Gagging Ted Koppel: Action Needed Today!

April 30, 2004

Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the largest owners of TV stations across the country, yesterday made a unilateral decision to deprive hundreds of thousands of viewers the right to see tonight's Nightline broadcast honoring the soldiers killed in Iraq. That a corporation can tell the citizens in the communities they are supposed to serve that they have no right to view this program shows the incredible power of media consolidation.

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Sinclair executives claim the Nightline segment was partisan and anti-war, and thus decided to pre-empt it in the markets where it owns ABC affiliates. ABC said that the broadcast was intended to be "an expression of respect which simply seeks to honor those who have laid down their lives for this country."

Senator John McCain, in a letter to Sinclair, stated its "decision to deny your viewers an opportunity to be reminded of war's terrible costs, in all their heartbreaking detail, is a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves."

Should a handful of corporate executives decide when news programs are partisan and have the right to remove them from the air? Isn't a judgment about what's partisan better left to the viewers to decide?

What is also troubling is Sinclair's own record of partisanship. Since 1997 through the end of 2003, Sinclair and its executives and affiliates have given 100% of their political contributions exclusively to Republicans, more than $165,000 in total.

Broadcasters have an obligation, written in law, to serve the public by providing programming that stimulates discussion and debate on issues important to this country. By showing the names and pictures of U.S. military who have died in Iraq, Nightline was offering a sobering view of the human costs of war. This is what journalists are supposed to do, and what serving the public interest is all about.

Sinclair's censorship is only a taste of the chokehold on information that media giants are able to achieve. This time, Sinclair's censorship affected only the ABC affiliates it owns. But if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is permitted to deregulate media ownership, one company could shut off information it did not like to the hundreds of TV and radio stations, newspapers and cable systems it owns across the country.

Sinclair's reckless disregard for serving the public interest also makes clear that the FCC and Congress must require broadcasters to take seriously their public interest obligations.

We are calling on Sinclair Broadcasting to Air Nightline Tonight!