“When the heavy hand of the state is imposed on the press, all of us lose,” Barack Obama told a group of Kenyan journalists during an August 2006 trip to Africa. “The media does not have a formal role in the government, but it serves a critical function in providing information to the public so that they can hold the government accountable,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s remarks implied he supports the First Amendment. His comment that “Democracy can’t function properly without a free press,” suggested he understood the importance of robust scrutiny of elected officials. Yet, when given the opportunity, Mr. Obama’s recent actions have contradicted his own statements.
The Obama campaign launched a multipronged assault on the First Amendment when it threatened television and radio stations airing content critical of Mr. Obama. The first targets were TV stations running an advertisement that has proven embarrassing to the presidential candidate. The ad focuses on Mr. Obama’s 13-year relationship with Bill Ayers, a key member of the 1970s domestic terrorist group, the Weather Underground. The Weathermen bombed at least 12 locations, including the U.S. Capitol in 1971, the Pentagon in 1972 and the State Department in 1975. A 1970 San Francisco bombing killed one police officer and blinded another. The same year, three Weathermen perished in a Greenwich Village townhouse explosion. Unrepentant, Mr. Ayers told a New York Times reporter in remarks published on Sept. 11, 2001: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”
A group called American Issues Project paid for the ad to run on several TV stations in key battleground states. Press accounts say some of the stations are owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, for whom I work.
Another Obama target is Chicago radio station WGN. The source of Mr. Obama’s ire is talk-show host Stanley Kurtz who is no Friend of Barry. The Obama campaign has urged supporters to attack WGN for permitting Mr. Kurtz to practice his profession.
Obama campaign lawyer Robert Bauer warned TV stations against airing the ad he claimed of containing “malicious falsity.” Mr. Bauer’s repeated demands that the Justice Department intervene is an example of an intrusion the First Amendment was crafted to guard against and the type of heavy-handed tactics Mr. Obama criticized in Kenya. But in 2006, Mr. Obama was the recipient of exclusively fawning media coverage. Reporters from CNN, AP, BBC, Reuters, a pair of Chicago TV stations and dozens of international and local media accompanied Mr. Obama on his Kenya visit.
Mr. Bauer called those behind the ads “lawbreakers” and accused them of acting “illegally.” Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor labeled the ad “false.”
Television stations typically have procedures in place to guard against airing patently false or grossly misleading ads. Generally, stations err on the side of running the commercials. The onus of responsibility to pull an ad usually falls on the complaining party to make their case. That the Obama camp has not challenged the content of the ad using established mechanisms speaks volumes. (Of note, if media outlets did not publish or broadcast ads that may be dubious, questionable or open to interpretation, then very few political ads would ever see the light of day.)
The Obama campaign’s insistence on government intervention is reminiscent of a similar threat made by a John Kerry campaign official during the 2004 presidential race. At issue was “Stolen Honor,” a documentary film featuring 13 former Vietnam POWs, including two Medal of Honor recipients, who took issue with statements made by Mr. Kerry during their captivity and during the 2004 campaign. Mr. Kerry supporters branded the former POWs liars.
Appearing opposite me while on Fox News Channel, Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton threatened retaliation by a Kerry administration if Sinclair aired any portion of “Stolen Honor.” Mr. Clanton warned, “They [Sinclair] better hope we don’t get elected.” Mr. Clanton’s threat was a colossal blunder.
In 2004, Mr. Kerry received considerable support from congressional Democrats. Eighteen senators sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission imploring the agency to prevent any broadcast of “Stolen Honor.” Eighty-five House Democrats followed suit. The FCC correctly denied the requests from the Censorship Caucus.
Threats by the Obama camp should alarm every media organization, and more importantly, the public. Sadly, the number of media outlets that criticized brazen attempts in 2004 by Kerry officials and supporters to undermine the First Amendment could be counted on only one hand. Countless newspapers encouraged the FCC to take pre-emptive action.
The New York Times accused of the Medal of Honor recipients and their fellow POWs of making false claims and editorialized that the FCC should revoke Sinclair’s broadcast licenses. (For the record, then-deputy editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal admitted to me he never watched “Stolen Honor” despite labeling the documentary a “propaganda film” that “makes no attempt at balance or fairness.”)
The New York Time’s exhortation of “no attempt at balance or fairness” came from the very same newspaper that earlier this year published a journalistically flawed Page One story alleging an affair between John McCain and a female lobbyist while relying on just two unnamed sources. That is an example of the kind of freedom of the press that Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry support: one that supports their version of the truth.
Mark Hyman is an award-winning news commentator for Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.