Sinclair Censors Koppel, Decency

Scarcely any topic animates chattering conservatives quite like a vigorous discussion of “character” and the related deficiencies of decadent liberalism. What we saw prominently displayed last week, however, were certain of the least attractive aspects of the modern conservative character-as exposed by the decision of Sinclair Broadcast Group executives to censor the reading of the names of America’s war dead on the ABC News program Nightline .

The behavior of the Sinclair executives provided a glimpse of the authoritarian personality in power, as well as the kind of future they apparently envision for the nation.

Owning and operating dozens of local TV stations from its headquarters in Baltimore, this Sinclair outfit is regarded within the broadcasting industry as so extreme that Fox News Channel seems fair and balanced by comparison. Sinclair chief executive David D. Smith, whose family controls the company, Sinclair executives and other members of the Smith family all regularly donate large sums to Republican candidates and causes. By foisting a wildly biased, politically rightist “newscast” on their viewers, they are combating the alleged liberal slant of the mainstream media.

At least, that was Sinclair’s excuse for preempting Ted Koppel’s April 30 reading of the names of the mostly very young Americans killed so far in Iraq, illustrated simply with photographic portraits. To the Sinclair mind-set, honoring the troops with this gesture was nothing but a thinly disguised political ploy, designed to undermine support for the President’s war.

“Our decision was based on a desire to stop the misuse of their sacrifice to support an anti-war position with which most, if not all, of these soldiers would not have agreed,” as Mr. Smith explained. “In simply reading the names of our fallen heroes, this program has adopted a strategy employed by numerous anti-war demonstrators who wish to focus attention solely on the cost of war.” Perhaps Mr. Smith believes that Memorial Day is a left-wing plot, too.

The Sinclair suits should tell it to the gentleman who called Nightline ‘s offices the day before the broadcast to make sure that Mr. Koppel would include the name of his 23-year-old son-in-law, who had just been killed in Falluja. As he explained how to pronounce the dead soldier’s name, and how important this was to his family, the man began to weep, and so did the ABC staffer who was diligently taking notes.

Dropping the Nightline broadcast was only one example of news management at Sinclair. The corollary of blacking out “bad” news is emphasizing “good” news. Last February, two of Sinclair’s top newshounds were sent over to Baghdad to find and report the brighter side of the war. That must have been a demanding assignment.

Covering news from Iraq has been difficult and troubling for right-wing news organizations ever since the “elusive” weapons of mass destruction failed to turn up on schedule. As the incomparable Rob Corddry explained succinctly on The Daily Show , Sinclair’s real problem is intractable: “The facts are biased.”

One solution is suppression. Another is deception, which seems to be Sinclair’s style anyway. In the ominously named News Central feed that the company provides nightly to its 62 stations, scripts and studios are designed to create the illusion that the national broadcast originates locally. From hundreds of miles away, the local anchor in Madison or Minneapolis will ask the Sinclair weatherman, who is actually in a Baltimore suburb, whether to bring an umbrella tomorrow, pretending they’re in the same studio. Marty Haag, a professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University who has studied Sinclair’s methods, calls them “simply, purely deceptive.”

The political highlight of the nightly Sinclair feed is commentary by Mark Hyman, a company spokesman who doubles on camera as a dull facsimile of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The corporate viewpoint as articulated by Mr. Hyman is the only opinion deemed fit for broadcast by the Sinclair suits. Unconstrained by the old “fairness doctrine,” they can impose their obsessions and opinions on the public airwaves without acknowledging any alternative viewpoint.

This approach to the First Amendment as a license to print money rather than a Constitutional mandate to serve the public is not uncommon on the right. Indeed, the Smiths of Sinclair embody several of the most typical characteristics of their ideological cohort-including the delightful twist of moralizing hypocrisy. For example, Mr. Smith, the chief executive and married father of two, was busted in a company car several years ago while cavorting with a professional woman of pleasure. (At the moment when the police intervened, she was reportedly performing the same kind of oral endearments that outraged Republicans when Monica Lewinsky did them for free.) But I digress, sort of.

Let’s talk about character. Let’s talk about the callous, bullying, dishonest and, as Senator John McCain put it, unpatriotic character of the authoritarians who attacked Nightline for honoring our dead. And when their licenses come up for renewal, let’s hope that federal regulators understand why character counts.