Sinclair Broadcasting officials apparently were trying to have an impact on the presidential race in October when they scheduled an anti-John Kerry documentary to air on nearly all the stations in their system. They had an impact, all right, but not the one they intended. As word of their plan leaked out, there was a strong backlash. Sinclair’s own chief Washington correspondent spoke out and was fired, some advertisers got skittish and pulled ads and investors sold off shares. In the end, Sinclair, insisting it never really intended to give free airtime to such a hot, political potato, backed away from the idea.
The fired Washington correspondent, Jon Leiberman, says what bothered him the most was that Sinclair officials planned to cloak their action as news.
The SPJ Code of Ethics is crystal clear on this point: “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.” But there’s an underlying question: Should Sinclair have even considered airing a politically charged documentary just before a major, national election?
Newspapers run editorials daily and often longer polemicals on their op-ed pages. Ah, but you say those are newspapers, not broadcasters, who operate over the public airwaves. True, but somewhat beside the point. What made so many people so upset, I suspect, had less to do with the broadcaster’s programming choice than with its reach. In the age of broadcast deregulation, Sinclair has emerged as one of the nation’s biggest television owners, with 62 stations around the country.
This fact was noted, but its significance seemed to be recognized by only a relative few who spoke out and wrote on this topic. But the questions raised by media consolidation may offer the country, and our Society, a way to look at this issue while respecting the highest principles of the First Amendment.
We, as journalists, are — and ought to be — suspicious of attempts by government to regulate content. But the nation has a long history of legislating limits to the size and reach of American corporations. Using its antitrust laws, the nation has been willing to break big companies into smaller ones to serve the public interest.
Frank Blethen, owner of the Seattle Times, would like to see it happen again. In a message after the Sinclair incident, he wrote: “It is great that this has energized comment and debate, but the real issue is not that Sinclair is doing this … it is that they are allowed to control 62 stations. That’s not only obscene pubic policy, it’s dangerous to the survival of democracy. It wouldn’t matter what Sinclair says and does if they were just one view point in a wide variety of voices. The crisis is that we don’t have the necessary variety of voices to sustain a democracy.”
SPJ spoke out on this question in May 2003, as the Federal Communications Commission was preparing to loosen ownership limits. We acknowledged the perceived threat to diversity in voices, but noted: “On the other side of the coin, there are potential benefits, such as expanded audiences and more efficient allocation of journalistic resources through convergence of now-separate media platforms. The issues are complicated. Supporters of change question whether any limits on ownership violate commercial broadcasters’ First Amendment rights, but there also are legitimate questions about what relaxation of ownership limits will do to diversity in the media.
Complex concerns such as these deserve more public attention because they are of critical importance not just to journalism, but also to the democratic ideals of our republic.”
There are other questions being raised by journalists and the public about the content of American news media. But, increasingly, when people raise them with me, I respond by urging them to look at the questions of economic structure before they imagine ways to reign in First Amendment freedoms.
Irwin Gratz works for Maine Public Broadcasting and lives in Portland. He can be reached at email@example.com