NEW YORK — As Democrats mounted a multipronged attack on a conservative-leaning broadcast chain's plans to air an anti-John F. Kerry film, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," across a large swath of the country right before the election, much is riding on whether filmmaker Carlton Sherwood is a political propagandist or just a journalist with an untold story.
Although Democrats call Sherwood's 42-minute film a blatantly partisan attack ad, Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. has ordered most of its 62 stations to showcase the film next week, just days before the Nov. 2 election. Many of the stations, which serve nearly one-fourth of the nation's homes with TV, are in swing states, including Ohio and Florida.
Sherwood's film shares several sources with the anti-Kerry campaign of the Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth, a group of Vietnam veterans who have accused the Democratic nominee of distorting his war record for political purposes. And Sherwood worked for nearly eight years for former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, now secretary of Homeland Security for the Bush administration.
In a phone interview Monday, Sherwood said he's a political independent who's just happy to get the story out. "I did this as a journalist, for all the purest reasons. There was no political money and I did not engage anyone in the campaign. This is as clean as it gets."
In Sherwood's film, released in early September on the Internet, former Vietnam prisoners of war allege that Kerry's antiwar activities after he returned home as a decorated naval veteran prolonged their own ordeal for two years by boosting the morale of their captors.
A Vietnam veteran himself, Sherwood, a Harrisburg, Pa.-based former journalist for outlets including the conservative Washington Times, said he made the one-sided film to give voice to the veterans and didn't ask Kerry for comment because "he's had 33 years of all the press coverage he's wanted."
Moreover, he said, "I've never done political reporting, never contributed to a political campaign, never worked for a campaign. I'm a registered independent." He said the $220,000 film was financed by Pennsylvania veterans.
Democrats were fighting back on several fronts. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Sinclair, whose executives have given generously to the GOP, had refused to air a DNC ad criticizing President Bush and asserted that the company's news is "notoriously anti-Kerry in its content." He added that Sherwood's film was being represented by the public relations firm of Shirley & Bannister, whose clients include the Republican National Committee.
The DNC said it would file a complaint today with the Federal Election Commission, charging Sinclair with making an illegal in-kind campaign contribution by running the film.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and 17 other Democratic senators, including Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, signed a letter urging the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Sinclair's plan to air the film would be an improper use of public airwaves.
"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," the senators wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell.
Sinclair plans to run "Stolen Honor" as news programming, which is exempted under campaign finance law. But DNC legal counsel Joe Sandler argued in a conference call with reporters that the film was not made by a documentary filmmaker and Sinclair doesn't normally air such programming, so it doesn't qualify for the exemption.
The FCC was closed for the Columbus Day holiday but Commissioner Michael J. Copps released a statement calling the broadcast "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."
But Andrew Schwartzman, a public interest lawyer who runs the Media Access Project, said the Sinclair broadcast was unlikely to violate major tenets of communications law.
"It never runs afoul of communications law to carry a program," he said. "What's wrong is if they run a program determinedly one-sided and they don't give the other guy a fair shake." Schwartzman said the FCC's equal time provisions wouldn't apply because they are meant to give each candidate equal appearances on a station, not allow a rebuttal to a negative appearance (although Sinclair has offered Kerry a chance to appear).
"What this really underscores is that no one company should be allowed to program 62 television stations," he said. "This administration has significantly loosened the media consolidation rules and Sinclair, having benefited from this, is now returning the favor."