Sinclair Broadcasting Group (NASDAQ:SBGI) stock has been pummeled as its controversial plan to air a documentary that looks into Senator John Kerry's Vietnam-era activities has sparked questions of appropriateness and stoked anger among those who see as a blatant political ploy. The documentary, entitled Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, examines the impact that Kerry's 1971 Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony had on American prisoners of war still in Vietnam. Sinclair, which owns more than 60 television stations throughout the country, was reportedly planning to run Stolen Honor instead of its regularly scheduled programming.

What, of course, is alarming about this is that John Kerry is running for president of the United States, and the Federal Communications Commission has strict guidelines on equal time for political advertising on network television. Even if there were no involvement whatsoever by George Bush's campaign -- and no credible source is claiming that there has been -- it does not strain credulity that such a program at such a time could be extremely damaging to Kerry's campaign. What it harmed first, though, was Sinclair. Its stock has been decimated, its advertisers threatened with boycotts, its management vilified. A tremendous amount of this backlash came from Kerry supporters who believe that the content of this documentary would do their candidate great harm. Some of the backlash is of a more thoughtful variety, coming even from those who are opposed to Kerry's bid. They're concerned that big companies control the airwaves and increasingly have the ability to control the message being broadcast to viewers.

I am not particularly interested in the political angle here. Readers who feel inclined to share their political feelings on the subject with me should choose instead to jam a pen in their eye. If there is outrage, it should (but largely does not) cut across party lines. Television stations should not be in the business of granting free advertising in any form to candidates. Sinclair calls its program "news"; its detractors disagree, and have reacted strongly in a way that has caused financial harm to the company.

Isn't America great? Think about it: after Viacom's (NYSE:VIA) CBS News doggedly refused to countenance investigations into its story on George Bush's Texas National Guard Service, viewers by the thousands abandoned the company's newscasts in disgust. That's the free market speaking its mind, folks. The same thing has taken place in this case -- people who were unhappy with Sinclair's actions, intentions, or whatever spoke their minds, putting economic pressure on Sinclair and its advertisers. No (apparent) government intervention in either case, just a financial backlash. That is as it should be: the First Amendment working to perfection. I don't like what you say and believe, so I'm taking my business elsewhere.

If there is an outlet out there for which Stolen Honor would be an economic boon, then it will find a home. On cable television, Sundance Channel is running a baldly anti-Bush expose on the case for the Iraq War, which will continue to air nearly up until election eve. But Sundance Channel is privately held and non-network television (and movies) get to operate under different rules than the networks, even if such rules are a bit of an anachronism today. Control the media? Please. My thumb on the clicker -- or the mouse -- suggests that such control is no longer possible. That's just another reality of the market -- our choices for entertainment and information are nearly endless.

Sinclair has decided that its end strategy will be to run a news story on the use of documentaries and media to influence elections on approximately 40 of its stations. If the economic impact of this decision for Sinclair turns out to be deep and permanent, then the public has exercised its right to choose and to apply pressure. But also know this: those who wish to see Stolen Honor will most certainly do so, regardless of what Sinclair does. The First Amendment is a powerful, beautiful thing.

See also:
Kerry vs. Bush: Who Wins?

Bill Mann owns no company mentioned in this story. Got a take on the Sinclair Broadcasting decision? There are scores of people just waiting to talk with you about it on The Motley Fool's Current Events Discussion Board. A 30-day trial subscription is required.