Sinclair's Swift Boat? Abandon Ship!

One of its real journalists speaks up and gets fired; even Wall Street is upset

What's worse than the nation's largest TV chain ordering its stations in key states like Ohio to interrupt prime time to air a pseudo-documentary hit piece just days before a presidential election?

After announcing its plans to run the hit piece this week and getting roundly criticized, Sinclair's best brains—probably meaning its former chief lobbyist and now chief spokesman, Mark Hyman—came up with this idea:

Order the news staff to cobble together a "news special" with snippets of the pseudo-doc and other stuff so that you can pass off this propaganda, which properly should carry the "commentary" label, as "coverage."

The giant chain's Washington bureau chief, Jon Leiberman, finally couldn't take it and spoke out, telling the Baltimore Sun on Sunday that the company's conduct was "indefensible." (If you're registered with The Sun, you can read David Folkenflik's story here.)

Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post does his usual solid job reporting this sorry affair. Leiberman called Stolen Honor a "slanted documentary," Kurtz wrote, "and said there was no way for Sinclair, which owns the nation's largest collection of network affiliates, to verify the allegations." Kurtz went on to quote Leiberman as saying this:

Call it commentary, call it an editorial … but don't call it news. Viewers aren't going to trust us if we call it news. … I couldn't be part of this special and call it news when what it is is political propaganda.

Leiberman was fired for violating Sinclair's company policy, which prohibits its journalists from speaking without permission. Or, as Kurtz put it, with just a subtle touch of irony:

The Baltimore-based firm, which has drawn harsh criticism from Kerry and the Democrats, found itself explaining why it dismissed a top journalist for speaking to the media.

You have to understand, though, that Mark Hyman, whose hare-brained scheme Leiberman objected to, is not a journalist. He started as a D.C. lobbyist for Sinclair in 1997 and then was promoted to vice president of "corporate relations." From his Baltimore corporate aerie, he dispenses daily commentaries called "The Point." It's some rich stuff, lemme tell you. Check out Hyman's Sunday (October 17) "Point," entitled "Media Bias." (Here's the main page for Hyman's commentaries. Click here for a video of "Media Bias.") This is how he smugly starts off:

Bias in the media has reared its ugly head again after another spate of scandals has rocked some of the largest media outlets in the last several months.

Critics point to survey after survey, which reveal that most of America's newsrooms are filled with journalists with a strong liberal tilt in their personal views, as a cause for concern.

The "real problem," Hyman says, is that "balance and fairness have been shortchanged." Honest to God, he says that. And he adds: "That many newsrooms don't present balanced reporting illustrates that it is the process that is flawed and that ethical standards are lacking."

But Hyman goes on to say that, "fortunately" for America, "cable news shows, talk radio and the Internet provide something of a watchdog function."

That's really rich, because Hyman ends his commentary this way:

Here's another point to consider. For those media outlets that keep an eye on the financial bottom line in an increasingly competitive landscape, a shift to more balanced, honest and accurate reporting is what may eventually drive newsrooms back to the center if for no other reason than to stop the hemorrhage of readers and viewers who are flocking to new media news sources. And that's the Point. I'm Mark Hyman.

Yes, Mark, the bottom line. It was only on October 4 that the Sinclair Broadcast Group said in an Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it was lowering its revenue estimates because of "cancellations resulting from the recent hurricanes which impacted eight of the Company’s television stations in the Southeast."

But it's an Ohio-based storm that's smacking into Sinclair. Jon Friedman of CBS MarketWatch reported Monday that shares of Sinclair Broadcasting Group dropped almost 8 percent on Monday "in the aftermath of the political firestorm that the company created."

The Street dubbed Sinclair's ham-handed anti-Kerry plans one of the five dumbest things on Wall Street.

People are starting anti-Sinclair boycotts. Any boycott of any media outlet gives me the creeps, but after all, Sinclair has conducted media boycotts of its own: Hyman ordered stations to not run Ted Koppel's Nightline reading of the names of U.S. casualties in Iraq. (See this Bush Beat item from a few days ago.)

This company has a long history of arrogance. After the spate of publicized corporate scandals a few years ago, corporations were required to have "independent" directors on their boards' audit committees. Sinclair officials disdain that, pointing out in their SEC filings that though one of their directors doesn't meet the regulatory test for being "independent" (he's directly involved in business dealings with company owners), they're putting him on the audit committee anyway. So much for "ethical standards."

Lobbyist and public-relations hack Hyman's résumé contains much bragging about his former work with the CIA. Check out what Bob Fitrakis says about Hyman in this column in The Free Press, an alternative news site in the Ohio capital of Columbus.

Particularly amusing is Hyman's boasting in his corporate bio. He doesn't pass up a chance to link himself with "the Company"—and I don't mean Sinclair. The bio notes: "The military organizations in which he has served have been awarded four CIA National Intelligence Meritorious Unit Commendations during his service." Wow! The organizations won? While you were in them? Terrific! And then there's this passage:

A Captain in the Naval Reserve, he has served in leadership positions in CIA’s National Warning Staff, the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, and he is currently a Commanding Officer in the Naval Reserve’s Space and Network Warfare Program.

"Network warfare"? Sorry, Mark, that still doesn't make you a journalist.


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