Did Vicki Iseman “Steal Honor” in THREE Presidential Elections?

John McCain denies any honor was stolen–neither his nor Ms. Iseman’s. Or rather, he denies "the story," though it’s not clear whether he’s denying that his relationship with Iseman was inappropriate or that he did favors for her. So I guess I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether she stole McCain’s honor in both the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections.

For the moment, though, I’m more interested in the 2004 election–the one McCain didn’t run in. You see, I find it a mighty curious coincidence that two of the companies for which Iseman was lobbying John McCain in 1999 and 2000–the time of their potentially inappropriate relationship–also happen to be the two television companies that championed the Kerry smear, "Stolen Honor," in 2004.

Stolen Honor

Stolen Honor, you’ll recall, was a 45-long propaganda piece, repeating the allegations the Swift Boaters made against John Kerry. It came out in September 2004 (as Republicans have promised a smear against Hillary or Obama will come out at precisely the same time this cycle). Shortly thereafter, Sinclair Broadcasting ordered its stations to pre-empt normal broadcasting to play the "documentary." Sinclair also fired one employee who complained about the order.

After a blogswarm in response, Sinclair’s advertisers started pulling their advertising, which eventually led Sinclair to cut back its plans for the "documentary," showing clips of it as part of a program on Vietnam POWs on just 40 of its stations.

Friday night brings to a conclusion the fiercest media battle of the presidential campaign, when 40 of the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s 62 stations nationwide air a special program about the media and Vietnam War POWs. The show is likely to include generous portions of an anti-Kerry attack film, "Stolen Honor," that Sinclair executives had originally intended to air in its entirety just days before the election. In the face of lawsuits by stockholders, loss of advertising, questions about its abuse of the public airwaves and a falling stock price, however, Sinclair quickly cobbled together a revised program.

In the same time frame, Paxson Communications aired the entire "documentary" a number of times in the days leading up to the election, supported by NewsMax.

As FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein described, the two companies were two disturbing examples of politicized broadcast policies.

Recent events seem to validate claims that broadcasters’ news coverage has been increasingly devoid of information to help citizens participate in their democracy, or, worse yet, promoting an ideology or unbalanced political agenda thinly disguised as journalism.18 Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which refused to air an ABC Nightline tribute to U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq deeming the show “politics disguised as news,” then instructed its 62 television stations to preempt regularly scheduled programming to air a politically-charged documentary, “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” even going so far as to fire its long-time reporter Jon Lieberman for criticizing the company’s plans.19 Lieberman subsequently asserted that Sinclair’s entire news operation is systematically ideologically driven by its owners’ political perspective. Although Sinclair broadcast a modified program, Paxson, which sells much of its non-prime air time for paid programming, then quietly broadcast the “Stolen Honor” documentary in its entirety ten times the weekend before the election on the PAX broadcasting network as an infomercial.20

These two companies (which in 1999, when Iseman’s relationship with McCain was in question, accounted for two of just 15 companies she represented) happen to be the two that aired right wing propaganda combating Kerry’s election.

Incidentally, McCain condemned Sinclair’s refusal to air the Nightline tribute.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blasted Sinclair’s decision: "There is no valid reason for Sinclair to shirk its responsibility in what I assume is a very misguided attempt to prevent your viewers from completely appreciating the extraordinary sacrifices made on their behalf by Americans serving in Iraq." In response, Sinclair V.P. Hyman tried to demean the military service of the decorated former prisoner of war, "To be perfectly honest, it’s been 25 years since [McCain’s] worn a military uniform."

But he resisted appeals for him to condemn Stolen Honor, in spite of its arguable violation of campaign finance issues. When finally asked formally about it, he declined to make any statement about the "documentary" itself. Though in a statement that is height of hypocrisy, McCain stated that it was a problem of media consolidation.

