Sinclair: A Question of Consolidation, Free Speech, both or neither?

Over at Reason magazine, Jesse Walker files a column taking the DNC to task for purusing Sinclair over its forthcoming anti-Kerry program. Himself a libertarian who isn’t supporting Bush, Walker is critical of the DNC’s attempts to threaten Sinclair’s broadcast licenses. He writes:

Sinclair’s show doesn’t qualify [as a a news story, commentary, or editorial], the [DNC] argues, for two reasons. One, because “the company is obtaining the film, not from a legitimate documentary producer, but from a disgraced former reporter who has never before produced a documentary.” And two, because Sinclair is not “acting as a press entity” but as a supporter of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

The first objection is more obviously appalling, since it amounts to asking the feds to get into the business of determining who is or isn’t a qualified filmmaker. But the second statement is insidious as well. In the wake of the forged-documents scandal at CBS, it has become an article of faith of many on the right that Dan Rather’s network is in the Kerry camp (and that Rather himself is basically a “disgraced former reporter”).

I have to say that I agree with him on both these points in principle — the last thing any oppositional media maker wants is for licenses and penalties to be doled out based on content or qualification (even that is what actually happens right now in the US). Indymedia, for instance, thrives on the argument and legal precedent that there is no accreditation for journalists.

However I can’t follow with him through all of his conclusions, especially when he refuses to see the situation as an ownership issue:

The strangest, most misguided response to McAuliffe’s censorship effort has come from those who support it because they believe this is somehow about media consolidation.

Here, I have to dissent. I share Walker’s discomfort with bringing regulatory action against Sinclair, except for the fact that Sinclair has used and abused the regulatory framework for its own gain, especially for trying to own more stations that it’s legally allowed to. From a more pragmatic point of view, I think Sinclair gets what it deserves: live by the sword, die by the sword.

More fundamentally, it is an ownership issue. But it’s not about having a single company being able to unilaterally program 62 stations, per se. It’s about the fact that the company can program these stations with absolutely no regard to what the local communities hosting these stations want or don’t want. It’s about the fact that Sinclair can ram down viewers’ throats ham-fisted right-wing commentary tacked onto local news programs, leaving many viewers wondering, who is this Mark Hyman guy, and does he actually live here?

The Sinclair debacle is about the disconnect between broadcast rights and the responsibility that accompanies the out-and-out giveaway of valuable broadcast spectrum. As my college broadcasting professor said of radio and TV stationes, they’re “a license to mint money.”

In exchange for this mint, Sinclair owes the communities it serves something back. But airing the anti-Kerry program and commentaries like The Point is like spitting in the eye of these communities.

The combination of nearly eliminated public service requirements and greatly relaxed ownership rules allow and even encourage the creation of monsters like Sinclair. In this, Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty — the epochal Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed under Clinton’s watch, with both Kerry and Edwards signing on.

Now, what’s so ironic about the Sinclair situation is that the company doesn’t seem to be profiting so much from it’s ham-fisted tactics, with it’s stock price sliding away and advertisers, like Burger King, refusing to have their ads run during the anti-Kerry program. So, one might argue that with investors and advertisers balking, the market is taking care of Sinclair better than regulatory intervention would.

It may be true that Sinclair has violated some unspoken rules that unsettles the ruling order — but it’s also true that while the first one to break these rules often gets some flak, this also functions to pave the way for followers. Can anyone remember when TV programs like NYPD Blue garnered flak and advertiser pull-outs over airing more challenging adult fare? Now, ten years later, much of what airs on prime time cop shows isn’t much different, and hardly anyone raises a peep.

I’m glad to see Sinclair get hit any way possible — even though I agree that the DNC is a bunch of hypocrites, like the Republicans, willing to use concepts like censorship and bias liberally and whenever convenient. However, I don’t share Walker’s belief that somehow our current system is fair, and that in order to protect the rights of dissenters, such as Indymedia, that we have to protect the rights of Sinclair. I argue that Sinclair already has their rights well protected, and enjoys far more privilege–they’ve spent quite a bit to buy it. It’s clear that Sinclair management wants nothing but to use their ill-gotten privilege and influence to affect the forthcoming election in a way that no other group or company can (or is yet willing to try).

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