Friday, October 15, 2004
There's been a lot of controversy this week about Sinclair Broadcasting companies plan to air a program called Stolen Honor that is critical of John Kerry's war record in the days before the election.
Some twenty Senators have asked the Federal communications Commission to block the broadcast of the show, claiming it is not real news programming but rather campaigning. CNN has some background on the program here. See more at the Baltimore Chronicle here.
Today, the FCC announced that it will not block Sinclair from airing the program. (see here for details.)
As I wrote in this op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor, there is a difference between free speech and paid speech. I used the Michael Moore film 9/11 as an example of free speech -- where viewers come to the program knowing its bias and wanting to hear its viewpoint. Stolen Honor fits into the same category, as does a newspaper endorsement of John Kerry or a book or magazine that is openly partisan in its efforts. This contrasts to paid speech, where somebody pays to get advertising to subject viewers to something other than what they sought out to see.
So, on its face, its both legal and proper for a TV station to decide to air a program that is critical of a candidate. So far, so good.
But there is a key difference between broadcast TV and books, newspapers, films, and even cable TV. Broadcasters are using scarce public airwaves. In return for their use of our property, the public has a right to force broadcasters to present all sides of an issue, not just one. So, if a station wants to air something that attacks Kerry, they should provide equal time to Kerry to defend himself. Sinclair says it has offered Kerry the chance to appear after its program, so it's possible that they are meeting this requirement which unfortunately has been weakened since the demise of something called the Fairness Doctrine.
And, there's another concern. Sinclair isn't just one TV station. They own 62 of them. Rather than letting each station decide for itself what to broadcast, they are forcing all of their stations to toe the corporate line and carry this show. Sinclair previously blocked its stations from airing a Nightline program that listed the names of soldiers killed in Iraq. The centralization of TV stations into big conglomerates like Sinclair is bad for democracy and contrary to the idea of free speech as it reduces the number of independent voices.
So, while the FCC may have been right to allow a TV station to air whatever program it wants (so long as it provides equal time for opposing viewpoints), it has been wrong to allow Sinclair to amass so much power through media consolidation.
People who don't like this program are free not to watch it and free to critique it. They are even free to organize boycotts of Sinclair stations, as they are doing here, and here and to let the public know that Sinclair seems to have a bias in its programming. This is the way a free press should work. But, having the government tell a broadcaster what it can and cannot air is not appropriate.