Sinclair Broadcasting Company, which owns 62
TV channels, told their stations to preempt a two-hour time
slot two days before the Nov. 2 election. In that slot they
scheduled a documentary called Stolen Honor that showed U.S.
soldiers who had been held as prisoners of war in Vietnam.
These men claimed that presidential candidate John Kerry’s
antiwar statements, made in the early ‘70s, were used
against them by their Vietnamese captors. They claim, in the
documentary, that Kerry stole their honor and made life in
Vietnamese captivity harder for them.
The documentary was made by the same Republican party-funded
organization that attacked Kerry’s war record, Vietnam
Veterans for Truth. The democratic-leaning Web site fair.org
questions the authenticity of the prisoners and the accuracy
of their claim, but this would not have stopped Sinclair Broadcasting
from airing the documentary.
Nor would the opposition of the Federal Communication Commission,
which has rules for the broadcasting of political material before
an election. One of those rules is the requirement that equal
time be given each candidate.
If a broadcaster airs a commentary--a feature or documentary--related
to any of the candidates, the other candidate, or the opposing
view on the case, must be given the same amount of airtime for
The problem with Sinclair’s Stolen Honor documentary was
that the company insisted it was news, and they refused to give
airtime to an anti-Bush, or pro-Kerry program. This possible
violation of FCC rules, in an election as filled with controversy
as this one, caused a national uproar. First the Sinclair TV
channels themselves were not happy about being told to air something
whether they liked it or not. Next, the case engaged ordinary
people including Sinclair advertisers and stockholders.
The stockholders started sending in letters protesting the
scheduled airing of the program, and businesses that usually
from Sinclair began hinting at pulling those ads. In addition,
the Kerry camp pointed out that the dedication of two hours of
programming on 62 channels might subject Sinclair to charges
of illegal campaign contributions.
In the end, Sinclair re-edited the documentary and aired only
a small portion of it, as news.
The winner here is the U.S. public. If the public had not cared
about the possible violation of the FCC rules, or about the possible
violation of campaign spending laws, things might have been different.
The FCC does not charge anyone before a violation has been committed.
They only warn, and fine afterwards. This meant that Sinclair
could have aired the documentary, affected the outcome of the
election, and then after six months to a year, received a fine.
Would the threat of such an action have gotten Sinclair Broadcasting
Company to change its plans? Company management is at this time
claiming it never changed its plans, and that how and what to
air was never fully determined on Sinclair’s part.