative for ideological matters, Mark Hyman, Vice President for Corporate Affairs.

These two are most responsible for the Stolen Honor episode, along with Joe DeFeo, Sinclair’s Vice President of News, who has to carry out intentions originating from above. He must also manage the tensions from below when Smith and Hyman intervene in the news produced at News Central. If this were a criminal case, a good prosecutor would circle DeFeo’s photo and apply pressure there.

We go wrong, we misunderstand Sinclair, if we say that Smith and Hyman are interfering in the journalism done at News Central. That’s not the way I would put it. They created News Central so that it could be interfered with, so that their empire would have a voice, and this voice could speak as news.

But to Leiberman and many others who work there, the involvement by higher-ups was disturbing because of what it said about the Sinclair way of doing business— and the company’s ultimate intentions. This week he began to describe a “daily struggle to get fair news on the air.” He told how the crisis of conscience that ended with his firing developed over several months of conflicts. He said CEO David Smith would come into the newsroom and give journalists ideas for stories.

David Folkenflik and Stephen Kiehl of the Baltimore Sun, who have a national story in their back yard, are on top of this one:

By last winter, Leiberman said he was privately complaining to his bosses about the blurring of the line between the company’s news stories and the conservative, pro-Bush editorials of Mark Hyman. It came to a head when Hyman and Leiberman were sent to Iraq in February to find positive developments missed by the rest of the mainstream media, which Sinclair executives said were focusing too narrowly on the unstable conditions there.

Read the rest of the Sun’s account, which is starting to give us the portrait we need from inside Sinclair. (Jon Leiberman, who was the Washington bureau chief for News Center, also speaks here.)

In things Sinclair you get used to a certain quality of mendacity that is always one degree more intense than spin. Sinclair wanted it known that it was going to show Stolen Honor. Sinclair wanted it known that it had no plans to show Stolen Honor. Sinclair refuses to speak to the reporter. Sinclair says: that reporter never spoke to us! You could say the company is combative in its dealings with the press. But I prefer mendacious.

Elizabeth Jensen broke the Stolen Honor story in the Los Angeles Times, Oct 9. (And she’s interviewed me several times to get my reactions to things that have happened.) Jensen found out about Sinclair and Stolen Honor because people in the company and connected to it knew about the preparations and inquiries being made.

As she wrote this week, Sinclair’s intention to show the film was “never announced publicly, but communicated widely to its employees, its stations, its network partners and ‘Stolen Honor’ filmmaker Carlton Sherwood.”

The reason it was not announced publicly is that the company did not know what it was doing, exactly, or what it would decide to air. Sinclair, you see, was after the showdown with Kerry; Stolen Honor was just a way to get there. We learn about this in Amy Goodman’s amazing radio interview with Mark Hyman (recorded Oct. 15), Sinclair Spokesperson Discusses His Former CIA Job and Whether He Will Air Anti-Kerry Special . (That’s right, ex-CIA, and he admits it. I told you this wasn’t a normal company.)

In negotiations with the Kerry campaign, he tried to get the Senator to come on the air. (So says Hyman; we don’t have an account of this yet from inside the Kerry team.) The “carrot,” in his mind, was the hour of TV time they were setting aside and dangling before Kerry— free media, as it’s called in the trade. The “stick” was showing Stolen Honor:

MARK HYMAN: We have never made a public statement about any of this. What we have been doing, quietly, quietly, was we found claims inside this documentary — this is how it came to our attention — of 13 American P.O.W.s who made some very strong allegations that they specifically were tortured using John Kerry’s 1971 testimony.

AMY GOODMAN: We also –

MARK HYMAN: We never announced anything. The L.A. Times — the L.A. Times never spoke to our company.

AMY GOODMAN: So at this point, you’re not requiring your 62 Sinclair Broadcasting affiliates to run this documentary.

MARK HYMAN: What we told them, we’re going to run a 60-minute program. We gave them a general time frame and a window. If John Kerry was to respond to us and say, “You know, folks, we’ll respond to you and we’ll participate and I’ll spend two hours with you,” guess what, we’re no longer doing a 60-minute program, maybe we’re doing a two-hour program, maybe we’re doing two one-hour programs over two nights, because we think it’s a valid issue.

