Sinclair Smear: Right-Wing Film Strafing Kerry

The war thought safely over bit John Kerry anew this week, just when he was beginning to nudge ahead in the polls. And, boy, did it bite deep.

Yes, dear reader, Vietnam is back. Again? Afraid so. And if you thought the Swift boat stuff was awful, brace yourself: This is worse.

Unless decency or the F.C.C. intervenes (neither likely), you’ll be getting increasingly mouth-watering glimpses on your favorite cable news channel between now and a few days before the election. That’s when the Sinclair Broadcast Group (the right-wing corporation that’s the nation’s largest owner of television stations, with 62 NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, UPN and WB outlets in its portfolio) pre-empts its prime-time schedule to lay out the whole Brobdingnagian feast: a 42-minute documentary produced by prize-winning journalist Carlton Sherwood entitled Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal.

Its subject: John Kerry’s 1971 anti-war activities, and their alleged impact on then-captive U.S. P.O.W.’s

Its stars: Former, very bitter, very vocal residents of the Hanoi Hilton.

Its tone: Think Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, made by the 16th assistant director.

Herewith a taste, in the words of some of the featured players, all former longtime P.O.W.’s :

“This man committed an act of treason. He lied, he besmirched our name and he did it for self-interest. And now he wants us to forget.”

“He’s been in Vietnam, now he swaps to the other side, and he’s saying the same thing we’re being tortured to say. That was a very difficult time.”

“I’m convinced Kerry and his fellows, the anti-war people, cause the war to be extended two more years, throwing medals over the wall, speaking against our country in time of war. He knows it would extend the war and complicate things and probably hurt a lot of prisoners.”

“To say we were rapists, we were murderers, we were pillagers, is absolutely a lie. There is just no two ways about it.”

“[The testimony] was [from] John Kerry. The North Vietnamese [interrogator] told me it was a naval officer. I couldn’t believe this could possibly be true. He spent a long time just berating me, telling me, ‘Here, this officer proves that you deserved to be

punished.”

“He betrayed all of us. He betrayed all the military …. We just don’t do that. We are Americans.”

And that’s for openers.

There’ll also be stretches of John Kerry’s most incendiary testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971; footage of the hell-hole that was the Hanoi Hilton; recountings of torture without end; and a wife describing how a husband she’d been married to three impossibly happy days went off to Vietnam, not to return for six agonizing years, while she watched John Kerry on television accusing men like him of the barbarism of Genghis Khan.

It’s distorted and manipulative, and a lot of other adjectives, including not remotely close to the truth, not the way John Kerry spoke and meant it. And fairness? Forget about it. There’s none—and God knows how many P.O.W.’s were sorted through to produce the desired effect, or how many contrary opinions were left on the cutting room floor.

Stolen Honor is propaganda at its worst—just as surely designed. And a further sign, as if more were needed, of the lengths the right will go to, democracy be damned.

But the age-old formula works: The more grotesque the lie, the harder to combat.

The answer to the big question—the impact Stolen Honor will have—won’t be known until Nov. 2. But the right is already bubbling (“If the powerful documentary … [is] seen by the huge audience it deserves, the junior Senator from Massachusetts wouldn’t get elected to a sanitation commission,” enthuses the National Review ’s Kate O’Beirne); Chris Matthews seems enthralled; and Sinclair’s reach is ominous: Its lock-step stations beam to nearly a quarter of the country, including all the big battlegrounds: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa. The Electoral College ball game, in other words.

The mainstream media’s barely noticed what’s afoot. But Mr. Kerry’s backers sure have—and their alarm speaks volumes.

Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe has denounced Sinclair; dismissed Mr. Sherwood as a right-wing mouthpiece; and put his lawyers to work having the film labeled a paid campaign infomercial. The D.N.C. has also lodged a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission, charging that Sinclair’s plans to air the film constitute an illegal use of corporate resources as an in-kind donation to the Bush/Cheney campaign. “They have put their money where their right-wing mouths are,” Mr. McAuliffe told The Hollywood Reporter. “Sinclair’s owners aren’t interested in news; they’re interested in pro-Bush propaganda.”

Meanwhile, 18 Democratic Senators have fired off a letter to the Federal Communications Commission demanding an investigation of Sinclair for improper use of the public airwaves—a charge that, if substantiated, could lead to loss of broadcasting licenses. More may be ahead, including asking the F.E.C. to determine whether Sinclair is violating federal statutes prohibiting public corporations from airing “electioneering communication” 60 days prior to an election. “Nothing,” a D.N.C. lawyer told Broadcasting & Cable, “is off the table.”

Sinclair, anything but cowed, insists that it’s following the law, hewing to fairness (Mr. Kerry’s been asked to appear on a follow-up panel, but, no dope, has passed)—it’s merely reporting the news. “Would they suggest that our reporting a car bomb in Iraq is an in-kind contribution to the Kerry campaign?” Sinclair’s vice-president for corporate relations (and daily conservative commentator on Sinclair’s stations) said to the A.P. “Would they suggest that our reporting on job losses is an in-kind contribution to the Kerry campaign? It’s the news. It’s what it is. We’re reporting the news.”

