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Sinclairís Political Advocacy and the Public Interest

Nicholas Johnson

Excerpts from Don Shelby Interview

The Don Shelby Show

WCCO-AM 830 [http://www.wccoradio.com]

October 12, 2004

[Note: A pre-2004-election controversy involved the propriety and legality (in terms of Federal Communications Commission and Federal Election Commission regulations of political broadcast speech) of the Sinclair station group's proposed pre-empting programming election eve to present a film attacking Democratic candidate John Kerry's objections to the Viet Nam War following his return from Viet Nam. The following text is drawn from a transcript of Nicholas Johnson's comments only.

If you're interested in this subject you might want to check out http://www.stopsinclair.org for more information, and Mark Memmott, "TV stations told to pull plug on anti-Kerry film," USA Today, for an October 20, 2004, update.



Well, Iím happy to be with you.  WCCO was one of my favorites when I was on the Commission and it remains so today.

I think there are three ways of approaching what Sinclair is doing.

One has to do, not with the law as such, but just ethical behavior.

Another news story that is running today is the price gouging that is going on in regard to those who control the limited supply of flu vaccine. There is no law that prevents their price gouging, but I think most of us would agree that it is a pretty unethical, immoral thing to do.

Thereís no law that says a high school coach canít run up a score of 90 or 120 to nothing against an opponent, but most coaches have the decency not to do that.

Now, the second point is, there used to be laws about all this at the FCC, such as the Fairness Doctrine and personal attack doctrine. There is still the "equal opportunity" requirement for candidates in Section 315.

The FCC has now eliminated the first two. A station like WCCO follows them anyway just because itís good ethical practice, good professional journalism.

But because the rules have been eliminated by this industry-dominated FCC, the third point is that thereís nothing really illegal about what Sinclair is doing in terms of FCC regulations.

Now, if this program of theirs can be considered to be a program-length political campaign commercial, the value of which constitutes a campaign contribution from Sinclair to the Bush campaign, that may well create some problem with the FEC, the Federal Elections Commission.

But in terms of the Federal Communications Commission, and the Supreme Court, they can put pretty much anything out there they want. Moreover, the Supreme Court says that with the First Amendment right to speak goes the First Amendment right to censor all others -- although there are still a couple of limitations on that when it comes to broadcasting.

Now, what Sinclair is doing -- essentially using their stations' media power as a force for partisan Republican propaganda -- may be a gross violation of professional journalistic ethics, common decency and common sense, and so forth, but thatís what we are up against.

About all you can do in a situation like this is to boycott the Sinclair stations and their advertisers. Thatís all these money grubbing folks who use the name ďbroadcaster,Ē to the shame of the industry, thatís about the only coin they understand.

What they are doing is not even ideologically driven, like a conservative talk show host. It's partisan. It's designed to help the Republican Party's candidates and hurt the Democrats.

This stands in such stark contrast to professional journalistic standards, such a clear misuse of the public airwaves, licensed to serve "the public interest."

1. There are some journalism organizations that wonít even permit their reporters to go to a concert that is raising money for a candidate. Even if they are just going because they like the music. Their media organization is concerned that it might look like there was some bias or predilection to support one candidate or another.  They usually let them vote, but they certainly donít let them become active in a partisan way.  There wouldnít be any one of the main TV network anchors declaring their support for one presidential candidate or another. Sinclair obviously doesnít recognize those ethical principles.

2. Second, thereís some ďjournalism,Ē in quotes, that is just so shoddy that thereís kind of no justification for putting in on the air at all. I haven't seen it, but what Sinclair is proposing to broadcast may fall into this category.

3. The other issue is, if you put on something that tends to lean one direction, then decency and good journalism would suggest you ought to put on something the other way.

That's the general idea behind the Fairness Doctrine. And, you know, I never understood why the broadcasters were opposed to the Fairness Doctrine. Most of the responsible journalists in broadcasting werenít. They found that it actually helped their cause when the advertising or sales department guy came in and said, ďLook, canít you kill that documentary, because itís going to upset our advertiser. We might lose an account.Ē

The news director was able to say, ďWe are required to do this by the FCC. We have to deal with controversial subjects and we have to present a range of views.Ē

So, it helped to protect their journalistic integrity.

The Fairness Doctrine never required anything that a professional journalist wouldnít do as a matter of course.  What do you do in journalism?  You want controversy, you want to seek it out. And when you find it you want to present all points of view because then youíve got more controversy.  Even the front office should want to do it, because the more controversy you have out there the more it is going to increase the profits of the newspaper or the stations.

I never understood why the broadcasters even opposed it. The Fairness Doctrine didnít require any particular format. It didnít require equal time. It didnít require any particular spokesperson. It didnít require they cover any particular subject, only that they cover some of the controversial issues in their community.  It didnít require they put on anything in particular on the other side, just that they present a range of views and not become an instrument of propaganda.

You ask about George Soros. I'd have to say Iím troubled by big money in politics, regardless of what side it's on.

I should also say, by way of revealing my own involvement with Soros, that I have worked on projects he funds.  I personally admire a guy who, in effect, not literally, but in effect spends his mornings earning billions of dollars and then spends his afternoons trying to give it all away as fast as he can. Heís supporting the building of democracy in the former Soviet Republics and Eastern Europe and around the world. He's one of the most generous and public-spirited philanthropists I know anything about.  So, I want to lay that on the record and disclose that.

Having said that, Iím concerned about big money in politics whether itís an individual or a corporation or a PAC of some kind.  Anytime, it distorts the process.  By "democracy" you mean one person, one vote.  Obviously, some are a lot more equal than others, as was said in Animal Farm.

But you ask about the distinction between Sinclair and Soros. The distinction is that someone who sits astride the mass communication conduits in this country is in an entirely different, and much more politically powerful, position than someone who merely has the money to go beg them for time.

The law is, if I want to buy space in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and they donít want to sell it to me, even though they have a rate card posted and they are taking ads from others, they have zero legal obligation to take my money and take my ad. They can thereby shut me off from the major newspaper circulated in the area -- with apologies to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. If they both decide they donít want to let me tell the citizens of the Twin Cities what I would like to tell them, Iím silenced, I'm shut out. Now, I can go to one of these commercial copy centers and run of a bunch of 8-½-by-11 flyers and walk them around the Twin Cities and put them on everybodyís doorstep, but thatís scarcely a viable alternative to being able to buy space in the newspaper.  And the same principle applies to radio, television, and cable television.

The Supreme Court consistently says that even though you control a monopoly media outlet or an oligopoly, one of the few major media outlets in a community, you do not have a responsibility to make time or space available to citizens in that community if you wish to censor them.

So that's an enormous distinction between the Sinclair television stations and George Soros.

Anyway it's always a great pleasure to chat with you.  I congratulate you and WCCO for giving time to these issues for your listeners, because few stations do, and WCCO does, and we are all grateful for that.  So, best of luck to you and call anytime.