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?"
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."
Sinclair included one segment on the controversy over Bush's National Guard service, without delving into great detail. "Some say Mr. Bush signed up for the Air National Guard to avoid the draft," a Sinclair reporter said. "There are questions about whether he fulfilled his duties." A retired colonel was shown saying Bush had flown more hours than most pilots, while a former Guardsman from another unit to which Bush was assigned said no one ever saw him there.
A segment called "Media Run Wild?" included CBS anchor Dan Rather's apology for using unverified documents in accusing Bush of having received favorable treatment from the Guard. Spokesmen for the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs and the libertarian Cato Institute briefly debated whether Sinclair should be doing such a program.
The hour ended with scrolling type proclaiming the company's right under the First Amendment to air the special, adding: "If you agree with Sinclair, let the FCC know by going to fcc.gov." Democrats have complained to the Federal Communications Commission about Sinclair's actions.
Sinclair's stock dropped by more than 15 percent after it announced plans to air "Stolen Honor." The stock rebounded when Sinclair backed away from initial plans to carry the entire 42-minute film.
Critics -- including Sinclair's Washington bureau chief, who was fired after he protested the company's plans -- had charged that the planned program reflected the company's pro-Bush agenda. Sinclair refused last spring to carry an edition of "Nightline" in which anchor Ted Koppel read the names of all Americans killed in Iraq, saying this would advance an antiwar agenda.
Joe DeFeo, Sinclair's vice president for news, said he was "disappointed" the Kerry campaign refused to participate but that company staffers had "done our best" to include his side of the story. He said there had been "some inaccuracies out there" about the planned program, "and if we're being criticized for those, that's unfair. . . . This is meant to be as much information as we can get out there on the candidates before the election."
Sinclair aired the program in all 40 markets in which it has at least one station, many of them in swing states, and on its flagship station, Baltimore's WBFF.
A group called StopSinclair.org, part of an anti-Bush political action committee, announced an ad campaign in three swing states -- Ohio, Nevada and Wisconsin -- where the company has television stations. The ad charges that Sinclair "airs a fake news show, trying to throw the election to Bush."
Some on the right were disappointed by the final product. On the conservative Free Republic Web site, one poster wrote: "Sinclair has caved to the pressure. Very obvious that they're running scared. [They're] letting the Kerry camp spout the same old BS without challenge."