Mr. Sherwood, for his part, has been acting the innocent lamb, saying that the $220,000 cost of his film had been entirely financed by donations from Pennsylvania vets; that he’d been commissioned by no one to turn it out; and that only after it was complete did he approach Sinclair, not the other way around. He himself, he said, was a registered independent, who’d never done any political reporting, never worked for a campaign or contributed to one. “I did this as a journalist, for all the purest reasons,” he insisted to the Los Angeles Times. “There is no political money and I did not engage anyone in the campaign. This is as clean as it gets.”

Sure.

Plumbing the bottom of this involves a tangled tale, with dramatis personae ranging from the Reverend Sun Myung Moon to Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge—with Dubya’s dad, a swashbuckling anti-terrorist outfit, and a staffer for Ronnie Reagan’s National Security Council stuck in-between. Along, needless to say, with high stakes and towering lies.

Let’s start with the public record, the easy part, since it’s brimming with material about Sinclair’s peculiarity as a broadcaster.

The Baltimore-based company first achieved widespread notoriety last April, when it ordered its seven ABC affiliates not to air Ted Koppel’s Nightline reading of the names of U.S. killed in action, while their photographs were shown. The grounds, as stated by Sinclair: “Appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.” Firestorm instantly flared, with no less than John McCain accusing Sinclair president and C.E.O. David Smith of “a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves.”

It did that, with protesting phone calls and outraged editorials cascading in. But Sinclair didn’t budge—which came as no surprise to those who knew the company, its methods and its politics, a trio that at Sinclair are pretty much one and the same. After 9/11, for instance, the company ordered all its stations to air messages stating, “We stand 100 percent behind our President.” At the home station in Baltimore, the dictum extended not only to news and sports anchors, but even the weather forecaster. Sinclair followed that up in July, 2003, by prohibiting its Fox affiliate in Madison, Wis., from airing a D.N.C.-sponsored ad with a clip of President Bush making his false Saddam-shopping-for-Africa uranium claim in his State of the Union Address. Lefty bloggers gathered other publicly-reported tidbits, such as Sinclair replacing most of its Pittsburgh affiliate news staff with easier to manage reporters from Baltimore, and airing administration-produced reports on the wonders of Dubya’s Medicare prescription drug payments without identifying the “reporter” as a government-employed flack.

Then there were nightly Mark Hyman “commentaries” Sinclair stations were required to run: They made Fox look limp. The French? “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” The “liberal” media? “The hate-America crowd.” Congressmen who failed to vote for a measure supporting Bush Iraq policy? “Unpatriotic politicians who hate our military.” Nor did Mr. Hyman neglect John Kerry. A recent commentary (“Kerry and The Communists”) began as follows: “A significant effect of the John Kerry-led 1971 protests was it strengthened the resolve of the North Vietnamese to continue to hold American POWs.”

If fuzziness remained as to allegiance, Sinclair contributions made it crystal: money to Mr. Bush and allies: $130,000; to Mr. Kerry and friends: $0.

All Sinclair lacked was a well-timed scoop to seal the deal.

Enter Carlton Sherwood.

His résumé records him as prodigious, whatever he attempts—be it war (three times wounded, while serving as a Marine “sniper-scout” in Vietnam) or journalism (passel of awards both in print and television, where he won a Peabody while working for an Oklahoma City station; even an honor named after him—”The Carlton Sherwood Media Award” —annually presented by the Blinded American Veterans Foundation.) But the C.V. omits some items. Such as purportedly chummy association with right-wing former Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia and the Club for Growth; and, according to the not-exactly-disinterested Terry McAuliffe, the alleged termination of his TV career after he made an allegedly false accusation against a veterans’ group.

An accomplishment Mr. Sherwood has no trouble trumpeting is his 1991 book, Inquisition: The Persecution and Prosecution of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

As you may have surmised from the title, its sympathy is unstinting for the self-proclaimed “Messiah’s” multiple travails (including an 18-month sentence to a federal pen for income tax evasion, making false statements and obstruction of justice), which Mr. Sherwood brands, “the worst kind of religious prejudice and racial bigotry this country has witnessed in over a century.”

The circumstances under which Mr. Sherwood formed this judgment (namely, while serving as chief investigative correspondent of the Moonie-owned Washington Times) is where eyebrows begin to lift. Giving them a further push is how the supposedly “independent” book came to be published. In 1992, Frontline took a look at the reverend’s emergence from the obloquy of prison and congressional investigation. The program dug up a letter from a Moonie aide, James Gavin, to the reverend himself: Mr. Gavin reported that he’d vetted the “overall tone and factual contents” of the manuscript; had proposed revisions to Mr. Sherwood; and been assured by him that they’d be undertaken prior to delivery to the publisher. “When all of our suggestions have been incorporated, the book will be complete and in my opinion will make a significant impact,” Mr. Gavin wrote. “In addition to silencing our critics now, the book should be invaluable in persuading others of our legitimacy for many years to come.”

