Jay Rosen on a political empire made of TV stations

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Practically everyone in America must know by now that Sinclair Broadcasting, a media conglomerate that has 62 local TV stations nationwide (but none in Washington, New York, or Los Angeles), threatened to air an anti-Kerry “documentary” called Stolen Honor in prime time in the home stretch of the presidential election. A storm of protest on and off the Internet, loss of advertisers, complaints from shareholders, and a drop in the company’s stock price forced Sinclair’s execs to pull back from the brink of their right-wing political message and air instead a relatively innocuous, “balanced” show.

As Bob Zelnick, former ABC reporter and head of Boston University’s journalism program, pointed out recently, “market pressures worked on Sinclair exactly as they should have.” End of story. At least, say others, end of story if John Kerry is elected.

Well, says Jay Rosen, journalism reformer and NYU professor, think again. Sinclair — along with its radio counterpart Clear Channel Communications — isn’t just a typical media conglomerate that happens to have a sideline political message; it’s something new in our media world, a political empire made up of television stations. And whoever is elected next week, we better all brace ourselves.

The largest owner of television stations in America, Sinclair until recently existed under the media radar screen, lacking as it does a presence/outlet in America’s political and media capitals. Now it’s swept out of the imperial provinces and into the glare of media attention. Though we don’t yet have a media mogul with a Sinclair-like reach running for office, Italy has been living with the equivalent for years. What we may, in fact, be seeing is the first stage of the Berlusconization of the United States.

Jay Rosen offers below a sobering assessment of the new kid on the media block, one that points us beyond the usual frameworks and towards possible futures that threaten to toss the normal business model of a media corporation out the window. Rosen’s weblog Press Think, which is his own little magazine of the Internet, is a daily must-stop for news and newspaper junkies. Now, step out of the frame, off the charts, and into one possible media future. Tom

Off The Charts
Sinclair Broadcasting’s Political Vision
By Jay Rosen

On October 7th I was interviewed by Elizabeth Jensen, a media-beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who sometimes calls me for expert commentary. She had some news and wanted to get my reaction, but my first reaction was disbelief. My second reaction was: This is going to be huge. What she described sounded so improbable. (And in fact it never came to pass.)

On October 7th I was interviewed by Elizabeth Jensen, a media-beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who sometimes calls me for expert commentary. She had some news and wanted to get my reaction, but my first reaction was disbelief. My second reaction was: This is going to be huge. What she described sounded so improbable. (And in fact it never came to pass.)

On all 62 stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, at different times, on different nights, but close to the election –“like within ten days,” she said — Sinclair was going to interrupt the prime-time programming offered by different networks in different cities where it owns affiliates, and put on the air Stolen Honor, an anti-Kerry documentary — agitprop, as it used to be called — featuring former POWs in Vietnam who, in essence, charge John Kerry with treason for his anti-war efforts. And they were doing all this because….?

It didn’t make any sense. You couldn’t complete the because.

That is, it didn’t make sense within any known model for operating a company that owns local television stations under U.S. law. Customary practice had always precluded a political intervention of any kind near the finish line of an election. Behind this custom was not some grand sense of the public interest shared among stations owners, but a cold realism about electoral politics. Start interfering in the horse race by backing the wrong horse and regulators from the hostile party are likely to make you pay if their guy wins.

In addition, contested elections divide markets; advertisers don’t enjoy that one bit. Kerry voters buy cars and corn flakes, and they watch television. Advertisers don’t want to choose between customer groups, and they don’t want you, their community broadcaster, choosing, either. They don’t want to be making political statements with their ad buys. Why would they?

In Search of Sinclair Logic

For all those reasons — commonsensical, “good business” reasons — plus a little matter of Federal law called the Fairness Doctrine, in force until recently, station owners have held back from any action that would seem to be aiding or attacking a candidate. And the closer to the election, the more cautious they have been. “Ordering stations to carry propaganda? It’s absolutely off the charts,” said former Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt, who served under Clinton.

Eric Bohlert of Salon spoke to Bob Zelnick, ex-Pentagon correspondent for ABC News, now chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University and “a self-described conservative who says he intends to vote for President Bush.” Zelnick, who on other occasions might be defending a company like Sinclair, said, “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.”

Sinclair was not only breaking with broadcast custom, it was smashing idols by threatening to show a 42-minute film, Stolen Honor, which by any measure was “highly charged, partisan material.” The interesting part to me was: Why risk it? Acquiring Stolen Honor with the intention of using it must have fit into Sinclair’s plans for itself somehow, but how?

