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Free speech trumps politics

In the final days of the presidential campaign, it's understandable that Sen. John Kerry wants to do everything he can to protect the upsurge in public opinion polls that he has enjoyed since the debates again President Bush.

With the election too close to call, neither Bush nor Kerry can afford any major controversy. It's why 18 U.S. senators, all Democrats, have asked the Federal Communications Commission to pull the plug on a short film that skewers Kerry and is scheduled to air next week on 62 stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. The Sinclair Group stations, which reach one-fourth of all American households, will interrupt regularly scheduled programming on its stations nationwide to air "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal." The news documentary produced by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carlton Sherwood castigates Kerry for "betraying" his fellow Vietnam veterans in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, correctly, won't stop Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. from televising the documentary. This is a wise course, although the FCC could strongly encourage Sinclair Group to give Kerry equal time to respond the 42-minute film that a New York Times editorial described as "an anti-Kerry attack ad masquerading as a documentary."

Sherwood, also a Vietnam veteran awarded the Purple Heart, is quoted in published reports that his motivation to make the film was "personal" rather than political. Viewers will have to judge for themselves whether the film is political mudslinging. Likewise, they must judge for themselves if the Sinclair Group, which has been a major contributor to the Bush campaign, is making a political statement with the airing of Sherwood's film.

It does not escape notice that the Sinclair Group barred its ABC affiliates from airing the "Nightline" episode in which anchor Ted Koppel read the names of soldiers killed in Iraq because the group viewed the broadcast as a "a political statement disguised as news content." The same could be said of "Stolen Honor." But again, it's best that people who live in communities where Sinclair Group operates television stations to have the opportunity to see the documentary and assess for themselves if Sherwood's points of view are grounded in fact or they are gross political manipulations.

Airing "Stolen Honor" could result in unintended consequences for the Sinclair Group. Undecided voters may be so outraged by the 11th-hour political gamesmanship that they may be moved to support Kerry.

Whatever the outcome, it's best that the American people — not the government — assess for themselves the veracity and motivation of programming of a political nature now until Nov. 2.