The conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose television outlets reach nearly a quarter of the nation's homes with TV, is ordering its stations to preempt regular programming just days before the Nov. 2 election to air a film that attacks Sen. John F. Kerry's activism against the Vietnam War, network and station executives familiar with the plan said Friday.
Sinclair's programming plan, communicated to executives in recent days and coming in the thick of a close and intense presidential race, is highly unusual even in a political season that has been marked by media controversies.
Sinclair has told its stations -- many of them in political swing states such as Ohio and Florida -- to air "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," sources said. The film, funded by Pennsylvania veterans and produced by a veteran and former Washington Times reporter, features former POWs accusing Kerry -- a decorated Navy veteran turned war protester -- of worsening their ordeal by prolonging the war. Sinclair will preempt regular prime-time programming from the networks to show the film, which may be classified as news programming, according to TV executives familiar with the plan.
Executives at Sinclair did not return calls seeking comment, but the Kerry campaign accused the company of pressuring its stations to influence the political process.
"It's not the American way for powerful corporations to strong-arm local broadcasters to air lies promoting a political agenda," said David Wade, a spokesman for the Democratic nominee's campaign. "It's beyond yellow journalism; it's a smear bankrolled by Republican money, and I don't think Americans will stand for it."
Sinclair stations are spread throughout the country, in major markets that include Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas; its only California station is in Sacramento. Fourteen of the 62 stations the company either owns or programs are in the key political swing states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where the presidential election is being closely fought.
Station and network sources said they have been told the Sinclair stations -- which include affiliates of Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC, as well as WB and UPN -- will be preempting regular programming for one hour between Oct. 21 and Oct. 24, depending on the city. The airing of "Stolen Honor" will be followed by a panel discussion, which Kerry will be asked to join, thus potentially satisfying fairness regulations, the sources said.
Kerry campaign officials said they had been unaware of Sinclair's plans to air the film, and said Kerry had not received an invitation to appear.
No one familiar with the plan was willing to criticize it publicly, some because they said they don't know all the details of what Sinclair plans for the panel that follows. But a number of people privately expressed outrage at the seemingly overt nature of the political attack, which comes during a tight election and at a time when the media are under assault as never before. Cable's Fox News Channel was attacked in the summer by a coalition of liberal groups for what they said were its efforts to boost Republicans; in recent weeks, CBS' Dan Rather has been criticized by conservatives, as well as some nonpartisan journalists, for a "60 Minutes" broadcast that used now-discredited documents in a report saying President Bush received favorable treatment when in the Texas Air National Guard in the 1970s.
Democrats have for some time accused Sinclair, a publicly traded company based in Maryland, of a having a right-wing agenda.
The company made headlines in April when it ordered seven of its stations not to air Ted Koppel's "Nightline" roll call of military dead in Iraq, deeming it a political statement "disguised as news content." Sen. John McCain, the Republican from Arizona who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was among those who criticized Sinclair's decision not to air the "Nightline" program, which featured the names and pictures of more than 700 U.S. troops.
Even before the "Nightline" controversy, Sinclair drew criticism because of the combination of its highly centralized news operations, which often include conservative commentary, and its almost exclusively Republican political giving. In the 2004 political cycle, Sinclair executives have given nearly $68,000 in political contributions, 97% to Republicans, ranking it 12th among top radio and TV station group contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.
The upcoming "Stolen Honor" will probably bring fresh attention to Sinclair. "I can't think of a precedent of holding up programming to show a political documentary at a point where it would have the maximum effect on the vote," said Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University's journalism department. But the program will only be the latest in a string of politically charged media events in this campaign. Representatives of Michael Moore's anti-Bush "Fahrenheit 9/11," which has grossed $214 million worldwide, are in talks for a deal to make the film available on pay-per-view cable the night before the election. The Sundance Channel plans to air live clips Monday from the anti-Bush "Vote for Change" rock concert.
Cable, however, doesn't have the reach of broadcast stations like Sinclair's, nor is it subject to the same federal regulations. Still, although broadcast stations are required to provide equal time to major candidates in an election campaign, the Sinclair move may not run afoul of those provisions if Kerry or a representative is offered time to respond. Moreover, several sources said Sinclair had told them it planned to classify the program as news, where the rules don't apply.
Calling it news, however, poses its own problems, said Keith Woods, dean of the faculty at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla., that teaches professional ethics. "To air a documentary intended to provide a one-sided view of Kerry's record and call it news -- it's like calling Michael Moore's movie news," he said, adding that the closer to an election that a controversial news report is aired, the "higher the bar has to go" in terms of fairness.
Clearly, Sinclair's reach will bring a much wider audience to the film. The 42-minute film has only been available on DVD or for $4.99 through an Internet download, although fans had been mounting an Internet campaign to get it wider exposure.
"Stolen Honor" was made by Carlton Sherwood, a Vietnam veteran and former reporter for the conservative Washington Times who is also the author of a book about the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. On the website for the film, he tells viewers, "Intended or not, Lt. Kerry painted a depraved portrait of Vietnam veterans, literally creating the images of those who served in combat as deranged drug-addicted psychopaths, baby killers" that endured for 30 years in the popular culture.
Sherwood did not return calls seeking comment.
Times staff writers Lynn Smith and Robert W. Welkos in Los Angeles contributed to this report.