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Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. is emerging as enemy No. 1 for critics of media consolidation. Reacting to Sinclair’s decision to schedule an anti-John Kerry documentary for its 62 television stations two weeks before the Nov. 2 presidential election, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is vowing to push for more stringent limits on mergers among TV, radio and newspaper companies. “Sinclair is the poster child of what happens when you have media consolidation,” said Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt. “Clearly the situation with Sinclair underscores the need for broad ownership and points out the dangers of concentration of ownership.” Sinclair made headlines this week when it announced plans to pre-empt network programming on its stations, which include affiliates for NBC and Fox, to run a documentary that links Kerry’s anti-Vietnam War rhetoric to the treatment of U.S. prisoners of war. The major broadcast networks had rejected the program. In wake of the Sinclair controversy, Dorgan intends to muster support for attaching media merger limits to one of the spending bills that Congress must pass when it returns in November from recess. If that fails, he will seek to use reauthorization of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a vehicle to limit media mergers, Piatt said. The senator’s legislation would restore media ownership limits that existed before the FCC’s June 2003 decision to ease such restrictions. This includes retaining a prohibition on a newspaper company owning a broadcast outlet in the same market and a cap on the number of stations a TV operator may own in the same market. Piatt said the partisan nature of Sinclair’s program should encourage lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to cooperate to impose tighter limits on media mergers. Consumer activists share this view. “Ideology aside, this should give pause to any politician who is worried about the power of any media mogul who doesn’t like them,” said Jeffrey Chester, director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy. Other observers, however, said the Sinclair spat could drive a wedge between the parties on media consolidation. “This is another reason to divide Republicans and Democrats,” said Andrew Lipman, a partner at law firm Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman in Washington. “It produces a more partisan and divisive environment and makes it more difficult for lawmakers to compromise on the issue.” That environment is already heating up. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and 18 other Democrats sent a letter this week to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, asking him to investigate whether Sinclair is abusing the public airways. “To allow a broadcasting company to air such a blatantly partisan attack in lieu of regular programming and to classify that attack as ‘news programming’ as has been suggested, would violate the spirit, and we think the text, of current law and regulation,” they wrote. No Republicans joined the letter. That Sinclair would find itself at the center of the media merger debate is ironic because the company has pushed the edges of permissible ownership. Critics of Sinclair’s decision to air the documentary argue that management at the Hunt Valley, Md.-based TV outlet conglomerate is running the documentary to curry favor with the White House. Sinclair owns WBFF-TV in Baltimore, a Fox affiliate, and also programs WNUV-TV, a WB affiliate in the same city through a so-called Local Marketing Agreement, which critics say is a loophole in the FCC’s limits on media mergers. WNUV-TV is owned by Cunningham Broadcasting Corp., a company in which Sinclair president David D. Smith’s mother owns a majority stake. “Is Sinclair trying to put itself in good stead with the administration in exchange for concessions on media rules?” asked Dana Frix, a partner with law firm Chadbourne & Parke. Sinclair officials and their regulatory counsel at Shaw Pittman in Washington did not return calls for comment. Prospects for Dorgan’s media ownership measure are unclear. The Sinclair dispute “will be more fuel, more ammunition to opponents of consolidation, but I don’t think it will be a great rallying point for public outrage,” said Jerome Boros, an attorney with Bryan Cave in New York. More important is whether Kerry or President Bush wins in November and who will replace Powell as FCC chairman. “It doesn’t seem to me that this story will have a lot of legs come January or February,” said Erwin Krasnow, attorney with Garvey Schubert Barer in Washington. Media ownership rules have been in flux since June 2003. A federal appeals court prevented the FCC’s changes from taking effect pending court review. After a hearing, the court ordered the FCC to re-justify the changes. The agency is now complying with that order. Copyright �2004 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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