Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, October 10, 2004
by Susan Ives

Repeat after me: The airwaves belong to the people.

Say it again: The airwaves belong to the people.
Hold that thought.

The Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 62 television stations that reach about a quarter of U.S. viewers (including the Fox and Warner Bros. affiliates in San Antonio) has ordered its stations to pre-empt prime-time broadcasting next week to run “Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal,” a 42-minute anti-Kerry documentary.

The Democratic National Committee and 18 Democratic senators have challenged Sinclair’s action with the Federal Communications Commission, citing a Supreme Court decision in December that prohibits for-profit corporations and labor unions from airing partisan commercials in the 60-day period before an election. They claim Sinclair is making an illegal donation of air space.
Sinclair says it’s not an ad, it’s news. Besides, they’ve invited Sen. John Kerry to answer the allegations.

I paid my $4.99 and watched it over the Internet Tuesday.

“Stolen Honor” interviews former Vietnam War POWs who claim the young Kerry’s vocal opposition to that war demoralized them, was “made up to further his political career” and was treasonous. There’s quite a bit of overlap between this documentary and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s anti-Kerry ads, both in the cast and the message.

The documentary is being called propaganda, but that’s a loaded term. “Stolen Honor” is one-sided. It uses emotionally charged language and images to make a point that goes beyond the surface content of the speech and pictures. It is propaganda in the same way “Fahrenheit 9/11” is propaganda. It tells the truth, for the most part, but only the truth that supports its thesis.

Sinclair is claiming that it is news. In the same sense, so is “Going Upriver,” a film about Kerry’s transformation from naval officer to anti-war protester, which debuted in theaters Oct. 1. So is “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove made George Bush look presidential.” So is “Bush Family Fortunes: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.” I don’t see Sinclair pre-empting prime-time programming to make sure the swing states see these important documentaries.

The Sinclair Group has been upfront about its support of this administration. Its executives have contributed the maximum to the Republican Party and the Bush/Cheney campaign, more than $200,000 since 1997. In April, Sinclair kept its affiliates from running a “Nightline” program naming all the U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq, claiming it was political.

Its corporate spokesman, Mark Hyman, tapes a segment called “The Point” that airs at the end of local news broadcasts at all 62 stations. He regularly calls the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and rails against war protesters and the liberal media.

Sinclair has an agenda, and it’s a Republican, pro-war, conservative agenda. They package it as news and beam it to a quarter of the population.

So what’s wrong with that?

Back to the beginning: The airwaves belong to the people.

Broadcast television stations don’t pay to use the airwaves. Unlike, say, your cell phone company, they get to use the airwaves for free. In exchange, they are required, by law, to serve the public interest. At the least, that means being nonpartisan. They are failing.

The issue isn’t one biased documentary. Since FCC ownership rules were relaxed a decade ago, media conglomerates like Sinclair and San Antonio’s Clear Channel are gobbling up the local media. As media ownership becomes more centralized, these corporations position themselves to influence public opinion, even sway elections.

According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only a third of Americans realize the public owns the airwaves, and only one in 10 are aware the FCC gives stations licenses for free.

Now you know. Enough about stolen honor. How about a documentary on stolen airwaves?

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