Facing advertiser defections, a viewer boycott and a plummeting stock price, as well as strong opposition from Democrats, Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. scrapped its plan to air a film that attacks the 1970s-era antiwar activities of Sen. John F. Kerry, and will instead run a special produced by its news division incorporating parts of the movie.
The decision not to run all of “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal” came after several shareholder complaints against the company were announced Tuesday, sending Sinclair shares down 3.5% after a nearly 8% slide Monday.
Sinclair, which owns or controls stations that reach nearly a quarter of all American homes with televisions, also scaled back the number of outlets that would air the revised program, called “A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media.” It will air Friday on 40 of Sinclair’s 62 stations, including three each in the crucial swing states of Ohio and Florida.
According to a Sinclair news release issued late Tuesday, the program would look at the use of documentaries to influence voting in the 2004 campaign, as well as at media bias and the content of “certain of these documentaries.” “Stolen Honor” was the only film cited in the news release.
Sinclair’s announcement caps 10 days in which the company found itself under assault as a symbol of the effects of media consolidation. Its plan to air the film -- never announced publicly but communicated widely to its employees, its stations, its network partners and “Stolen Honor” filmmaker Carlton Sherwood -- drew sharp criticism after it was disclosed in The Times, partly because the proposed air date fell so close to election day in an intensely fought presidential race.
Democratic senators and representatives protested to the Federal Communications Commission, and the Democratic National Committee complained to the Federal Election Commission that the broadcast would be an improper in-kind contribution to the Bush reelection effort. FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said the agency wouldn’t intervene.
Sinclair executives are top donors to the Republican Party, and the company has previously been criticized for eschewing localism in favor of a centralized news operation run from its Maryland headquarters. Critics and even some Sinclair employees said that approach had blurred the line between journalism and right-skewing commentary.
The Sinclair news department got the assignment to do the news program on Sunday, according to Jon Leiberman, Sinclair’s Washington bureau chief. Leiberman was fired Monday for violating company policy by telling the Baltimore Sun he had refused to work on the program. In an interview with The Times, Leiberman said he thought the program should be labeled commentary, not news.
Critics said the new program would probably still represent a wide airing for the charges that Sherwood made in the 42-minute “Stolen Honor” -- namely that Kerry’s anti-Vietnam War activities prolonged the ordeal of American prisoners.
“Why do you need to report this issue in a special on a Friday night in prime time before the election?” said Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University’s journalism department. Sinclair’s centralized newscast seems “invented just for this purpose, when the bosses think some story is being neglected and they want to be sure it gets out to its stations,” Rosen said.
Kerry’s campaign, which had demanded equal time on Sinclair stations to counter “Stolen Honor,” had turned down Sinclair’s request to have the Democratic candidate appear to discuss the “Stolen Honor” charges.
Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton said of the new development: “It remains to be seen whether they decide to put their own narrow interest ahead of the public’s trust.”
Bill Kovach, founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, said the Sinclair case represented the “fear of the opponents of media consolidation -- that ownership could do just this.”
Joshua Micah Marshall’s TalkingPointsMemo.com, a Web log, had been encouraging the protests, said the activists forced Sinclair to change course: “This wouldn’t have happened four years ago,” he said, noting that “an infrastructure for mobilization” now existed among Democrats.
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, said in a statement that the company had “backed down.” “It seems as if the public pressure was more than it could bear,” he said.
Sherwood, the filmmaker, said, “Of course I would have hoped that the entire film would have been aired,” adding that the company’s executives had his “highest respect for all the criticism and financial losses and difficulties they have had to endure as a result of this.” He declined further comment until he could confer with Sinclair.
Sinclair executives didn’t return calls for comment. According to the press release, the program will air at 8 p.m. Friday (7 p.m. Central time) on stations including Sinclair’s only California outlet in Sacramento. Previously, Sinclair had told the networks with which it was affiliated that its stations would preempt network programming for “Stolen Honor” beginning Thursday.
The company said it would limit the airing of the special to one station in each city to “minimize the interruption of normally scheduled programming.” The firm has been a beneficiary of relaxed federal limits on the number of stations one company can control in a market; Sinclair runs two or more outlets in 21 markets nationwide.
Sinclair’s actions came after a day of increased shareholder pressure and evidence that the controversy was drawing wider attention to its already-sinking share price.
On Tuesday, Glickenhaus & Co., an investment firm holding 6,100 Sinclair shares, sent a letter to Sinclair’s board and its chief executive, David D. Smith, asking that they immediately “provide those with views opposed to the allegations in the film an equal opportunity to respond.” The letter threatened legal action to stop the broadcast otherwise, citing Sinclair’s obligation to shareholders. The action was underwritten by the left-leaning advocacy group Media Matters for America.
Also Tuesday, William Lerach, a San Diego attorney with Democratic ties who represents major institutional investors, wrote to Sinclair on behalf of clients -- the only one he would name was the 1199 Service Employees International Union Greater New York Pension Fund -- saying it was “extremely troubled” by the company’s recent downward revision of its expected third-quarter earnings, due out Nov. 4.
Lerach asked that the board take action against what he said was possible insider trading by three senior executives in the last year. Such a request is standard prelude to a shareholder suit, which Lerach said could be filed soon.
New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat, sent Sinclair a letter Tuesday in his capacity as trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, which holds 256,000 Sinclair shares, questioning how the controversy “will improve performance and add to shareholder value.”
Sinclair’s Smith, in the press release, called the experience of preparing the special “trying for many of those involved. The company and many of its executives have endured personal attacks of the vilest nature,” he said, as well as the boycott threats and calls for shareholders to sell stock.
“More shockingly,” he said, “we have received threats of retribution from a member of Sen. John Kerry’s campaign.”
Kerry spokesman Clanton called the charge “ridiculous,” saying, “The only threat here is Sinclair Broadcasting who’s trying to use the airwaves for partisan political purposes.”
Smith added in his statement, “We cannot in a free America yield to the misguided attempts by a small but vocal minority to influence and trample on the First Amendment rights of those with whom they might not agree.”
Times staff writer Scott Collins contributed to this report from Los Angeles.