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Political Animal

The Bozo Show

By Brian Morton | Posted 10/20/2004

A long time ago, there was a syndicated TV program featuring a clown named Bozo. The man who created the character, Larry Harmon, sold the concept to stations all over the country, allowing them to pick their own local actor to put on the white-face makeup and fright-wig orange hair and serve as Bozo to all the kids in that town. Willard Scott, the avuncular NBC weatherman, once served as Washington, D.C.’s Bozo.

Times have changed, and so has television. But some things haven’t. Except this time, the Bozo is ours.

On Oct. 21, the Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group plans to put on the clown suit for the nation by airing on its prime-time airwaves—Sinclair owns TV stations in 39 markets, covering about 24 percent of U.S. viewers—Stolen Honor, a partisan smear job slamming Sen. John Kerry two weeks before the election. It’s scheduled to run on WNUV (WB 54) in Baltimore.

According to sources at WBFF (Fox 45), which is also owned by Sinclair, company chief executive David D. Smith and vice president/commentator Mark Hyman are reveling in the national press attention Sinclair is garnering. Well, attention is what you get once you air, as “news,” a movie produced by Carlton Sherwood, a former Washington Times reporter with close ties to the Bush administration, to amplify the discredited charges made by a bunch of Vietnam-era partisans against Kerry.

At this point, it is clear that Kerry legitimately won the medals he was awarded in Vietnam, then stood up to call attention to bad decisions made in an unpopular war. Yet, for the purpose of swinging a tick-tight election, the Sinclair people are using a “documentary,” on what have been absurdly referred to for years as the “public airwaves,” to drive down Kerry’s support.

Back in the time of the original Bozos, one ownership group would unlikely be able to hold this much sway, much less in prime time and in so many markets. But those were different times. The airwaves have been ceded to corporate interests whose sole allegiance is not to their towns or viewers but to their bottom lines. And this isn’t the first time this fine corporate citizen has pulled this kind of garbage. Recall when Sinclair pulled the April 30 edition of Nightline, in which Ted Koppel read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, from its ABC stations.

Sinclair runs “News Central” out of its Hunt Valley headquarters. That’s where the news, weather, and who knows what else is produced for stations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and numerous other swing states. Imagine how we would feel if our local information was being shipped in from some faceless news factory in a suburb of, say, St. Louis? Sad to say, that’s exactly what St. Louis is getting, from us.

There’s some good news, though. In Portland, Maine, the Press Herald reported that three major local advertisers have withdrawn their purchases from the Sinclair station there because of the pseudo-documentary. And bloggers across the country are organizing a boycott of companies that advertise on Sinclair newscasts. One well-frequented political blog, the Daily Kos, run by an former U.S. Army veteran, has compiled a nationwide list of some 1,100 Sinclair advertisers, intent on using the power of the pocketbook to show the company’s stockholders that although Sinclair’s managers have the right to run whatever they please, viewers have the right to tell the advertisers on those stations that they choose to support other products.

Since the announcement of the anti-Kerry movie, Sinclair’s stock value has dropped each following day. According to a Lehman Brothers Global Equity Research report on Sinclair obtained by Talking Points Memo blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, “Sinclair’s decision to pre-empt programming to air Stolen Honor is potentially damaging—both financially and politically. In a best case scenario, we believe that this decision could result in lost ad revenues. In a worst case scenario, we believe the decision may lead to higher political risk. As [Sinclair management] has increased the [company’s] political risk, we are reducing our 12-month price target to $9 (from $10).”

Broadcasting entered a new era back in the 1980s when the Fairness Doctrine was thrown out as part of the Reagan administration’s deregulation efforts. But one thing remains clear: If the trend is moving toward undue corporate influence on public elections, then the people can strike back right at the heart of a company’s revenue stream, and tools like the Internet can make sure that it happens at the national level. Sinclair may just find out that, in the razor’s edge-close presidential elections of 2004, Bozo doesn’t live here anymore.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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