You see? Sinclair wanted to play Mike Wallace. Sinclair imagined grilling Kerry about the POWs and his actions against the war, catching him in a lie or seeing him self-destruct. And Sinclair wanted to edit the one or two hours of tape— to splice and dice and make the target look bad, like that biased CBS does. The goal wasn’t airing Stolen Honor, even though the entire public furor has been about Stolen Honor. Their play was: Get Kerry on tape so we can make a program (and splice in the POW’s). Friday night’s show is descended from that idea.

Frank Ahrens and Howard Kurtz had this in their account Tuesday:

The company now says that it never intended to air “Stolen Honor” in its entirety, although Sinclair commentator and vice president Mark Hyman had told The Washington Post that the movie would air unless the Massachusetts senator agreed to an interview, in which case only portions might run.

“I am not personally aware that he ever said that, but if he said it, that was not company policy at the time,” Sinclair lawyer Barry Faber said. He said Sinclair’s position on the film has been “evolving” and that journalists and critics have made a “leap to judgment.”

“There has been a misunderstanding of what our intention was,” Faber said, “in part because it wasn’t clear to us what our intention was.”

Hmmm. For an attorney, Faber, to admit something like that, “wasn’t clear to us what our intention was,” is a fascinating thing for Sinclair shareholders to contemplate, given the risks the company took with this program. But what he means is… Look, we were involved in high stakes jockeying with the Kerry people over getting the target to cooperate, while threatening him with 42 minutes of Stolen Honor, and 18 minutes of panel discussion to drive the message home. How the hell did we know what our show would end up looking like? Cut us some slack!

Hyman has tried to take this further into a direct attack on Jensen’s reporting. Here’s what he said to Amy Goodman:

I want to make certain I set the record straight. We probably all remember that telephone game we played in primary school where someone starts a story at one end of the class and it ends up being changed at the end, except in this particular instance, this all came about, at least the controversy, if you will, based on a very deeply flawed article that appeared in The Los Angeles Times. I think their adage must be, “We want to get the story first, instead of getting it right.”

Hyman never says what the Los Angeles Times got wrong because Jensen got nothing wrong. He also neglects to add a crucial detail. Sinclair declined numerous requests to comment for Jensen’s story, and thus blew off the opportunity to “correct” what became her “deeply flawed” reporting. Maybe Hyman regrets his decision not to call back. Maybe shareholders regret that an officer of the company behaved so recklessly in allowing a “false” and seriously flawed report to go forward. Or maybe it wasn’t false at all, and Hyman knows it.

“We’ve made it clear on many, many, many, many, many media outlets here in the last several days,” Hyman said to Goodman. “We have not finalized plans for this.” True when he said it, because the endgame with Kerry was incomplete. No final plans, but lots of preparations were made. Hyman neglects to mention them.

But Net users pooled their knowledge of advanced TV listings for Stolen Honor and produced this list. Like CBS during its recent fiasco, Sinclair doesn’t know what the Internet can do with its truth claims, so it is constantly making truth claims that can be disproven by the Net. But as I said earlier, the company is also never wrong. Tuesday’s announcement included this bit about showing the film:

At no time did Sinclair ever publicly announce that it intended to do so. In fact, since the controversy began, Sinclair’s website has prominently displayed the following statement: “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.”

If sources reporting that Sinclair was preparing to run the film were so ill-informed, why was Josh Marshall able to point to this Yahoo listing a few hours after the press release went out?

Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal

Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal
KSMO Oct 21 08:00pm Add to My Calendar
Special/Other, 60 Mins.
Some Vietnam POWs discuss John Kerry’s 1971 testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Original Airdate: October 21, 2004.

The word I prefer is mendacious. The ur-text for the entire Sinclair Election Year Endgame is Amy Goodman of Democracy Now interviewing Mark Hyman. If you care about this story, you must listen.

