John F. Kerry's campaign demanded yesterday that Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. provide his campaign equal time after broadcasting a movie attacking his Vietnam record, but the company said it is holding out for an interview with the Democratic nominee himself.
In a letter to Sinclair chief executive David D. Smith, the Kerry campaign's top lawyer said that the planned airing of "Stolen Honor" "constitutes an attack on Senator Kerry by supporters of President Bush" and that Sinclair "must provide a similar opportunity for Senator Kerry's supporters" on its 62 stations.
"This is a 42-minute attack ad they are putting on the air at no cost to the Bush campaign," spokesman Chad Clanton said. He said that the equal time should be of the same duration and that the Kerry camp should control the content, rather than appearing with Sinclair anchors.
Sinclair Vice President Mark Hyman said that the company wants to address questions about Kerry's antiwar activism after returning from Vietnam "in a balanced and honest program," and that he is "guardedly optimistic" the senator from Massachusetts will participate.
Sinclair has built a new studio at its flagship station, Baltimore's WBFF, for the 60-minute broadcast, Hyman said. As for demands that the company drop its plans to air the movie, he said: "Two words: First Amendment. . . . It should be unsettling to anyone in the journalism business that there are elected officials trying to suppress some kind of speech."
The Democratic National Committee has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, and 103 Democratic members of Congress have asked the Federal Communications Commission to examine the matter. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked for a Justice Department inquiry yesterday. But none of the agencies is likely to act before Election Day.
Democrats are concerned about the film's potential impact, particularly on swing-state stations in Tampa, Tallahassee, St. Louis, Des Moines, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio.
Asked why Kerry would not agree to an interview, Clanton said: "Why would you take an offer like that seriously from a group with such a fierce partisan political agenda? Walk into some big setup job? 'Hello, I'd love to come on your program and get sandbagged.' "
FCC officials say Sinclair is not obligated to give equal time to a Kerry rebuttal and they have no complaint to consider.
"As a broadcaster, Sinclair does have a duty to the public interest," FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell told The Washington Post by e-mail. "We will, as always, review any complaints we receive that properly fall in our jurisdiction."
But former FCC chairman Reed E. Hundt said his successor is offering "tacit and plain encouragement of the use of the Sinclair airwaves to pursue a smear campaign."
Smith and his three brothers, who are company directors, have given $121,000 to Bush and the Republicans since 1999. Hyman, an on-air commentator who has called Kerry a liar, said that is no different than Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone, who oversees CBS, backing Bush.
"Stolen Honor" features 17 former prisoners of war who say that Kerry's 1971 Senate testimony about atrocities in Vietnam had the effect of extending their captivity. It was made by Vietnam veteran Carlton Sherwood, who shared a 1980 Pulitzer Prize at Gannett News Service and more recently was an aide to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
Sherwood said that Kerry's testimony "was unprecedented in American history" and that he is resurrecting the issue "because he's the nominee. Why bring up Vietnam? Because he does every day."
Hyman said the charges of veterans "who were brutally tortured" should not be ignored, and he did not back off a comment that the networks "are acting like Holocaust deniers, pretending these men don't exist." Sinclair is not doing a special on Bush, he said, because no new information has surfaced to warrant one.
Staff writer Frank Ahrens contributed to this report.