While The Us Takes A Step Backward In Media Reform, Venezuela Advances

The current battle in the U.S. over media concentration and regulation shares much in common with the present conflict in Venezuela. Should broadcasters be allowed to air partisan politics without showing the other side?

This is an abuse of the public trust…And it is proof positive of media consolidation run amok when one owner can use the public airwaves to blanket the country with its political ideology — whether liberal or conservative.”[i]

Sounds like a statement about the private media in Venezuela, doesn’t it? Well, in an increasingly corporate-owned media world, Venezuela’s propaganda war is becoming the norm. But the above statement is, ironically, not about Venezuela. In fact, that assertion was made by United States Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps on October, 11, 2004, in reference to the forced airing of an anti-Kerry documentary on the Sinclair network.

The Sinclair Broadcasting Group, Inc., owns 62 television stations across the U.S. reaching 24% of households, and includes 20 FOX networks, 4 from NBC, 3 from CBS, 8 from ABC and also several WB and UPN affiliates. Sinclair was taken over in 1986 by David D. Smith and his brothers, Frederick, Robert and J. Duncan, and turned into a national chain of networks, taking advantage of the loose restrictions on media ownership in the U.S.  The company’s first major manipulation of its network power was in 2001 after the September 11th attacks, when it ordered its local anchors to issue editorials backing the Bush administration’s actions against Al Qaeda. Then, in early 2004, Sinclair banned its ABC affiliates from showing a special edition of the news show “Nightline” with Ted Koppel, because it featured the reading of names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

But the latest Sinclair stunt, pre-empting regular prime time programming to force the airing of the anti-Kerry documentary, “Stolen Honor”, evidences a clear abuse of media power. The film, made by Carlton Sherwood, ex-reporter from the ultra-conservative newspaper, The Washington Times and a former media consultant for Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, is an outright attack on presidential candidate John Kerry’s anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. Though Kerry fought as a soldier in the Vietnam War, he later opposed the continuing U.S. efforts in that nation and upon return to the U.S., joined the massive anti-war movement that eventually played a role in forcing an end to a conflict many thought unnecessary that had killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers and innocent civilians.

Sinclair’s owners, the Smith brothers, have made 97% of their political donations during the 2004 election campaign to President George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Since 1999, they have given $121,000 to the Republican Party and have each contributed the maximum $2000 to the 2004 Bush campaign. 

The forced airing of a blatantly partisan documentary, that is not even considered a “news story”, is a clear example of corporate media power gone awry. The Federal Communications Commission, directed by Bush-appointee Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, issued a statement on October 14th claiming that the FCC did not have the authority to prevent the airing of the program. During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the renewal of The Fairness Doctrine, which required television and radio stations to give equal time to opposing views. However, television and radio stations in the U.S. are still required by law to give candidates equal airtime during political campaigns. Media reform critics also argue that the Supreme Court decision in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC [ii] is still good law, and therefore, its guiding principal, that “it is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount”, obligates media outlets to present balanced, objective news and information.

The Sinclair debacle clearly demonstrates the direction of media concentration in the U.S. Despite the recent stay on the FCC’s intent to relax media ownership rules, which would have allowed media giants to increase their hold on the market, the recent Sinclair situation shows clear advances for corporate media power. Ironically, the FCC is refusing to act out against politically partisan abuses by media owners, but recently issued the highest fine in history, $1.2 million, against News Corp’s Fox Broadcasting and its 144 independently owned affiliates for airing a “raunchy” episode of the reality show “Married by America” during 2003. Obviously, the FCC sees fit to apply the law against indecency but not against political propaganda, especially when the politics are aligned with those of its Chief Commissioner, Powell.

Venezuela has seen several years of raunchy programming and overtly partisan propaganda, news and reporting, often times violent, aggressive and even dangerous. Venezuela’s private media is blatantly anti-Chávez and has been implicated in the instigation of violence against the government and its supporters, during the April 2002 coup, the December 2002-February 2003 illegal strike and subsequent destabilization attempts. In fact, Venezuela’s private media monopoly (the stations are owned by Venezuelan millionaires), serves as a case in point demonstrating why media concentration is detrimental to society. Venezuela’s private media carries much of the responsibility for the polarization and crisis that the nation has been subject to over the past few years.

In an attempt to resolve some of the media’s abuse of power, the Venezuelan legislature is currently debating the enactment of a version of the Fairness Doctrine, that would not only implement certain new Constitutional rights ratified in the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution requiring equal access to information and the right to “true and objective broadcasting”, but also would place limits on “raunchy” programming aired during children’s viewing hours. Unsurprisingly, the corporate media in Venezuela, and the opposition, which enjoys 100% exclusive access to that media, has expressed outrage over the proposed Law and has even claimed, though falsely, that freedom of expression is threatened in Venezuela. International human rights bodies, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have time and again affirmed that more freedom of expression is enjoyed in Venezuela than any other nation in Latin America. The proposed Law, the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, merely is attempting to increase that internationally recognized freedom of expression to include all Venezuelans, and not just those favored by media owners.

The current battle in the U.S. over media concentration and regulation shares much in common with the present conflict in Venezuela. Should broadcasters be allowed to air partisan politics without showing the other side? Are the airwaves in the public domain? Should media serve equally majority and minority interests? Should children be protected from violent and raunchy programming? These are all issues that media reform movements in the U.S. and Venezuela are tackling. Unfortunately, the FCC’s ruling in the Sinclair issue demonstrates a step backward in media reform. Fortunately, the advances in the passage of the Media Reform Law in Venezuela show a step forward.

[i] Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps said in a statement October 11, 2004.

[ii] Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969).