At a fund-raiser in Philadelphia last night, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) complained of "media concentration" when asked about the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s decision to air Stolen Honor – a documentary critical of Sen. John Kerry’s anti-Vietnam War activities. McCain was asked about the film and its premise that Kerry’s antiwar comments prolonged the Vietnam conflict and the abuse of American prisoners of war. McCain, a former POW, said he had not seen the documentary and declined to discuss it. "I do have an opinion that this is an issue that results when you have media concentration, which I have been opposed to," he said at a fund-raiser for Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.). "When you have media concentration – this is the largest TV owner with 62 stations – this is something that happens." [my emphasis]

Paxson Communication

I said that it was the height of hypocrisy for McCain to complain about media concentration, because his contribution to the consolidation of Paxson Communication–the company whose plane he was flying around on, in the company of Vicki Iseman–is well documented.

The Alliance for Progressive Action and the QED Accountability Project charge Senator John McCain with influencing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval of a hotly contested three-way Pittsburgh public television license exchange and sale. The decision favors Paxson Communications, a contributor to McCain’s presidential bid. The community groups await a response from the General Counsel of the FCC to their late Monday request for an investigation of McCain’s unusual actions.

On November 17, 1999 the Senator and Presidential candidate instructed the FCC commissioners to take action on the deal no later than December 15, 1999. "If in your judgment the Commission cannot meet this request, please advise me of this fact in writing, with a specific and complete explanation, no later than November 18, 1999," wrote McCain.

In a second letter, dated December 10, 1999, written to FCC Chair William Kennard, McCain was even more forceful in his resolution. He demanded, "if the license applications were not acted upon" that Chairman Kennard "…explain why." Obviously feeling the pressure, the commissioners voted to approve the application. However, the FCC press release indicated that the 30-page opinion included four separate dissenting opinions.

Kennard responded to McCain’s letter by saying, "It is highly unusual for the commissioners to be asked to publicly announce their voting status on a matter that is still pending." He said such inquiries "could have procedural and substantive impacts on the Commission’s deliberations and, thus, on the due process rights of the parties." [my emphasis]

This is the intervention that McCain’s advisors were allegedly so worried about in 1999, when he first ran for President.

Sinclair Broadcasting

What’s less clear is his role in the consolidation of Sinclair Broadcasting–the very same network that, McCain complained, was too concentrated. In the same period when Iseman was lobbying McCain to approve the channel swap in Pittsburgh for Paxson, Iseman was also Alcalde and Fay’s lead partner lobbying for Glencairn Broadcasting. She listed the House and the Senate as the parties she lobbied; presumably that includes the then Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, John McCain, with whom she was flying around the country.

Glencairn was actually a shell corporation set up to allow Sinclair to own more than two broadcast stations in a particular market. While a former executive from Sinclair–who as an African American qualified the company as a minority owned business–was ostensibly its president, the Smith family (which owns Sinclair) owned a majority of Glencairn’s equity.

Sinclair operates six LMAs through a company called Cunningham Broadcasting, previously known as Glencairn Ltd. Cunningham is controlled by trusts in the name of Carolyn Smith, the mother of Sinclair president and CEO David Smith, as well as two Sinclair vice presidents, Duncan Smith and Frederick Smith, and Robert Smith, a director on Sinclair’s board.

The FCC established LMAs in the early-1990s to assist failing stations or to help start-ups share costs for such expenses as maintenance and advertising with older, established broadcasters.

However, Schwartzman says Sinclair used these business arrangements for the sole intention of eventually acquiring the stations themselves. "Sinclair has operated these LMAs as little more than a fig leaf for all but owning them outright," he said. "They’ve been pressed on this but unfortunately this FCC has let them off the hook."

Sinclair’s use of LMAs goes back to 1991 when it purchased WPGH-TV in Pittsburgh and then sold a Pittsburgh station it already owned, WCWB-TV, to a station employee, an African-American named Edwin Edwards. Edwards became the president of Glencairn, owning it under a minority tax-incentive program.

Between 1994 and 1997, Sinclair acquired second television stations in San Antonio, Greenville, S.C, Asheville, N.C. and elsewhere, placing them under Glencairn.