So I went in search of the Sinclair logic. This was a company I knew a little about from an earlier episode, equally strange in its way. Last April, Ted Koppel decided to read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq on a Nightline. It was called “The Fallen.” Sinclair sent a clear message: no way, Ted. We won’t permit it on the eight ABC stations we own. Koppel said it was the first time anything like that had happened to Nightline. In an open letter to Sinclair executives, Senator John McCain denounced the company for refusing to air the program. Sinclair’s CEO David Smith wrote a response giving no ground. Notice how his letter instantly politicizes what the “other side” is doing:

Nightline is not reporting news; it is doing nothing more than making a political statement. In simply reading the names of our fallen heroes, this program has adopted a strategy employed by numerous anti-war demonstrators who wish to focus attention solely on the cost of war. In fact, lest there be any doubt about Nightline‘s motivation, both Mr. Koppel and Nightline’s executive producer have acknowledged that tonight’s episode was influenced by the Life Magazine article listing the names of dead soldiers in Vietnam, which article was widely credited with furthering the opposition to the Vietnam war and with creating a backlash of public opinion against the members of the U.S. military who had proudly served in that conflict…”

And “The Fallen” did indeed go unseen in Sinclair cities. Now, this was not normal practice when it came to a controversial broadcast by a network news division. ABC and Ted Koppel would normally be held responsible for the content of Nightline — not Sinclair Broadcasting. The owner of a local station would not endorse “The Fallen” simply by distributing the regular ABC schedule. An affiliate could “stay out of it” simply by referring questions and complaints to ABC News. The producer of the program is the one who takes the editorial risk; that’s good business, good journalism, and common sense.

But Sinclair had other ideas. It had no desire to stay out the politics of “The Fallen.” It wanted in. And so its executives went out of their way to create controversy from the Koppel show, especially when they accused ABC News of disloyalty to the American cause. “The action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq,” Sinclair insisted in a statement posted on its website during that week in April.

It may not have been clear to me then where Sinclair was going, but after Elizabeth Jensen’s phone call, I realized that the anomalies were beginning to add up: Sinclair was taking actions not normal for a commercial broadcaster because it was not a normal broadcaster at all. It had political ambitions new to our mainstream media, including an urge to speak out publicly and involve itself as a company in controversy. The more carefully you examined its moves, the clearer and more self-conscious the political design was.

Take the 62 stations it either owns or controls in 39 markets, reaching at least one quarter of the country, including 8-9 swing states in the current election. Take its amazing record of success in pushing beyond the old limits on ownership that once prevented a company like Sinclair from controlling more than a handful of television stations. Or take its plan to keep growing by accumulating more properties (TV, radio, and — it hopes — newspapers) in markets where it already owns one or two TV stations.

Take its vision of a new kind of national news service, News Central, controlled from Sinclair headquarters, embedded in local news hours around America, and more aggressive than Fox News Channel in “correcting” for liberal bias. Finally, take the editorial voice in which Sinclair broadcasts its views to the nation– that of Mark Hyman, Vice President for Corporate Affairs at Sinclair — a lobbyist — and the sole proprietor of a commentary slot called “The Point,” a few minutes of air time created just for him to rant from the Right on all Sinclair stations in all 39 markets, an arrangement so unusual that Hyman literally has no peer in America. No one else has a job even remotely like his.

In these ways, and others I have described, Sinclair has revealed its intentions: to become the broadcast network that ur-conservative candidate Barry Goldwater never had. Hyman himself was to be a Spiro Agnew with TV stations. I say that because Sinclair was constructed not on a normal business model, but on a mountain of debt partly to televise the politics of cultural resentment. This has been a successful strategy for Republicans ever since Richard Nixon ran as a law-and-order candidate defined against the anarchy of long-haired protestors in the streets.

Here, then, is part of a typical Mark Hyman on-air commentary in which the role of the decadent, corrupt liberal elite is played by Hollywood celebrities who involve themselves in politics. It’s a Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity message with the usual “hot” language and stark imagery, but this time the speaker is a media executive:

“… Did the postal carrier argue that you need to pay even more in taxes? Common, everyday workers don’t lobby you on issues of the day. But Hollywood celebrities and other entertainers believe it’s their job to tell you how to vote.

