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."
Democratic officials acknowledge that the Federal Election Commission is unlikely to act on their complaint before Election Day. News is exempt from federal equal-time rules, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit public interest law firm. And even if "Stolen Honor" were deemed not to be news, Kerry would not necessarily be entitled to equal time because he, not Bush, is featured in the film.
If the law remains murky, Sinclair's political philosophy is anything but. Mark E. Hyman, the company vice president who went to Iraq in search of uplifting news, is an unabashed Bush supporter and Republican Party donor who delivers a daily commentary on Sinclair stations. He told viewers last month that Kerry had enlisted in the Navy to avoid the draft, accusing him of a "pattern of lies, embellishments and exaggerations" and calling the Democratic presidential candidate "just another example of a politician who just cannot be honest. One who twists the facts to support his lust for elected office."
Hyman told The Washington Post over the weekend that the broadcast networks refused to air "Stolen Honor" unless someone from the Kerry campaign would come on to respond to it. "What they've effectively done is to give veto power over their editorial decisions to the Kerry campaign." The company's Web site yesterday urged viewers to call the Kerry camp and urge the senator to agree to an interview with Sinclair. Company executives did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
Hyman dismissed the criticism last night, telling CNN that the program "doesn't even exist yet" and "we haven't even finalized a format on this." He said the film is newsworthy because it features two prisoners of war who underwent "horrific abuses" and "have a right to be heard" about Kerry's conduct, which took place in 1971.
The company sparked criticism last spring when it refused to carry an edition of "Nightline" on which Ted Koppel read the names of all Americans who had been killed in Iraq, accusing the ABC anchor of an antiwar agenda. Sinclair also yanked ABC's "Politically Incorrect" after host Bill Maher made controversial remarks about the U.S. war on terror.
Sherwood, the filmmaker, is also no stranger to controversy. He once worked for Washington's Channel 9, which in 1984 apologized for his four-part series questioning the finances of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and donated $50,000 to the fund. Sherwood has said he felt vilified by Kerry's antiwar comments and believes the candidate branded all Vietnam veterans as "war criminals."
The Smith brothers have given $121,000 to the Republican Party since 1999, and each of them has contributed the maximum $2,000 to the 2004 Bush campaign. David Smith also gave $1,000 to then-vice president Al Gore in 1999.
Sinclair provided Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. the cut-rate use of a luxury helicopter during the Republican's 2002 race. The helicopter came from an aviation firm whose sole director was J. Duncan Smith. A year earlier, as a Maryland congressman, Ehrlich sent the FCC a letter urging action on a Sinclair request to buy a dozen TV stations. An Ehrlich spokesman at the time called the letter "garden-variety constituent service" and said the governor's failure to disclose the helicopter rides was an oversight.
The company has been a leader in the drive to loosen television regulations, persuading a federal court in 2002 to strike down the FCC rule that barred a company from owning more than one station in most U.S. cities. That has allowed Sinclair to maintain these so-called "duopolies" in 21 of its 39 television markets. Sinclair argues that the restrictions, intended to promote diversity, are outdated in the cable and Internet era.
In Baltimore, Sinclair owns Fox affiliate WBFF and programs the WB affiliate, WNUV, through a local marketing agreement, which critics assail as a loophole in FCC rules. WNUV, like four other stations affiliated with Sinclair, is owned by Cunningham Broadcasting Corp., a company in which the Smith brothers' mother, Carolyn, has an ownership stake.
Sinclair, which had $739 million in operating revenue last year -- up from $72 million a decade earlier -- began in 1971 with a single UHF station, WBFF, launched by the men's father, Julian Sinclair Smith.
Little is known about the views of David Smith, who told the Baltimore Sun in a rare 1995 interview that he and his brothers try "to maintain as much anonymity as we can."
But Smith provided a glimpse of his philosophy during the flap over "Nightline," when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the company's move "unpatriotic" and Smith responded in a letter:
"No organization more fully supports our military than Sinclair. In no way was our decision intended to show any disrespect to the brave members of our military, particularly those who have sacrificed their lives in service of our country. To the contrary, our decision was based on a desire to stop the misuse of their sacrifice to support an antiwar position with which most, if not all, of these soldiers would not have agreed."