When the FCC liberalized its "duopoly rules" in 1999, permitting companies such as Sinclair to own two stations in markets with eight or more independent television owners, Sinclair applied to the FCC to purchase all of Glencairn’s stations.

However, Rainbow/PUSH, which has historically lobbied broadcasters to cover minority issues, filed a complaint charging that the company had "misrepresented facts and concealed the true extent of their business relationships" to own television stations that otherwise would not have been permitted under federal rules.


In November 2001, the FCC fined both Sinclair and Glencairn $40,000 for violations to the 1934 Communications Act. However, FCC Chairman Powell and two other Republican appointees approved Sinclair’s request to purchase all but six stations. Shortly afterward, Glencairn’s name was changed to Cunningham Broadcasting.

Sinclair itself did less than $20,000 of lobbying in 1999, 2000, and 2001 (the years during which its two-station shell gimmick was under investigation); another lobbying firm did less than $10,000 of lobbying in 1999 and 2000. Shaw Pittman (which has a retired partner serving on Sinclair’s board) was also registered as a Sinclair lobbyist at the time, though it reported no activity. Which suggests the better part of the lobbying done in this period was done by Iseman and her colleagues (listed as $80,000 a year)–and done primarily through Congress, without contacting the FCC directly.

And at least according to what other lobbyists have to say about Iseman, her big asset in her lobbying portfolio was her access to John McCain.

Three telecom lobbyists and a former McCain aide, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Iseman spoke up regularly at meetings of telecom lobbyists in Washington, extolling her connections to McCain and his office. She would regularly volunteer at those meetings to be the point person for the telecom industry in dealing with McCain’s office.

It sure makes you wonder how much that access contributed to Sinclair getting off so lightly for using a shell corporation to evade restrictions on media ownership, doesn’t it? And it sure makes McCain’s complaints about media consolidation–particularly as it relates to consolidation his friend Iseman helped push through–rather hypocritical.

What this Means

Iseman’s role in two media corporations who did big favors for Bush, rather than McCain, actually raises more questions for me than it answers. My biggest question about this whole scandal is why this is coming out in 2008, rather than during the South Carolina campaign in 2000. If Iseman was bragging so openly about her access to McCain–and if McCain’s advisors saw it as one of his big weak points in the 2000 campaign–then why didn’t Karl Rove use it?

The stories about Iseman all suggest (without saying what it means) that her career took off out of nowhere, from receptionist to president’s special assistant to partner all in a matter of a couple of years. And her portfolio appears to be rather different than the earmarks portfolio that the company specializes in. Is there a back story to how Iseman became a one-person media lobbyist in such a short time? (Note, I’m not suggesting that she slept her way to the top–rather, I’m suggesting she may have been tapped to play a certain role for conservative media companies and that contributed to her value to the company.)

I don’t think Iseman’s earlier lobbying of McCain to help these two companies expand in 1999 and 2000 means Iseman had a role in the airing of Stolen Honor. But it does suggest something about the powerful people on whose behalf Iseman was lobbying McCain.

43 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    Gawddemned, but you are awesome, EW. As soon as I saw the name Sinclair Broadcasting pop up that there was one helluva lot more going on here.

    Past time to pull Miss Vicki’s lobbyist registrations and take a peek at the details. She has the hallmarks of a Tasia Scolinos-type character, doesn’t she?

  2. Minnesotachuck says:

    Note to self: Don’t ever leave errant threads of what passes for my personal and professional life lying around in such a way that they catch the eye of one M. T. Wheeler, thus inducing her to pick up and pull on them.

  3. JohnLopresti says:

    I liked W.Kennard’s laconic enumeration of the particulars of his moderate decision in the difficult matter of family owned media outlets. At the time, there was a tradition of midnight barter among private media owners; and Kennard’s commission seemingly inherited a charge to regulate but only approximately that ungainly grandfathered crew of broadcast companies in recognition that postdereg telcoreconsolidation was going to receive a few years of counterbalance if FCC scrutiny could manage to remain benign. To delve into the parts bin a moment, it is worth recalling telcoshock when it became clear European and US cablecos had honed modem production business plans for years in a way even telcoreconsolidation could not outrace; which is to say folks needing telecommute bandwidth first turned to cable modems during the years before even the slowest flavors of DSL could deploy on copper plant. This skips getting to the multiple other ways of looking at the lobbying story at the top of the article, but points to the accuracy of the theme ew is developing here in a worthwhile manner.