One of the more telling moments is when Goodman—no doubt aware that Summer Redstone of Viacom had announced he was voting for Bush because Bush would be better for Vicacom—asked a similar question of Hyman: “Mark Hyman, if the Bush administration were to win, would Sinclair Broadcasting do a little better?” After all, she pointed out, Sinclair has grown large through de-regulation, a climate likely to continue if Michael Powell remains FCC chairman and Bush remains in office.

Notice how the suggestion is not only denied, but derided. The very question is thought absurd, conspiratorial, out-of-bounds. Sinclair doesn’t have a political thought in its head; it wouldn’t even know how to think that way. Hyman is aghast that some people do. That’s the special quality of mendacity I mentioned: Sinclair’s hyper-innocence. Better for Sinclair if Bush wins?

MARK HYMAN: Amy, that’s quite a Machiavellian view you have. But just think about it. If we really wanted to do this for some sort of nefarious reasons, we would just — we could just put that documentary on without any announcement, and just run it, or we could just run John Kerry’s entire testimony from 1971.

AMY GOODMAN: No, if you could just answer that question. In a more deregulated environment —

MARK HYMAN: That’s absurd, Amy. No, I am answering the question. You have got this conspiracy theory going on, and that’s just not reality.

Sinclair is always innocent. Sinclair is always pure. Sinclair wanted to make a 60 Minutes-style hit piece using taped interviews with Kerry. Running Stolen Honor was the threat. But word leaked out, and Stolen Honor became the pivot point of a huge controversy that is revealing to us what Sinclair, under Smith and Hyman, really is: Agnew with Television Stations, a political empire with a commercial base in broadcasting, capable of making alliances and negotiating with princes. Shareholders have been enlisted in an ideological project that is not incidental to Sinclair’s business, but at the core of what the broadcasting group has been created for.

Deep down, the executives want themselves and their convictions on the air: not Stolen Honor. Smith and Hyman wanted to play Don Hewitt and get Kerry on camera. That didn’t happen but look what has. Sinclair has a corporate vice president doing daily commentaries on 62 stations. Why? Because it’s a nifty way to cut costs?

I felt—but its moot now—that Kerry should prey on Sinclair’s empire of narcissism and negotiate great terms for a live, unedited program that he could turn to his advantage. (See this PressThink post.) Not many agreed with me. What we’ll probably see Friday is the 60 Minutes-style hit piece, without a Kerry interview, dressed up to look like a “discussion” of an issue instead of a hit. (Josh Marshall agrees.)

The target will be expanded, however, from just Kerry to the Liberal Media that protects Kerry, and enables attacks on Bush. In the paranoid style, targets are interchangeable, and I bet that comes through in Friday’s show. Last word goes to David Smith in the press release announcing “A POW Story.”

We cannot in a free America yield to the misguided attempts by a small but vocal minority to influence behavior and trample on the First Amendment rights of those with whom they might not agree.

Sinclair has the rights being trampled on. Sinclair is the victim fighting back.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Daily Kos has a transcript of Stolen Honor.

Lex Alexander at the News-Record site has an overview of the Sinclair story with context, history, links galore and a sense of narrative. Great place to start if you are catching up with this company and why it’s in the news. Thanks, Lex.

Joe Flynt, Wall Street Journal (Oct. 22):

Sinclair’s Mr. Smith said in an interview that the most recent backlash against the company “is a classic example of orchestrated confusion on the part of the general media.” Mr. Smith blamed initial news reports that said Sinclair planned to air a documentary called “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” in which prisoners of war discuss pain and betrayal they said they felt at Mr. Kerry’s antiwar activities. Sinclair neither denied nor confirmed those news reports.

Hugh Hewitt, one leader of the right’s charge after Dan Rather, draws parallels between that episode and Sinclair (and mentions PressThink’s coverage):

The impact of toppling Dan Rather’s credibility and with forcing the watering down of the Stolen Honor showing are of course not the same at all, as Rathergate has permanently impacted Rather’s reputation as well as that of CBS and the MSM generally. The validity of Stolen Honor’s claims has not at all been impaired, though Sinclair Broadcasting has now been branded in a way it may or may not regret.

