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.
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.
The company's critics say the Smith family has used its stations regularly to advance a conservative ideology.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sinclair on-air news personnel read statements supporting the Bush administration's efforts against terrorism. Last May, Sinclair's eight ABC affiliate stations refused to air a "Nightline" special that named the U.S. war dead, saying it would undermine the war effort. Sinclair dispatched commentator Mark Hyman -- whose one-minute editorials that air on the company's stations typically are conservative -- to Iraq to find uplifting stories, saying the mainstream media were producing only negative coverage of the war. Sinclair's decision to air parts of "Stolen Honor" was widely regarded as more of the same.
Smith said his critics misread his intentions.
"You want a litmus test? I'm an environmentalist. Stay the hell out of my streams. Does that make a liberal because I like trees and water?" Smith said. "You want another litmus test? I hunt and fish. Leave my guns alone. I've had guns since I was 10 years old. Does that make me a conservative?"
Some broadcasters criticized Sinclair's timing.
"We don't think it's appropriate for a broadcaster who has as many stations as they do to be giving the appearance of being so directly political at such a key political moment," said NBC Universal Inc. Chairman Robert C. Wright in an interview yesterday.
Four of Sinclair's stations are NBC affiliates, but thankfully, Wright said, "We don't depend on them for a great deal of audience."
In the usually collegial world of local broadcast, Sinclair belongs to few trade groups. Smith has given many of his peers the impression that he may as well be making widgets instead of running a business that has special obligations to serve the public interest, an impression Smith does little to dispel.
"I make money by virtue of the fact that I'm in the news business, the paid-programming business, the . . . syndication business," he said. "I'm in a whole lot of businesses all being fed through one pipeline."
Before taking over Sinclair from his father, the founding Julian Sinclair Smith, David Smith operated a company that made television transmitter equipment. It was there he acquired a detailed knowledge of broadcasting's technical side. He continues to be admired for what some have called his visionary plans for the future of digital broadcasting.
During the early days of television's conversion to digital signals, Smith argued that the industry was adopting the wrong digital broadcast standard and advocated a different one. But few listened because his prickly reputation undercut his credibility, said one broadcaster who, like others interviewed, would not be named because he does business with Smith. It turned out that Smith was right and the industry eventually had to fix flaws in the standard it chose, delaying the rollout of digital television.
Sinclair pioneered the "local management agreement" that allows the company to manage more stations than it otherwise would be allowed to own in a particular city. For instance, Sinclair owns Birmingham's WTTO, a WB station, and WABM (UPN) but also runs WDBB (WB). While other broadcasters admire the efficiency of the agreements, they acknowledge that they fuel the anti-consolidation forces.
"I think David is an incredibly bright guy who really has been an innovator," said Jeffrey H. Smulyan, chief executive for Emmis Communications Corp., which owns 16 television and 27 radio stations. "But sometimes it is hard for him to see other points of view and work with others. I wish he would be cognizant of others."
Sinclair is "very controversial in the industry," said Alan Frank, president of The Washington Post Co.'s six-station television group and head of a group of network-affiliated stations (one of which competes with two Sinclair stations in San Antonio). "Other broadcasters are not always aligned with them."
Sinclair's tactics frequently have drawn fire from public interest groups that fear media concentration and abuse of the public airwaves, a criticism that does not trouble Smith.
"They just do what public interest groups do, which is make noise that suits their agenda," Smith said, noting that his acquisitions have received approval from the federal authorities. "If the public interest groups have a problem, it's not with me. It's with the FCC and [the Department of] Justice."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.