Charges of news media bias have pervaded the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election campaign. Major broadcast news organizations like CBS and ABC have been accused of airing stories overly critical of President Bush - while the Fox television network has been criticized for favoring the President in its coverage.
A U.S. media corporation has ordered its affiliate television stations to broadcast a documentary critical of Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry. The documentary, which focuses on Mr. Kerry's role as an organizer of anti-Vietnam War protests in the early 1970's, is scheduled to air just days before the November 2 U.S. presidential election.
Officials of the Democratic Party - including 20 U.S. Senators - have called for a federal investigation of the media organization, known as the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. The conglomerate, which owns 62 TV stations, is owned by David Smith, who together with other Sinclair executives, publicly supports the re-election of President Bush. Officials at the company did not reply to our requests for an interview.
Joe Sandler, the counsel for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., notes that campaign laws require political organizations to pay for TV advertising. Yet the makers of the anti-Kerry documentary have been given free time to show it on Sinclair stations, whose broadcasts reach one-fourth of the country. Joe Sandler says that's like giving the Bush re-election campaign a free political contribution, which is illegal.
"Here the owners of these stations are ordering all 62 of these stations commercial- free - forcing the stations - to forgo significant advertising revenue. This is a political contribution on the eve of the election to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential race, with their corporate resources, and that's illegal," he says.
Two federal government agencies plan to investigate the case, which some analysts say is not a new development in U.S. politics - but symptomatic of the growing influence of media conglomerates - Sinclair being just one of them.
Rick Rockwell, a professor of communications at American University in Washington, D.C., says "we are talking about maybe half a dozen major players, not just in the United States, but on the international scale. The largest owner of media in this country is General Electric [GE]. We have GE, Fox, Newscorp, Disney, and Viacom. Of course, there are chains from Europe, Bertelsmann. Of course, Sony is part of this ownership consolidation we have in the U.S., too. All of these firms are international firms that are buying up more and more properties. It means fewer and fewer independent voices in the system that are represented."
Professor Rockwell of American University says there's been a growing conservative tilt in television news. "I would say that if you're going to run a partisan documentary from one side, you need to run it from another, or from a perspective that dislikes both of the major parties in this country. That's really serving the public interest - to have a wide panoply of different perspectives and interests on the air. I think that's important."
But the American news media is not dominated by conservatives - according to Richard Noyes. Mr. Noyes is the research director of the non-profit, conservative, Media Research Center in Alexandria, Virginia. He says what bothers the Democratic Party isn't a media conglomerate like Sinclair: It's the content of the documentary that's going to be aired. "The fact that it's an anti-Kerry documentary certainly has made Democrats upset about it. If you look at the coverage over the course of the campaign, I think what the Sinclair people have pointed to is that issues like the attitude of former POW's to John Kerry have gotten very little attention on the broadcast networks, which most people depend on for their news. So they've found something they think is worthy for their audience. They're going to show it before the election. People can watch it or not watch it," he says.
The anti-Kerry documentary titled Stolen Honor Wounds that Never Heal, looks at John Kerry's anti-war activism following his military service in the Vietnam War. The documentary focuses on his appearance before a U.S. Senate committee in 1971, in which Mr. Kerry condemned the war, and said that he and many other American troops in Vietnam were guilty of war crimes.