Soon to help in that effort—in exchange for lecture fees reckoned somewhere between $1.8 and $10 million—was about to be ex-President George Herbert Walker Bush, a favorite of Moonie audiences from Washington to Buenos Aires to Tokyo. Son Dubya would benefit from Moonie largesse as well during his 2000 Presidential campaign, in the form of unusually aggressive reporting on his behalf by the Washington Times.

Mr. Sherwood’s opus, meanwhile, first touched down at a publisher called Andromeda, which proved nearly as hard to reach as the star system of the same name. When Frontline tried the phone number listed in the standard publishing directory, it was connected to the home of Reagan national security council staffer (and former Washington Times reporter) Roger Fontaine. His wife, Judy, answered; said she knew nothing about Andromeda; then amended that to saying it had gone bankrupt, and that Inquisition had been published by Regnery-Gateway, home to numerous right-thinkers. According to Washington Times editor James Whelan, yet another of the house’s authors, Regnery, in turn, was promised by Mr. Sherwood that the Moonies would purchase 100,000 copies. (Regnery denied it; Mr. Sherwood wouldn’t talk on camera; and Mr. Gavin wouldn’t talk, period.)

In any event, by the time Inquisition saw light 13 years ago, Mr. Sherwood had become the close, personal friend of a fellow Marine turned Congressman, who in 1994 would be elected governor of Pennsylvania. His name was Tom Ridge. Yes, that Tom Ridge.

When Mr. Ridge went to Harrisburg, Mr. Sherwood went with him to run the state’s television and radio operations. He won two Emmys and the governor’s enduring gratitude in the eight years he remained. Democratic takeover of the statehouse in 2002 brought re-location to the Washington area, where Mr. Sherwood enlisted as executive vice-president of the WVC3 Group, a Reston, Va., anti-terrorist security firm, whose Web site fairly bristles with capability.

Sample: “Whether it was routing out and targeting terrorists in the Middle East for the Pentagon and the CIA, or training and exercising first responders here in the United States for their State and local governments, our team members have been there, boots-on-the-ground. We were on special assignments in the jungles and mountains of Southeast Asia during the Viet Nam war, ran successful operations against the KGB’s and GRU’s best in Europe and Africa, and were proud to be part of the liberation forces in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Operating continuously in Beirut during its darkest days, we ran a highly successful hostage rescue mission into Kuwait during its occupation by Saddam Hussein, and, later, we went to Iraq—from Baghdad to Mosul, Tikrit to Babylon—to provide the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, and international viewers with our battlefield appraisal.”

Demonstrating his own mettle with several forays into post-invasion Iraq, Mr. Sherwood also showed a knack for commerce, scoring a contract from friend Tom’s Homeland Security Department to create and manage a federal Web site directed to the nation’s more than 8 million “first-responders.” But before it could get off the ground, he went on leave from WVC3 to produce his anti-Kerry documentary.

The project took six weeks, start to finish. Why it was undertaken in the first place is a matter of conflicting speculation. Mr. Sherwood’s version is that the P.O.W.’s had a story dying to be told, and that until he happened along no one had.

“What John Kerry did in 1971 … didn’t just vilify all of us who served in Vietnam,” he explained on Fox News last week, “he jeopardized … several hundred P.O.W.’s still being held, men who were brutally tortured, brutally tortured …. And John Kerry labeled all of them war criminals.” (In fact, Mr. Kerry did no such thing.)

That Mr. Sherwood’s arrival with video camera came 31 years after events described was, apparently, just another of those many coincidences that happily shadow President Bush.

Plot or dumb luck (and you have to be gullible to believe in fortune), results are what counts, and since Stolen Honor ’s official introduction at the Reserve Officers Association last month (Bob Dole was advertised as guest of honor but he backed out after getting a whiff), the notices have provided Mr. Bush with needed cheer. To ensure smiles stay, Mr. Sherwood has been shepherding former P.O.W.’s from cable appearance to cable appearance, treading the path so successfully blazed by the Swift-boat vets, in whose commercials a couple of his principals appear. Absence of wish-washiness makes their latest outings the zippier. On Hannity & Colmes the other day, Navy pilot Paul Galanti, who spent nearly seven years in captivity, applied the T-words to Mr. Kerry—”traitor,” “treason”—several times. Was he seriously challenged? Fox didn’t hire Alan Colmes for that.

Chris Matthews has provided credulous platform, too, listening rapt as P.O.W. James Warner told of being tormented by John Kerry’s 1971 Senate testimony, which was meant to spring him. When his guest’s narrative flagged, Chris coaxed, “So your feeling—I mean, you—this guy’s lived rent-free in your head, obviously, all these years, John Kerry ….What do you hold him responsible for personally? I mean, what—you have to speculate here a little bit.” Obliged Mr. Warner: “They told me that Kerry said these things and that that proved that I deserved to be punished.”

The effect of all of this?

That’s simple: Depends on how dumb you think the American people are.