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Sinclair's slander

THE FILM "Stolen Honor -- Wounds that Never Heal" is an anti-Kerry attack ad masquerading as a documentary. If the Sinclair Broadcasting Group televises it as planned on its 62 stations next week, this will constitute an abuse of the public airwaves that should prompt an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission.

Broadcasting "Stolen Honor" this close to the election would have violated the Fairness Doctrine, an FCC rule that mandated stations, as holders of scarce broadcasting licences, provide balanced coverage of political issues. The FCC abolished the rule in 1987 as the spread of cable television opened up broadcasting to a multitude of voices.

At about same time, the FCC enhanced the clout of broadcasters by loosening rules that kept them from owning more than seven TV stations. Today a broadcaster can own many more, as long as they reach no more than 39 percent of the US market. Sinclair, originally a small operation in Baltimore, has 62 TV stations, including one in Springfield, Mass., and others in presidential swing states Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.

After the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned, the FCC retained a rule mandating that people get an opportunity to respond to personal attacks broadcast by a station. A federal court overturned this on procedural grounds in 2000.

"Stolen Honor" indubitably qualifies as a slur against John Kerry. It makes use of the voices of former American prisoners of war in Vietnam to accuse him of treachery and lying when he went public with his opposition to the conflict in the 1970s. Mandating that it run next week would be comparable to running Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" without giving President Bush a fair chance to respond.

Kerry supporters are demanding that the Federal Election Commission intervene, but this issue really should go before the FCC. Chairman Michael Powell, citing free-speech issues, said yesterday it can do nothing until the program is broadcast.

A Sinclair spokesman, in a taped message, says the company wants Kerry to appear as part of the program -- which it calls news. That could be an invitation to an in-station pillorying. Kerry should be able to set the time and determine the content of his own response. Sinclair uses public airwaves at nominal cost for the FCC license. This cut-rate privilege ought to be accompanied by a commitment to public responsibility. Without an equal time allotment, the only acceptable approach by Sinclair is a decision not to broadcast "Stolen Honor" before the election. Afterwards the FCC should restore the personal attack rule and examine its abolition of the Fairness Doctrine to make sure the airwaves are not used for propaganda disguised as news. 

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