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Softened Strike: Sinclair Program Critical of Kerry, But More Balanced

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2004; Page C01

Sinclair Broadcast Group last night aired a program that sharply criticized John Kerry over Vietnam, with the anchor declaring: "Some people are trying to suppress the right to free speech."

After two weeks of accusations of partisan bias, the hour-long special led off with Carlton Sherwood, who produced the anti-Kerry film "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," saying: "What is John Kerry's campaign afraid of?"

Demonstraters protesting Sinclair Broadcast Group rally yesterday near the White House. Sinclair aired a program largely critical of John Kerry last night. (Jocelyn Augustino -- AP)

One of the former Vietnam prisoners of war featured in the film, Jim Warner, was shown near the top of the show assailing Kerry for his 1971 Senate testimony charging U.S. atrocities in the war. "He was saying things that he knew were false, knew would harm us. That means he abandoned his comrades," Warner said.

Anchor Jeff Barnd appeared to adopt the film's central thesis by saying of Kerry: "His words would have a profound effect on our prisoners of war."

While a good portion of the Baltimore-based company's show, "A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media," offered some balance, the opening minutes made Kerry out to be a traitor, and the way the issues were framed -- with only a few minutes devoted to President Bush's military service -- put the Kerry side squarely on the defensive.

The 62-station television chain aired about five minutes of "Stolen Honor," including ex-POW Jack Van Loan declaring: "To say we were rapists, murderers, pillagers is absolutely a lie." Another former POW, Paul Galanti, said Kerry lied by saying he had witnessed American soldiers cutting off people's ears and heads -- although Kerry had attributed that part of his testimony to a group of antiwar veterans making such charges.

After this sustained barrage, there were several attempts at showcasing the other side. Kerry, questioned at an Oct. 14 Las Vegas news conference by a Sinclair reporter, said that "this campaign is not about 35 years ago. . . . I have great support from veterans all across the country. . . . There are a lot of lies out there, unfortunately."

Toward the end of the first half, the program showed about four minutes of George Butler's Kerry-friendly documentary, "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," in which former crewman Jim Rassmann described how Lt. Kerry saved his life by fishing him out of the Bay Hap River. "I'm sure had he not run over there and pulled me out, I'd probably be dead," Rassmann said.

After the program, Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton called it "a premeditated smear" that obscured "the plain truth -- John Kerry was a war hero who was decorated for bravery." Referring to Sinclair's top executives, he said: "It's not surprising that these guys who have given all this money to the Bush campaign did what they did."

But spokesmen for several liberal and public policy groups said in a conference call that the program was far better than they had been led to expect and that they saw no reason to support earlier Democratic demands for equal time. "In general, it appears Sinclair listened to the American people," said Gene Kimmelman, Washington director of Consumers Union. "Sinclair certainly was acting like a broadcaster should tonight."

Asked earlier about the program, Sinclair chief executive David Smith said in an interview: "The only thing that was of interest to us was the fact that these pilots were shot down over Vietnam and lived in prison camps and were not being given the opportunity to be interviewed and tell their stories." Smith said he watched only the first two minutes of "Stolen Honor" but decided "we should do something to offer these military people silenced for 35 years the chance to say something."

During the program's first half, Barnd interviewed two anti-Bush and two pro-Bush veterans. First up in the company's Baltimore studio were critics Mike Cronin and Kevin McManus. "John Kerry is probably the first man in 200 years of American history to make Benedict Arnold look good," McManus said.

In Washington, one of the pro-Kerry vets, Robert Muller, said the ex-POWs' anger was "totally misplaced," prompting a rebuttal from Cronin before Muller and a second Kerry supporter, Dick Klass, made final comments. Later, filmmaker Butler said there were "inaccuracies" in "Stolen Honor" and denied that prisoners suffered further torture "because of John Kerry's desire to end the war and bring them home."

Sherwood, the Vietnam veteran and former journalist and Bush administration official who made "Stolen Honor," kicked off the second half. He said that for 33 years he has had "to endure the legacy of John Kerry's smear and libel on all combat veterans."

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