BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Last week, Sinclair Broadcast Group announced that its 62 stations would pre-empt their usual programming to air a commercial-free documentary critical of John Kerry. The film, called Stolen Honor, will be aired on stations across the country some time between October 21st and 24th. Criticism from Kerry supporters was swift, but the regulations that govern politically-charged broadcasts just weeks before an election are complicated. Earlier this week, Democrats filed formal complaints with both the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. Sinclair claims it's just getting out the facts, and it has offered Kerry an opportunity to answer questions on the air, but the Kerry camp has declined, and the battle rages on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the critics haven't actually seen the film, but they know the filmmaker, and they know Sinclair, which regularly airs the conservative commentaries of its executives. Earlier this year, Sinclair also famously stopped its ABC affiliates from airing Nightline's controversial recitation of the names of soldiers who died in Iraq. The question is: does Sinclair have the right to require its stations to air a smear, assuming it is one, just before the election? Should it have the right? We're joined by Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project, a liberal media watchdog group. Andrew, welcome back to the show.
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: First of all, let's once and for all talk about the equal time rule and how it applies or doesn't apply in this case.
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: Sure, there's been a good bit of confusion about this, Brooke. The equal time law says that when one candidate appears, the other candidate receives a right to appear on the station. In this case, the opposing candidate would be George Bush, because the person appearing in the documentary is John Kerry. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So basically the equal time rule is all about face time -- it's not really about defending yourself against attacks.
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: That's right. But there was, until calendar year 2000, a rule that rather precisely applied to the circumstance that we're dealing with here. It's the Personal Attack Rule, which said that when somebody's honesty, integrity or similar qualities are attacked on the air, the person who is attacked has a right of reply. Now this was thrown out by a court in Washington, DC on very technical grounds, having nothing to do with the constitutionality or the legitimacy of the rule, and it's something that could be re-instated, but as of now, it would provide no relief to Senator Kerry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Andrew, what rules do apply in this case, or do any of them?
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: First of all, there's nothing wrong with Sinclair or any other broadcaster running any programming. The question is, once they do, what obligations they incur afterwards. As to that, it's a little hard to tell until the program is actually broadcast. But it may well be that there is no direct right of reply that Senator Kerry would have, unless he wants to buy time on Sinclair, which he does have a right to do, and he does have a right to specify when, more or less. However, the FCC does examine a broadcaster's overall performance when it's license is up for renewal, as several of Sinclair's licenses are right now, and a very good case can be made that there is a pattern of abuse on Sinclair's part -- the kinds of things that you mentioned in your intro.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that abuse, though? Isn't an owner of a broadcast station allowed to program as they see fit? If they don't want to run a Nightline show -- there's no law that says they have to.
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: There is an obligation in a very broad sense to give different points of view, and an obligation to make sure that the public is well-informed. Hearing one side on all of these things doesn't always accomplish that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think Sinclair has to gain by behaving in such a blatant way? Is this just a maverick broadcast group, or do they see some profit in this?
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: I certainly don't know exactly what's behind it, but I do know that Sinclair has supported George Bush, it's lobbied for ownership deregulation, it's received some ownership deregulation, and it certainly looks like they're returning the favor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've said that there has been nothing close to this in your memory, which I know is pretty long, Andrew, so what are the conditions do you think that's made this peculiar situation possible?
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: Well, for better or worse, the electronic media as well as the print media have become increasingly partisan and increasingly pointed in their programming. Sinclair is a different species of broadcaster. Sinclair in many ways models itself as the on-air Fox News Channel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this identity is occurring not in cable, which is not regulated by the FCC, but on the broadcast airwaves, which emphatically is still regulated, because it's a limited resource.
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: If we were talking here about three or five or seven television stations, we'd be very angry -- at least I would -- but the effect would be rather limited. What we've got now, though, is a broadcaster with 62 stations --two in many of its markets, and located in markets in swing states. So the political clout that comes with the FCC's ownership deregulation has greatly exacerbated the problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I knew eventually we'd be able to blame all of this on media consolidation, but the fact is, even though you have a situation in which there are 62 stations instead of 3 or 4 stations, would even those 3 or 4 stations a few years ago be allowed to conduct themselves that way, and is there anything in the law to stop it -- and should there be anything in the law to stop it? Should the government step in and tell them what is balanced and what isn't?
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: Well, now we're getting to the broader question of the fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine, which was rescinded in 1987 by the FCC, served some very, very important purposes. First, it required broadcasters to do controversial programming, and then it required that in their overall programming there be some degree of balance. That's missing from Sinclair's operation, and I think that we're all the worse for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now a lot of people have called for a boycott of Sinclair's local advertisers. If there is no recourse in government, and perhaps there shouldn't be, can the public make a difference?
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: Historically, boycotts have not worked very well, but that was pre-internet. The blogosphere has taken this thing up with a vengeance, and it could well be that Sinclair will feel economic pressure sufficient to make it re-think the virtues of this very partisan approach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrew, thank you very much.
ANDREW JAY SCHWARTZMAN: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrew Jay Schwartzman is executive director of the Media Access Project, a non-profit media watchdog group.