In the runup to the Presidential election, Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. (SBGI) CEO David D. Smith became the bogeyman of Big Media. Allegations surfaced in October that Sinclair planned to broadcast the anti-Kerry documentary Stolen Honor to its 62 TV stations across the country. Liberal groups were livid, charging that longtime GOP contributor Smith, 54, was trying to influence the election. Media watchdogs also made Sinclair Exhibit A in their argument against the ills of media consolidation. With the nation's media concentrated in fewer hands, they say, owners can more readily skew news coverage to their political views.
Indeed, Smith's aggressive style could hamper Sinclair's attempts to consolidate multiple stations in various markets. Over the years, Smith challenged federal rules restricting the number of TV stations a company can own in a market. In the meantime, he set up partnerships with other stations in his markets, till regulators loosened the rules to allow companies to own at least two stations in many locales.
The flap over Stolen Honor isn't the first time Smith has been accused of editorial manhandling. Earlier this year, Sinclair refused to air a Nightline episode in which anchor Ted Koppel read the names of U.S. war dead in Iraq. Sinclair defends its right to preempt network shows unsuited to the tastes of local audiences. As for Stolen Honor, Smith denied any intent to turn the election, saying he wanted only to champion free speech. And the company says it never planned to run the film in its entirety. On Oct. 22, Sinclair ran excerpts as part of a special A POW Story: Politics, Pressure, and the Media.
Sinclair's stock fell 17%, to $6.26, over the 11 days of controversy. It has regained that ground, though the price was still down 39% in late December from a year earlier. But even if Sinclair recovers financially, Smith's dip into the partisan pool is sure to come up the next time he needs clearance for expansion.