An Open Letter to Mark Hyman from "The Counterpoint"
You’re correct in your latest commentary that the First Amendment ensures Americans the right to free speech. But with any right comes responsibility and accountability. The First Amendment does not ensure the right to speak without being criticized. In fact, the purpose of the First Amendment is to allow people to loudly and vocally disagree with speech they find abhorrent. The storm of criticism that descended on Sinclair Broadcasting is exactly what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when drafting the First Amendment.
You bemoan the complaints made by members of Congress about the decision of Sinclair Broadcasting to air the film “Stolen Honor.” But remember that these are the elected representatives of the people. They speak for their constituents. Do we not have the right as citizens to have our elected representatives speak on our behalf? Moreover, as you well know, these complaints came to nothing. The FCC, headed by a man who has shown a great deal of friendliness to Sinclair Broadcasting, did nothing in response to these complaints. You leave the impression in your editorial that these complaints limited the right of those who made the film to speak out. They didn’t. It was Sinclair Broadcasting who ultimately altered plans to air the entire film commercial-free. Sinclair was not forced to make this decision. It’s disingenuous to suggest others are culpable for a decision that you made.
Which leads to the following question: why did Sinclair change its plans regarding the airing of “Stolen Honor”? You lay the blame at the feet of Democrats in Congress, other media outlets, and the Kerry campaign. But the criticism came from many more sources than this. Even your own chief political reporter, Jon Lieberman, said that airing the film was a political, rather than journalistic, act. And what did Mr. Lieberman get for voicing his honest opinion? A pink slip. Apparently the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment stop at the door of Sinclair Broadcasting.
I know from personal experience that the groundswell of protest came from the grassroots. Of the dozens and dozens of people I know who signed petitions, wrote letters to advertisers, and picketed stations, none were told to do so by the Kerry campaign or anyone else. They spoke out because they believed what Sinclair was doing was wrong. That’s why advertisers pulled their spots. That’s why more than 100,000 names appeared on a petition protesting Sinclair’s actions. That’s why the value of Sinclair stock dropped like a stone. And that, ultimately, is why even Sinclair decided that their original plans to run the equivalent of a 60-minute campaign spot for Bush/Cheney ’04 were untenable.
Of course, that did not stop Sinclair from running a slightly altered version of the documentary. But why was it aired in the first place? What was newsworthy about this piece? You claim the charges in the film were new. But assertions that Kerry’s 1971 testimony had prolonged the war and led to mistreatment of prisoners had been bandied about (and refuted) for months. You claimed the men in the film were “credible.” But several of them have contradicted their own testimony in previous statements. You claimed that the group behind the film was unrelated to the discredited Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. But they had in fact become part of the very same group, going so far as to release a statement to the media detailing the merger. How can it surprise you that the viewing public would find Sinclair’s actions overtly political and highly objectionable? No one says these individuals shouldn’t be allowed to speak out in any forum that will have them. But we the viewers object to having our public airwaves disingenuously used for private political purposes. And although it seems (to paraphrase the title of your recent commentary) that Sinclair is telling America to “shut up,” we won’t.
And this is ultimately the problem with Sinclair’s actions and their subsequent attempts to place the blame on others. You seem to have no feeling of accountability to your own viewers. You treat them as targets, not clients, aiming your political rhetoric at them in an attempt to alter their thinking and actions in a way that benefits you. According to your own viewer poll, roughly two-thirds of your audience said Sinclair shouldn’t run the documentary. Are they all part of the liberal elite? You refuse to acknowledge Sinclair’s responsibility for the controversy by coyly referring in your commentaries to the “brouhaha” over Senator Kerry’s “snub” of veterans, or the “spotlight” on critics of free speech. But the spotlight is on Sinclair Broadcasting, and the “brouhaha” is about a huge media company’s decision to use its ownership of television stations as a means of political activism.
If you believe in the rightness of your cause, why not publicly acknowledge your role in this controversy? Stop hiding behind the faux “local” feel you attempt to give “The Point,” as well as the rest of your newscast. Tell your viewers that you are a vice president of Sinclair Broadcasting, that your company runs the station on which you’re appearing, and that your editorial is coming from Baltimore, not Cedar Rapids, Madison, or Asheville. Describe and defend your company’s decision in the first-person, rather than obfuscating by making your commentaries appear as coming from a disinterested third party. What have you got to hide?
Let’s end where we started: on a point of agreement: yes, the recent controversy over Sinclair’s airing of “Stolen Honor” should give us “shivers up our spine” concerning free speech. But what’s scary is not that people, including some elected representatives, voiced concerns about Sinclair’s actions. What’s scary is the situation that prompted these concerns. We should be frightened about the idea of a single company owning multiple television stations in markets across the country. We should be frightened that this has occurred because of the relaxing of long-standing regulations by an FCC controlled by the political party to which Sinclair has given huge political donations. We should be frightened that for reasons of personal profit, Sinclair has destroyed the “local” voice of its stations and replaced it with a single, monotonous drone. We should be frightened that Sinclair makes every attempt to mislead its viewers into thinking they’re getting a local product when they are not. We should be frightened that our local stations are owned by a company that fires its employees if they voice an opinion they honestly believe reflects the best interest of the viewers. We should be frightened that Sinclair editorializes to its heart’s content, but doesn’t allow for anyone to offer an alternative point of view. Most of all, we should be frightened when a powerful company such as Sinclair uses its unprecedented control of the nation’s airwaves to force the political opinions of the handful of individuals who control it on its viewers, and then doesn’t even have the decency to be honest about its actions.
But the light in the darkness is the fact that no matter how much Sinclair bullies or hides, the people can and will speak out on its abuses. Although you might like to believe the deluge of criticism you’ve received is some left-wing plot, the truth is much more frightening for you: we’re catching on to your game. And as much as you might try to avoid it, you will have to take responsibility for your actions. Through the First Amendment, the very thing you claim to be fighting for, you will be held accountable by we the people.