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Sinclair broadcasting

I'm actually impressed by how quickly activists came to realize that Sinclair Broadcasting's abuse of its news division to broadcast a Swift Boat advertorial was not an illegal contribution to the Bush campaign that should be dealt with by the courts, but their own decision, one that could be dealt with by a thoughtful and aggressive consumer response.

It does seem like the classic liberal response to an outrage is to assume there must be a law against it, and if not, there ought to be one. The conservatives, who in their (now long forgotten) traditional mode don't believe their ought to be a law governing every aspect of human behavior, more instinctively understand that using market power can be at least as effective.

I've been encouraged to post a link to the terrific database of Sinclair advertisers hosted by the media reform organization Free Press, so here it is: http://www.sinclairwatch.org/act More effective, as others have suggested, is to contact local advertisers on a Sinclair station, and also the station managers, as well as mutual funds that have major Sinclair investments.

This has all been covered elsewhere, but there's a small point about why this will work: It's not because the advertisers might be sympathetic Kerry supporters, though they might be. It's not because the sales manager is really convinced that the advertisers will pull their ads. It's because these are ordinary business people, and they don't want anything to do with hassle or controversy. When they call the Sinclair corporate headquarters, they're going to say, "Why the hell do I have ten people calling me up about this? What do we need this for?"

This reminds me of another great effort that I know a little bit about: One of the aspects of Tom DeLay's vile "K Street Project" to force Washington lobbyists to hire Republicans and back Republican causes involves directing corporate funding to a lot of far-, far-right organizations like Focus on the Family, as well as some more explicitly political organizations. Noticing this, a small group of people who knew how to do this stuff started, with very little money, to file shareholder resolutions calling on companies that were funding these things to (1) Disclose any corporate contributions to political advocacy organizations, (2) Disclose their policy on such contributions, and (3) explain the business purpose of the contributions.

They particularly targetted national companies that tried to have pretty good reputations. For example, companies that took pride in good domestic-partner benefits but were giving to anti-gay organizations or companies with good labor relations giving to extreme right-to-work groups. There's more information about the whole project here.

If you scroll down, you'll see that their resolutions didn't get more than 16% or so, at Morgan Stanley, BellSouth and Verizon. However, that doesn't matter in the least. The point is that corporate CEOs react anyway. They don't want any resolutions on the corporate proxy ballot. They don't want to deal with them, don't want to have to write an explanation of why shareholders shouldn't vote for them, don't want anything at all unexpected or confusing cluttering their annual shareholder meeting, which they want to be a brief and painless ratification of their leadership.

And further, they probably didn't know that their Washington offices were even involved in this kind of funding, or why. I could imagine a conversation that goes like this: CEO calls the Washington lobbyist: "What's this crap in this shareholder proxy? Why are we giving money to these groups?" Washington lobbyist: "Well, so and so told me that Mr. DeLay would look at our issues more favorably if we made these contributions." CEO: "Well, we don't need controversy. Find some other way to deal with DeLay -- he won't be there forever." And it's my understanding that this is very much the conversation that occurred in a few instances.

This requires being savvy about using consumer power. Boycotting grapes was a fine idea, but for the growers to change their basic way of doing business (that is, to allow migrant workers to unionize) was a very big deal. That is an effort of many years. On the other hand, when an activity is marginal to a company's core business, such as its political activities, just the hint that its controversial, that it will cause hassle, that it creates one more thing to deal with, can be all the push that's needed.

I'm guessing this will happen with Sinclair, but there may be many other examples where consumer or shareholder power can be used just as effectively.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 13, 2004 | Permalink


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I assume "the conservatives, who ... don't believe their ought to be a law governing every aspect of human behavior," does not include the RNC who want to get all lawyered up on "Rock the Vote" to stop them from suggesting that Bush will reinstate the draft.

Posted by: BottyGuy | Oct 13, 2004 7:32:55 PM

In the final week of a campaign, a quarter of the electorate will be offered a special "news" program in prime time. The Swiftboat ads aired in only 3 states and clearly were ads. This is not an "in kind" contribution, only because this is subterfuge more akin to vote tampering. I don't understand the complacency. What better October surprise could there be? Would we be as dismissive of involving the courts if Sinclair's gambit had been sprung on us with little or no time to contact advertisers.

Posted by: David Beam | Oct 14, 2004 1:40:40 PM

Thanks for your terrific post! I've linked to it!

Posted by: Dawn | Oct 14, 2004 7:58:39 PM

Most of the CEOs you mention (I assume) are with companies that have some long-term viability. Sinclair is desperate, on the cusp of destruction (self-caused). They have constructed a classic over-leveraged multi-station group, with a debt/equity ratio over 7:1, and interest rates tied to (now rising) LIBOR and a EBIDTA/debt ratio. They either are allowed to own more stations and operate/own more duopolies, or they collapse under the weight - that's why the stock has gone down ~70%, and that's why they MUST have a Repub FCC. Running the show is a chip to be cashed in in that case; they can't survive if the Dems win, so any Dem FCC threat is akin to "multiple life sentences to be served consecutively."

Posted by: fatbear | Oct 14, 2004 10:01:45 PM

Bet that those who are offended by Sinclair's documentary were not offended by MIchael Moore's film.
Relish the irony of it.

Posted by: Gerry Weston | Oct 18, 2004 9:29:39 PM

I've sent this e mail to my local Sinclair statiions, suggest others do the same. Public files are the achilles heel of broadcast stations.
I will expect that this e mail and your response will be entered into WTVZ's Public File.

Your anticipated broadcast of the Kerry Viet Nam program is a corruption of the spirit of the laws and regulations that pertain to commercial television broadcasting. It is the use of publicly owned airwaves by political interests without regard to fairness and equal time requirements. It tells us again that the patterns of media ownership in this country need to be broken down, and that WTVZ is not really a local television station.

I would like to know how you will justify the use of this program to your local market, and your understanding of the rules involved that allow you to do so. I will expect your answer by return e mail, and expect that when I visit the station to examine your public file I will find this correspondence included.

Posted by: Chris Dickon | Oct 19, 2004 3:41:58 PM

You could air my Army time and it would not bother me at all, I did not do anything to be ashamed of. My discharge came six years after I got out of the service.
Kerry on the other hand, must have something to hide and it is quite different not to get a discharge for thirty years. Funny how the Dems cry foul every time something negitive comes up. (which is quite often with the class of people they try to put in public office)
I plan to call the advertisers and tell them I am behind them 100% on this free speech issue.

Posted by: Woody Gunstenson | Oct 21, 2004 9:46:37 AM

And those who pull their ads will pay the price;
can't belive these Kerry people!!

Posted by: Harlan Barker | Oct 21, 2004 11:03:44 PM