“Consider that many famous celebrities live lifestyles exceeding that of royalty. They live in gated homes, sometimes with security guards. Their children attend high-priced expensive schools. They eat in restaurants that don’t admit average diners like you and me. They drive or are driven in luxury cars.

“Often they are on their third, fourth or fifth marriage or relationship. Or both at the same time. Illegal drug use and alcohol abuse are common. They use their status to get free travel, hotel rooms, food and entertainment. They throw public fits if they don’t get special privileges….”

A Political Empire Made of Television Stations

Sinclair, I came to see, wasn’t a normal media conglomerate in the making, not even in the Rupert Murdoch mold with forays into right-wing politics. It was a kind of political force accumulating broadcast assets, intending to use them at strategic moments in order to keep growing, yes, but also to swell in influence, reputation, “voice.” Between the last election and this one, Sinclair had developed the capacity to intervene in politics using its 62 local stations as loudspeakers for a message synthesized at the center.

That’s what “The Point” starring Hyman is: a demonstration of Sinclair’s power to speak out nationally and from deep within the cultural resentments of the Right. And that’s the same Mark Hyman who then deals with government regulators and agencies, trying to get the best deal for Sinclair, a company that has a history of constantly pushing the regulatory envelope. It owes its whole existence to the politics of deregulation, which must be pushed ever harder to provide Sinclair with the opportunities it wants. As Barry M. Faber, Sinclair’s general counsel, told the Washington Post, “we are a deregulation company.” That puts it very well.

How much extra power does Hyman have in negotiations with politicians and regulators by virtue of being on the air and ranting every day, or by virtue of his perceived influence at News Central? I don’t know the answer. But I think Sinclair is organized to find that answer out and apply it with force. Thought of another way, Sinclair is basically a political empire made of television stations, the first of its kind in our country. That empire acted once with “The Fallen,” then again with the threat of airing Stolen Honor. It tried to use the film to pressure Kerry onto the air for a one-hour program where he would have had to confront the POW’s charges of treason ten days before the vote.

As it turned out, the ploy was far-fetched and it didn’t work, but if everything had fallen the right way, Sinclair would have delivered a second Vietnam groin-kick — the first being those ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — to Kerry, thus knocking down his numbers at just the right time to turn the election’s outcome. Not only would the company have cashed in and gotten the regulatory relief it wanted during a second Bush term, but it could have started to cast a bigger shadow politically and with its news operation. Simple example: the Bush team sends a message down the line: When you’re stiffing the rest of the press, remember to feed News Central and strengthen Sinclair. Just because it didn’t happen this month doesn’t mean it can’t in the years ahead.

“Off the charts,” former FCC’er Reed Hundt said about the Stolen Honor scheme. And he was, of course right; if, that is, we stand here in October 2004 and look back at the era of broadcast regulation — the one we grew up with. But those charts are no longer valid; they don’t actually tell us where we are. This is what Sinclair, a nouveau media company, is saying to us loud and clear: Turn around and look ahead to where that speeding train, deregulation, is going! It’s been happening for 15 years, in Democratic and Republican administrations. Changes in law, public policy, technology, and the media industry have made possible a new kind of media enterprise: the imperial political broadcaster that involves itself in public fights as a way of showing others what it stands for, what it’s willing to do, and what kind of muscle it has.

Unlike a traditional broadcaster, Sinclair didn’t want to stay out of the election. It wanted in, and that’s where the whole Stolen Honor episode began. But it miscalculated wildly on what the consequences would be when its plans became known. Sinclair wanted to intervene in the election by jockeying with Kerry and publicizing the POW charges; it was willing to be bold. But imagination and the will to be outrageous failed the company at the critical moment. It was not quite bold enough to say: we have a First Amendment right to intervene (which may in fact be true), and to air a propaganda film in the final stretch of the campaign — and if we decide to do that, we damn well can. Sinclair wasn’t willing to be that up front. The path it took instead was to label the Stolen Honor documentary “news” rather than call it “politics” or “commentary”: news a decadent elite would not allow through to America.

Here is Mark Hyman with a sympathetic Britt Hume of Fox News. Hyman is trying to suggest that Sinclair had no choice but to seek a forum for the POWs to air their allegations. After all, he claimed, it can’t determine when news is going to break, can it?

“HUME: So what is your response to the allegation that this is basically a political smear, 30 days or less before the election?

