Few Americans have heard of David D. Smith, a low-key Baltimore businessman with a million-dollar salary. Or, for that matter, of his three brothers, Frederick, Robert and J. Duncan.
But the four men, while shunning the media spotlight, have assembled the nation's largest collection of television stations, a family-run operation that reflects their conservative views and time and again has sided with President Bush.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Smiths' company, Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc., ordered its local anchors to read editorials backing the administration against al Qaeda. Earlier this year, Sinclair sent a vice president who has called John F. Kerry a liar to Iraq to find good news stories that it said were being overlooked by the biased liberal press. And the Smith brothers and their executives have made 97 percent of their political donations during the 2004 election cycle to Bush and the Republicans.
Now Sinclair's decision to order its 62 stations to carry a movie attacking Kerry's Vietnam record is drawing political fire -- not least from the Democratic National Committee, which plans to file a federal complaint today accusing the company of election-law violations. "Sinclair's owners aren't interested in news, they're interested in pro-Bush propaganda," said DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, whose complaint will accuse the firm of making an in-kind contribution to the Bush campaign.
How the Smith brothers turned a handful of stations they took over in 1986 into a national chain of network affiliates is a testament not only to their ingenuity but to relaxed federal restrictions that critics say allow such companies to amass too much market power. David Smith, 53, who once founded a firm that made transmitters for UHF stations, now controls stations from Buffalo to Sacramento, including 20 Fox affiliates, eight from ABC, four from NBC and three from CBS.
In the four days since the Los Angeles Times disclosed that Sinclair has told its stations to preempt regular programming and air "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," by former Washington Times reporter and Vietnam veteran Carlton Sherwood, industry executives have said they cannot think of a precedent involving a major television chain.
"This is an abuse of the public trust," Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, said in a statement yesterday. "And it is proof positive of media consolidation run amok when one owner can use the public airwaves to blanket the country with its political ideology -- whether liberal or conservative."
Eighteen Democratic senators, led by Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), sent a letter to the FCC yesterday requesting an investigation into Sinclair's decision "to air such a blatantly partisan attack in lieu of regular programming."
Josh Silver, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Free Press, said: "Sinclair is putting their political interests ahead of journalistic standards by calling this anti-Kerry documentary news, which it's not. . . . It's reprehensible at best, illegal at worst."
But Heritage Foundation media analyst Mark Tapscott called it a free speech issue, saying: "Why are we even thinking about limiting what a media organization can publish? There are lots of things in the world that are unfair."