But it was a clear show of strength for the weblogs of the left, underscoring again that the new medium’s role is most noticeable as a watchdog.

Eric Bohlert of Salon captured an important quote in his piece this week. That Zlenick, a conservative voice in journalism, speaks this way shows us that Sinclair is capable of taking bold, unprecedented steps.

Bob Zelnick, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University, a self-described conservative who says he intends to vote for President Bush, calls Sinclair’s decision “an unfortunate precedent” that runs counter to “good journalism” and “is not what network news ought to be about.” A former Pentagon correspondent for ABC News, Zelnick says, “Whether you’re liberal or conservative, if you have roots in the journalism profession, there are core values that transcend and need to survive election to election. You avoid airing, very close to election, highly charged, partisan material that takes the guise of a documentary.”

Aaron Barnhart once interviewed Sinclair CEO David Smith:

David Smith thinks towns in which Sinclair owns stations have untapped groups of viewers who would watch its local TV news. All Sinclair must do is promote itself as being free from the political bias of other local news stations.

Since when is reporting on crimes, fires and other local news of the day political? Smith smiled when I asked him that.

“What would serve you better,” he asked me, “a story about a house fire or a story about the Supreme Court?”

Slate’s Explainer: How Fair Is Sinclair’s Doctrine? Is John Kerry entitled to avenge his Stolen Honor?

Slate’s Dana Stevens on the film: “Stolen Honor is the kind of show you might come across at 2 a.m. as a paid infomercial on a local-access channel and leave on for a few minutes out of sheer fascinated disgust. It’s a sleazy little piece of work, a cunning act of libel-by-insinuation that introduces no facts that have not been public information for at least 30 years.”

Alessandra Stanley, New York Times, does a review: “This histrionic, often specious and deeply sad film does not do much more damage to Senator John Kerry’s reputation than have the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s negative ads, which have flooded television markets in almost every swing state. But it does help viewers better understand the rage fueling the unhappy band of brothers who oppose Mr. Kerry’s candidacy and his claim to heroism.”

When former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt wants to comment on the Sinclair situation, he writes a note to blogger Josh Marshall and Taking Points Memo runs it. See his commentary after the announcement of “A POW Story.”

Sinclair and Watergate, Wall Street Journal, Review & Outlook page, on the pressure campaign targeting Sinclair: “One of the most important protections that a free press has is independent corporate ownership, but what if the Nixon Administration had unleashed its lawyer friends and government pension funds on the Times Company when it was publishing the Pentagon Papers, or the Washington Post when it was digging into Watergate? If the standard now is that stirring controversy is a fraud against shareholders because it may cost ad revenue, a lot more media owners than Sinclair are going to become political targets.”

Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation:

“They better hope we don’t win.”

That’s the blunt warning political operative Chad Clanton recently delivered to the journalists at Sinclair Broadcasting. Clanton’s boss is John Kerry, the subject of a highly critical documentary Sinclair plans to air later this month.

But it isn’t just Sinclair journalists who should worry about this threat. What Clanton has in mind for Sinclair would severely damage the free press guaranteed by the First Amendment…

Media Post, Burger King To Sinclair: ‘We’re Not Having It Your Way’.

Jesse Walker at Reason Online (Oct. 21): First Amendment Hypocrites: The Democratic Party vs. the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Previously at PressThink: Commentary on the Sinclair Challenge

“Call it Commentary, Call it Editorial, Call it Programming, but Don’t Call it News.” Sinclair Fires Jonathan Leiberman By interfering from above (“you will interrupt your schedule, you will run this program, you will call it news…”), and by coloring the news to match the Right’s view of the world, Sinclair hopes to flush out employees who cannot get with its agenda. “All liberals leave” is the message. (PressThink, Oct. 19)

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…” (PressThink, Oct. 16)

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.” (PressThink, Oct. 13)

John Kerry Should Accept Sinclair Broadcasting’s Offer. “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.” (PressThink, Oct. 9)

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 21, 2004 1:25 PM