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Dingell Warns Sinclair

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) took one last shot Friday at putting Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. on notice that some in the government will be carefully watching its Kerry news special Friday night, at least metaphorically (Sinclair doesn't have a D.C. outlet).

In a letter to Sinclair President David Smith, Dingell included a copy of FCC Chairman Michael Powell's response to Dingell that the FCC is "prepared to act [expeditiously] to determine compliance with its rules and policies" once the program has aired." He did not add that the FCC would, and could not, act without a complaint.

Dingell had earlier asked the FCC to investigate whether the show was in the public interest, but Powell had responded that the FCC was not in the business of prior censorship and would have to wait until it was broadcast and then respond quickly to any complaints.

Citing reports that the special is a one-sided attack on Kerry, Dingell added his own cautionary note, saying: "I would note that a broadcaster cloaking a one-sided attack on a candidate as a news special neither serves the public interest nor relieves a broadcaster from its other obligations under the Act," and adding, "Given the importance of the issues at stake, I trust you will keep your public interest and other legal obligations in mind as you move forward with your broadcast."

The special was scheduled to air on 40 of Sinclair's 62 stations Friday night.

The FCC is three steps away from any potential ruling, however. First, the show has to air, then opponents have to make a request for an equal opportunity to respond, then Sinclair would have to deny it. If that happened, a complaint could be filed with the FCC, and, if it were upheld, the FCC could require Sinclair to provide that time before the election.

That's a lot to get done in less than a dozen days before the polls open, but if the complaint can get to the FCC quickly enough, the commission is prepared to rule swiftly, recognizing that rebuttal time after Nov. 2 is worthless.

Sinclair has offered airtime for a rebuttal from Kerry, but that is not the same thing. A granting of equal time is content-neutral, meaning neither Sinclair nor the FCC has any say over how that time is used. Rebuttal time for a show that dealt with Kerry's war record might or might not feature the candidate and could deal with anything from foreign policy to health care.