It's as if Bill Gates were to say he doesn't spend much time on the computer, or that Daniel Snyder actually prefers bridge to football. The head of the nation's largest collection of television stations insists that he rarely watches the shows his stations air, including parts of the anti-John Kerry documentary that brought so much controversy to his doorstep over the past two weeks.
In a rare, wide-ranging and sometimes feisty and combative interview on Friday, David D. Smith, chief executive of Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., said he has been mischaracterized as a Republican activist who has attempted to use his family-controlled company to support GOP causes. He denied trying to sway the presidential election by requiring his stations to air a special on Friday that included several minutes of "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," which features former Vietnam POWs saying their captors used Kerry's postwar testimony before Congress against them.
Sinclair Broadcast Group chairman and chief executive David D. Smith says he has been inaccurately painted as a Republican activist.
(Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.)
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Instead, he said he agreed to broadcast portions of the documentary in the interest of free speech after the networks declined to air it. Smith, 54, said he spends most of his TV time watching golf and never meddles with the news operation of his Hunt Valley, Md., company.
"People describe me as a right-wing loony-tune conservative," Smith said. "The news on the [Sinclair] Sacramento CBS affiliate could be the most liberal left-wing loony-tune ever invented, but I couldn't tell you. . . . I don't watch my Sacramento news. The fact that we're in control supposedly of all the TV stations -- I'm not in control of anything. That news organization has 100 people in it and they've all got their own view."
Smith apparently planned to air "Stolen Honor" in its entirety initially. But after Democrats and others cried foul, the company ended up broadcasting only portions of the documentary in a special called "A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media." Members of some public interest groups who watched the special, which also included footage from a pro-Kerry documentary, said the show was more balanced than they had expected.
The controversy nevertheless stoked debate about the ability of large media companies to influence public affairs. Sinclair Broadcasting has accumulated 62 television stations in recent years, more than the number owned by networks such as ABC and CBS. Smith said federal regulations preventing his company from growing larger should be relaxed so Sinclair can better compete with cable and satellite companies. But critics argued that the company's initial plan showed what is possible when one company owns too many stations.
Before Sinclair decided on the final product, Federal Communications Commission member Michael J. Copps, a likely candidate to take over the agency if Kerry wins the presidency, said Sinclair's actions were "proof positive of media consolidation run amok when one owner can use the public airwaves to blanket the country with its political ideology."
Smith, however, said he has given more money to Democrats than Republicans, "because I live in a Democratic state [Maryland]," he said, adding he has met Bush only once, at a party in Maine.
Federal Election Commission records of Smith's contributions going back to 1997 show only $1,250 in donations to Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's congressional campaign and a $1,000 contribution to Al Gore. The rest, including $22,000 in "soft money" donations, total more than $32,000 to President Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and other Republicans. Brothers Frederick G. Smith and J. Duncan Smith, also Sinclair board members, have made tens of thousands of dollars in GOP contributions over the same period, record show.
Maryland records show Smith has made a number of smaller donations to Democrats such as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County officials -- County Executive James T. Smith, Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, and Del. Adrienne A. Jones.