  4. chetnolian says:

    Entirely OT but the big breaking news in the UK is our Foreign Secretary (Secretary of State to you)David Milliband having to grovel to parliament because everyone from T Blair downwards promised faithfully that no rendition flights landed on British soil. Turns out your Government lied (sorry “made a mistake”) and two planes landed at Diego Garcia, but of course the suspects on them have not susequently been tortured!Do I believe that was all? Nope, do I believe there have been rendition flights travelling through British territory carryimg suspects who were tortured? Yup. And the dog ate John Bellenger’s homework. I can’t tell if he kept his face straight as he was interviewed,(radio) but the mistake arose because they “asked the wrong people”!!!!! Marcy, do you have any idea where this was about to leak, which caused them to suddenly ask the right people? Does it make you proud to be American by any chance?

  5. larrymondello says:

    One nit to pick. While being the ex-president at a conservative-leaning media company probably lowers his urban street cred, calling him a former African-American is a bit harsh. Might I suggest this phraseology, “While an African-American, former executive from Sinclair was ostensibly its president…”

    • emptywheel says:

      The point is they picked an African American executive because it would make the shell a minority-owned business, and thereby make FCC approval still easier.

      • larrymondello says:

        My point is merely grammatical. In the current construction, former refers to African American and not executive. By switching the order, African-American now refers to the race of the former executive rather than describing an executive who is no longer an African American. I’m sorry for being picky. I can’t help myself.

        • emptywheel says:

          Oh, I see your point. Thanks. Is this better:

          While a former executive from Sinclair–who as an African American qualified the company as a minority owned business–was ostensibly its president, the Smith family (which owns Sinclair) owned a majority of Glencairn’s equity.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        A device Lurita Doan at GSA was well-versed in. Her company received millions in set aside contracts, though it had few resources and little experience when she started up, which inevitably led to outsourcing work to more established firms, making her company little more than a shell for a time. Some companies grow out of this phase, some just keep skimming the cut for acting as middle man, a role that’s easier to leverage. In an administration whose DOJ Civil Rights division sues people for discriminating against white “christianists”, there’s no serious oversight that would minimize this common corruption of the minority-owned business rules.

  6. Loo Hoo. says:

    Is this going to somehow twist around to telecom immunity on the citizen spying and influence legislation against the telecoms? Really good catch, ew.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    (Note, I’m not suggesting that she slept her way to the top–rather, I’m suggesting she may have been tapped to play a certain role for conservative media companies and that contributed to her value to the company.)

    [emph. added]

    Which begs the further question of why she would have been tapped for this role, out of the thousands of lobbyists and would be lobbyists in DC.

    WingNut Welfare spreads its tentacles ferociously, but insidiously, often underground. It would be a coup to find that a ReichWing billionaire or telecoms family had set her up as a front. Equally so if she did it all by good ol’ fashioned celibate hard work.

    • FormerFed says:

      A real stretch – but as I recall, the university she graduated from is just northeast of Pittsburgh and I do believe the Scaife bunch is in the same area.

      Again, a real stretch, but….

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Pittsburgh has been Scaife and Mellon territory for generations. The charitable contributions from some of their Robber Baron gazillions have benefited many. But Richard Mellon Scaife must have been bitten by the proverbial rabid dog. He has spent hundreds of millions on WingNut causes. I had only Schadenfreude when his wife sued for divorce, and made public some of his worst excesses. But with the free rein to consolidate media that BushCo has unleashed, any of several players could have used Iseman as a tool, if it happened at all.

    • prostratedragon says:

      Oh geork yeah, that’s the paragraph that does it for me out of the whole brilliant article.