“HYMAN: Well, we can’t dictate the fact that these folks were Vietnam POWs, that they finally broke 31 years of silence on the topic they feel is important to them. They recently came forward. We understand from the filmmakers that they approached the broadcast networks about a month ago, and asked to have an audience, if you will, and were turned down flatly.

“So when it became available to us, we spent a few weeks vetting their stories to make sure these people were exactly who they were, make sure there were no forged documents in this process. And then we said look, the story is legitimate. They’ve made some allegations, and they need to be aired. Because frankly, up until two days ago, most people in America have never heard of these people because the news gatekeepers have not addressed their topics.”

Disappointing the Soldiers of the Right

When news got out about Stolen Honor, and Kerry wouldn’t play ball, political opposition to Sinclair crystallized overnight — including pressure on advertisers to cease doing business with a company that would intervene in politics that way. The company’s stock price went into a free fall. Democrats in Congress reacted furiously. Wall Street professionals sounded worried. Press attention was almost totally negative. Sinclair had created a storm, deliberately it seems, but like a beginning surfer it didn’t know how to ride the wave and get swept somewhere new.

At the climactic moment, when it had to decide what to put on the air, it did not do what its constituency on the cultural Right was hotly expecting. It did not broadcast Stolen Honor during the election’s final days, or get Kerry under its studio lights. The disappointment to the soldiers of the Right was palpable. At last, they had thought, the party of Barry Goldwater has its own television network.

They were shocked by the final program: “A POW Story,” which aired Oct 22nd. It had only a few minutes from Stolen Honor, offset by a few minutes from Going Upriver, a pro-Kerry agitprop film. The POWs spoke. But other Vietnam Vets spoke about the integrity of Kerry’s anti-war stance. In a clumsy and improvised way, Sinclair retreated to a “balanced” presentation, because it did not know what else to do in a messy political jam. The very charts it went off by hatching its scheme it was back on by episode’s end. The Baltimore Sun‘s television critic David Zurawik had a shrewd assessment of what eventually aired — a mediocre program that in no way justified the risk of market meltdown or the cost in reputation that Sinclair had paid since the news about Stolen Honor broke. “The show seemed more an attempt by Sinclair to dig its way out of controversy than an examination of the Vietnam War record and anti-war protests of Democrat John Kerry, as promised,” wrote Zurawik.

“In an opening statement, anchorman Jeff Barnd tried to cast Sinclair as a victim of those who would deny the broadcast company basic First Amendment rights. ‘It boils down to a fight over the First Amendment,’ Barnd said. ‘Some people are trying to suppress the rights of free speech.’

“He attempted to create the sense that Democrats in Congress, Kerry’s campaign attorneys and others in government were trying to keep Sinclair from airing the show — all part of what Barnd called ‘spin alley.'”

Sinclair backed down… this time. But it did manage to portray itself as a victimized free speaker whose rights were threatened. Sinclair, the empire that makes politicized television, locally distributed, centrally controlled — that creature remains intact. It will be on the agenda for a Kerry or a Bush administration, because it needs to get bigger and it lives off the momentum of continued deregulation. It also thrives in an atmosphere of culture war.

Seems like a simple thing to “stop” Sinclair by electing John Kerry. But the company began its expansion in 1991 and has been on a steady rise ever since. Eight years of Clinton and four years of Bush are responsible for the Sinclair we have now — a “deregulation company,” as its counsel says. One wonders, too: if it were the Soros, and not the Sinclair Broadcast Group, would the dangers be as clear to progressives? Despite its recent defeat, Sinclair Broadcast Group is still an off-the-charts company. To account for its presence what we need are new charts, no matter what happens in the election next week.

If Bush is President, Sinclair will continue to grow as the rules continue to fall. But that won’t require much thought. If Kerry wins, the puzzle will be greater: what do you do with a political broadcaster aligned against you? Sinclair got here by flying under the radar, the preferred method of winning regulatory “relief.” But that phase is clearly over. Some might say the system worked: Sinclair got the message, and retreated. I say the system jerked, and Sinclair realized how little there is to stop it.

Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University, is a leading figure in the reform movement known as “public journalism,” which calls on the press to take a more active role in strengthening citizenship and improving democracy. His book What Are Journalists For? addresses this topic. As a press critic and essayist, he has written about the media and political issues for the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, the New York Times, Salon, and Tikkun — and almost daily at his weblog Press Think.

Copyright C2004 Jay Rosen