"Essentially," says Kevin McManus of Oakton, Virginia, when John Kerry came home from Vietnam to protest the war, he "desecrated all the war dead and their families."
And McManus is one of the more moderate voices on Stolen Honor, a controversial, 42-minute video slated to air Oct. 21 on WPGH-53, WPTT-22, and 60 other stations nationwide owned by Sinclair Broadcasting. Dictating such programming choices to local stations is an unusual move, one that has generated ire both inside and outside the Sinclair chain. In Pittsburgh and across the country, the film has re-ignited the debate about Kerry's anti-war activism, but it may yet prompt discussion about some issues that haven't been debated in the campaign: Who owns the airwaves? And why do some stories -- like how the presidential candidates would treat veterans today -- never make it to air?
"The people who produced Stolen Honor say it's a documentary, but it's just the promotion of the Republican agenda," says Janis Williams, a local activist who was scheduling a protest at WPGH's studios as this issue of City Paper went to press. "It's an effort to misuse and mislead the public."
Compiled by Carlton Sherwood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and Vietnam vet, Stolen Honor relies on interviews with former POWs who blame Kerry for the torments they suffered in Vietnam. "We actually stayed two more years [in camps] because of him," POW Jack Fellowes opines in the film. "John Kerry, Jane Fonda, and all that crowd ... I figure they owe us two years." Other veterans accuse Kerry of using the antiwar movement for political gain, and some nearly charge him with treason: James Warner of Michigan tells the camera that Kerry is "always showing bad judgment ... in favor of our enemies and against the United States."
Sherwood's narration contends that in Kerry's antiwar activism, "Enemy propagandists had found a new and willing accomplice." In fact, he says, "Nearly every book or motion picture produced about Vietnam since 1971 echoes the litany of atrocities John Kerry laid at the feet of men who served there. ... It was his [Congressional testimony about] evil American soldiers on a bloody rampage that filled the screens ... of films like Apocalypse Now."
One might argue that events like the My Lai massacre -- in which American soldiers actually went on a bloody rampage -- played some part in creating this legend. One might also argue, as Pittsburgh attorney Sanford Kelson does, that "If it weren't for the anti-war movement, that war might still be going on." A member of the national organization Veterans for Peace, Kelson says he narrowly missed serving in Vietnam himself. But, he says, "The people [POWs] ought to blame are the people who sent them over there, who lied to them and made them POWs."
Such voices are absent in Sherwood's film, which was bankrolled by "Pennsylvania veterans" Sherwood has not named. "Somebody asked [Sherwood], 'What about the other side?' and he said that he was unable to find a POW who supported what John Kerry had said," says Charlie Gerow of Quantum Communications, a Harrisburg PR firm handling some of the film's publicity.
Federal law requires that political candidates get equal time to respond to campaign-related broadcasts, but there is an exception: "Bona fide" news stories -- documentaries, news interviews or spot reports -- do not carry such a requirement. By designating Stolen Honor as "news," oddly, Sinclair could skirt a rudimentary practice of news reporting: soliciting comment from both sides.
The report's newsworthiness is open to debate. "It's a documentary, not an exposé," Gerow acknowledges, and its focus is on how veterans feel about a decades-old issue. Then too, some of their statements sound a lot like political endorsements. Warner, for example, says "a number of commanders" told him "I would not be willing to serve with John Kerry in combat; I would be willing to serve in combat with the current commander-in-chief."
If such programming is deemed "bona fide" news, critics say, it will show how lax government oversight of the media has become. Deregulation of broadcasting in the 1990s has allowed companies to buy up large numbers of radio and TV outlets. Says Josh Silver, who heads the media accountability group Free Press, the Sinclair controversy proves that such centralized ownership "poses the gravest threat to our democracy." Silver's organization began agitating around Sinclair in April, when it ordered seven of its affiliates to pre-empt a broadcast of Nightline featuring the names of those killed in action in Iraq. The uproar this time, he says, has "reinvigorated the whole movement over media ownership." He notes that Sinclair execs have contributed nearly $68,000 to national politicians, 97 percent of which went to Republicans.
And even as the FCC fines networks for broadcasting Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," FCC Chairman Michael Powell has told reporters, "Don't look to us to block the airing" of Stolen Honor. Powell is the son of a prominent Bush appointee, Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Activists like Wilson, meanwhile, are writing letters to advertisers, threatening a boycott unless they pull their ads from Sinclair stations. "So far," Wilson says, "we haven't had anyone local pull their ads," but others are putting pressure on mutual funds that hold large amounts of Sinclair stock.
Sinclair has made little public comment on the controversy. Though the Stolen Honor video is already being sold to the general public, Sinclair's Web site maintains "[T]he exact format of this unscripted event has not been finalized." During an Oct. 12 broadcast of PBS's NewsHour, Sinclair Vice President Mark Hyman maintained "If John Kerry sat down with us for two hours, we may end up with a 60-minute program that has 57 minutes of John Kerry presenting his side." How Sinclair would reconcile this with plans to air a 42-minute-long video remains to be seen.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that Kerry's testimony 30 years ago occupies public debate more than, say, the services provided to former soldiers today. Here in Pittsburgh, a Veterans Administration hospital specializing in psychiatric disorders is slated to close -- part of what the Bush administration contends is an effort to modernize the system. Earlier this year, the Veterans of Foreign Wars blasted George Bush's 2005 budget, which VFW Commander-in-Chief Edward Banas, Sr. charged was evidence "that veterans are no longer a priority with this administration." Bush proposed only a 1.8 percent increase in veteran spending in that budget, which Banas called "a disgrace and a sham" because it couldn't keep up with rising health-care costs.
In a May 7 statement, the Veteran's Administration noted that VA spending in Pennsylvania had grown by one-fifth since 2000, to $2.3 billion. But like most of the federal budget, veterans spending has been put in limbo by Republicans until after the November election. Earlier this summer, a White House memo was leaked to the press that suggested the VA could expect cuts in 2006. Such news has sparked concern Bush might surprise supporters by cutting their favorite programs after the election
Why hasn't Sherwood, or the Pennsylvania veterans who bankrolled his film, taken to the airwaves on these issues?
"John Kerry chose to make his service the centerpiece in his campaign," says Gerow of Quantum Communications. The film, he said, is "the very human aspect of John Kerry's betrayal of his comrades" back in Vietnam, people Gerow calls "men of valor" who've "waited to tell their stories for a long time and are finally getting their moment in the sun."
If Sherwood's goal, or Sinclair's, was to hurt John Kerry, it may already have succeeded. Sinclair is getting pressure from all sides, ranging from stockholders to grassroots activists who promise to challenge the company's broadcast licenses if the program airs. Even if it doesn't, Silver says, "The more Republicans talk about the Vietnam stuff, the better President Bush does in the polls. The controversy also gets attention for Sinclair, so what better idea for both of them than to push this documentary?"