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Sinclair Broadcasting theft of honor stopped

by Siv Palm, assoc. Opinion editor


Did public opinion, money, or the law defeat Sinclair Broadcasting’s attempt to steal John Kerry’s honor?


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 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 rebuttal.

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 bought ads 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.



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