      Goes some ways to the manipulation of our political process and public discourse.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Let me add to the chorus of praise for EW’s skill, not just in researching events, but in identifying their connectedness and synthesizing the data in a way that should make Karl very afraid.

  9. skdadl says:

    EW, I’m imagining a whole lotta journalists scrambling about to catch up to every paragraph you’ve written there, and I must say, I’m enjoying the image. Awesome.

    chetnolian @ 6, I’m sure we’ve heard before of rendition flights landing at Prestwick. The two (just two?) just admitted to at Diego Garcia are especially disturbing, given what we suspect is going on at Diego Garcia, but how can Miliband claim with a straight face that those are the only two to travel through British territory? From both Rice and British authorities we’re hearing the familiar ambiguous language: no evidence that any other CIA planes “had landed illegally” at British airports. How long do our foreign ministers think they can pull that trick? Amnesty International says that at least 70 CIA flights have touched down in Canada. Our government refuses to release details, but again hides behind the same equivocation: nothing “illegal” going on — meaning they agreed to it. In secret.

    From the same Guardian report, re Diego Garcia:

    Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star US general who is a professor of international security studies at the West Point military academy, has twice spoken publicly about the use of Diego Garcia as a detention centre for suspects.

    In May 2004, he said: “We’re probably holding around 3,000 people, you know, Bagram airfield, Diego Garcia, Guantánamo, 16 camps throughout Iraq.” In December last year he repeated the claim.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Excellent point. For the UK to admit cooperation, but to claim that it only happened twice, is farcical. For starters, given the number of flights necessary to move that many prisoners to multiple locations, the logistics of avoiding UK territorial airspace and airports would have been substantial. Given that Blair’s UK were our BFF in our GWOT, and knew more about the Middle East than we do, that number seems unlikely. Here’s hoping the both Labour and Tory benches demand a more thorough review.

      The UK is ahead of us in becoming a relentless surveillance state. The average tourist in London for two weeks is photographed three thousand times via street corner, bank, lobby, airport, hotel, roadway, rail terminal, etc., cameras. It plans on setting up lots of nifty street corner mini-police stations, suitable for up to day-long detentions, and taking DNA and fingerprints (as quickly as FedEx scans that package it leaves at your door). The US is demanding immediate, online access to the stored data, btw, not to mention gobs of data that it demands about EU airline passengers.

      Brown is not distancing himself from these moves enough, but he seems more credible and independent than Blair. Perhaps he’s just seeing the light at the end of the Cheney/Bush tunnel and feels freer to be so. If he would only stop collecting DNA and fingerprints from anyone who looks cross-eyed at a CCTV, he would keep moving in the right direction.

  10. LS says:

    EW…just Wow.

    But why now..it is written that he tried to stop the publication because of current Telecom legislation…possibly net neutrality, and that she may have written some of it.

    Do I have that all screwed up?


  11. TomJ says:

    It seems the NYT botched the story by talking about sex. The main story, which is repeated several times, is that McCain thinks that he can do what he wants and we should just trust that there isn’t any influencing going on. And this is basically what he came out and said today: I’ll would never do anything…blah blah blah. Somehow the appearance of impropriety shouldn’t apply to McCain. This is ‘naive’! Just hit him on the ‘naive’ aspect of things. He was ‘duped’ by the Keating, his judgement is bad. That is all, who cares about the truth of what he was thinking, or the purity of his heart.

  12. Cujo359 says:

    This is quite a story, EW. Hope it gets larger distribution, because this sure is an example of what’s been done to us in the last couple of decades, and why it’s still happening.

  13. pinson says:

    Jeez Marcy, nice catch. Willie Mays quality.

    Sounds like Iseman’s “role” in the conservative media/political nexus made her too valuable to the movement for the 2000 Bush campaign to use against McCain. You don’t ratf*ck the people who bankroll and promote your campaigns. Too bad the Times did such a clumsy job getting the story out. If the Post story hit first, the focus on the McCain’s crooked lobbyist-coddling tendencies would be a lot more intense.

    • emptywheel says:

      See, I suspect (but it’s outtamyarse at this point) that that’s not the point.

      I rather suspect she was recruited to 1) butter up McCain, who was otherwise a barrier on Commerce, and 2) in so doing compromise him a way that would undercut his strength in 2000.

      I keep thinking about the centrality, in the Siegelman scandal, of finding some way to convince him to agree that he wouldn’t run again. Did the folks bankrolling BUSH use Ms. Iseman to both get their way with the FCC AND make sure that McCain didn’t push too hard against Bush?

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        As in file away the compromising circumstances until a rainy day, while getting help on current telecoms issues? Credible hypothesis. For who’s benefit? And are they selling this filed asset now to those backing Jeb or whatever white knight they think will reinvent the GOP’s tanking political fortunes?

        • emptywheel says:

          Well, note, the accurate description is MEDIA issues (it’s a nit the left needs to fix to get at this media conglomeration stuff).

          But I just think it was a way to keep McCain compliant. Which he has been, hasn’t he?

          • phred says:

            Interesting possibility. I have assumed that McCain’s capitulation on MCA came after a WH promise to back McCain’s candidacy in 2008. And I have assumed that all the bits of his soul that he has auctioned off since last summer have been sold to get the nomination.

            I can’t help wondering if his obivious unpopularity with rank and file Republican voters is causing some panic in Rep inner circles about what appears to be shaping up as a massive loss of power in the fall. So now I’m wondering if this hit piece was essentially Rove et al. going back on their word to McCain. If so, then who will they install at the Convention? At the moment, they’ve got no one to replace McCain with.

              • phred says:

                That’s the problem, MitWit just isn’t popular. I think the Rethugs could cope with losing the Presidency, but with the voter turnout what it has been so far, they will get creamed in Congressional seats as well. They are in dire need of finding someone who will inspire enough Repub voters to go to the polls to support Rethug Congresscritters in November. Thus far, they got no one. Not Freddy, not MitWit, not Huckleberry, no one. I can’t wait to see how they try to salvage this…

                • prostratedragon says:

                  Could that Sept renewal of the swiftboat campaign hold part of the answer, one way to deal with a tall opponent being to work on his legs? Ground being cleared for that?

                  • phred says:

                    There’s no doubt in my mind that the Rethug slime machine will work it’s usual magic. That will be to tamp down support of the Dem nominee, but it will do nothing to make the Rethug nominee more popular. Rep voters don’t like their field, and there isn’t a single Rethug (and I can’t even dream one up) sufficiently well liked by the various factions to mend their fractured party. You can’t have coattails without a coat. As it is, the Rethugs don’t even have a jacket.

      • pinson says:

        Hmm, I think 1) is probably exactly right, but 2) seems more like some kind of double super-secret inverse gainer with a twist. Do you think Paxson and the Sinclair guys concern themselves with the political viability of specific politicians according to specific election cycles? In McCain’s case, maybe so, since he’s so difficult to work with. But really, immediate financial self interest among the wealthy is what drives the republican party and he was more or less playing along with their wishes. In Paxson’s case especially – all those plane rides – seems like he was more interested in getting McCain firmly into his pocket. If the Iseman relationship was something that Paxson held as a hammer, doesn’t it make sense for him to keep McCain around as long as possible to squeeze out all he can? Maybe not, and it’s all about keeping the path clear for W. Either way, I’m betting we’ll find out more soon.

  14. MarkC says:

    So am I misreading, or are you basically saying that Rove used Iseman to honeypot McCain into several choices that were advantageous to the Bushies? In which case, I wonder what sort of trail we might find if we explore in that direction?

  15. freepatriot says:

    best blogger EVER

    4 NY Times “journalists” couldn’t figure it out

    josh might have won an award, but he couldn’t carry your laptop

  16. prostratedragon says:

    And the beauty of this historical thread is that so far, at least, it does not seem to be “bipartisan,” as the K5 story is. Any Dems have such a well-placed and apparently effective minder from the vrwc crowd?

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