Friday, April 30, 2004

ABC News Nightline airs photos and names of U.S. troops who died in Iraq

From Nightline:

The Fallen

The Fallen

Friday, April 30

The war in Iraq began on March 19, 2003. Since that day, according to the Department of Defense, 725 Americans have been killed in Iraq. We think it is only fitting that for one night, we present their names. All we would hope is that all of you who watch will take a moment at least to think about that sacrifice.

The show has highlighted questions about what considerations -- beyond the obvious editorial ones -- journalists should make when producing work on any significant topic.

The political controversy about tonight's special 40-minute broadcast of the photos and names of U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq seems to be growing.

It seems that U.S. conservatives view it as anti-war propaganda, while others view it as a dose of reality in a war that is highly stage-managed by the U.S. military, which refuses to allow the news media to view or photograph the caskets.

U.S. veterans say that the Nightline broadcast is a long-overdue acknowledgement of the contributions and sacrifices of U.S. troops, while Sinclair Broadcast Group -- a major contributor to U.S. president George W. Bush and vice-president Dick cheney's election campaign -- has refused to air the broadcast on its stations, saying " the action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq," in the following message on its Web site:

ABC Nightline Pre-emption

The ABC Television Network announced on Tuesday that the Friday, April 30 edition of "Nightline" will consist entirely of Ted Koppel reading aloud the names of U.S. servicemen and women killed in action in Iraq. Despite the denials by a spokeswoman for the show, the action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.

There is no organization that holds the members of our military and those soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in service of our country in higher regard than Sinclair Broadcast Group. While Sinclair would support an honest effort to honor the memory of these brave soldiers, we do not believe that is what "Nightline" is doing. Rather, Mr. Koppel and "Nightline" are hiding behind this so-called tribute in an effort to highlight only one aspect of the war effort and in doing so to influence public opinion against the military action in Iraq. Based on published reports, we are aware of the spouse of one soldier who died in Iraq who opposes the reading of her husband's name to oppose our military action. We suspect she is not alone in this viewpoint. As a result, we have decided to preempt the broadcast of "Nightline' this Friday on each of our stations which air ABC programming.

We understand that our decision in this matter may be questioned by some. Before you judge our decision, however, we would ask that you first question Mr. Koppel as to why he chose to read the names of 523 troops killed in combat in Iraq, rather than the names of the thousands of private citizens killed in terrorist attacks since and including the events of September 11, 2001. In his answer, we believe you will find the real motivation behind his action scheduled for this Friday. Unfortunately, we may never know for sure because Mr. Koppel has refused repeated requests from Sinclair's News Central news organization to comment on this Friday's program.

Nightline's Ted Koppel responded to the charges in an interview wi'th CNN's Anderson Cooper (ex-ABC), saying: "I think of all the programs on network television, "Nightline" probably has done more on Iraq over the last 18 months than any other program out there. To suggest that this program exists in a vacuum by itself is just to ignore reality."

Republican senator and Vietnam War veteran John McCain called Sinclair's move "deeply offensive" and "unpatriotic", to which Sinclair responded:

Dear Senator McCain:

I am writing to respond to your letter to me regarding Sinclair Broadcast Group's decision not to air this evening's episode of "Nightline."

Let me begin by saying that no organization more fully supports our military than Sinclair. In no way was our decision intended to show any disrespect to the brave members of our military, particularly those who have sacrificed their lives in service of our country. To the contrary, our decision was based on a desire to stop the misuse of their sacrifice to support an anti-war position with which most, if not all, of these soldiers would not have agreed.

Senator McCain, together with you, I also support the President's decision to go to war in Iraq. Moreover, while I don't disagree that Americans need to understand the costs of war and sacrifices of our military volunteers, I firmly believe that responsible journalism requires that a discussion of these costs must necessarily be accompanied by a description of the benefits of military action and the events that precipitated that action. To those who would accuse Sinclair of censorship, we ask that they consider the daily decisions of network shows like "Nightline" as to what issues to cover and how they are to be presented, decisions that necessarily involve ignoring other issues and points of view that the networks choose not to present to the American public.

Sinclair's news coverage during the last year has reported on all aspects of the war in Iraq, including the tragic loss of lives of military combatants. In fact, we will be replacing "Nightline" this evening with a balanced report addressing both sides of this controversy. It is worth noting that "Nightline" and its host, Ted Koppel, have ignored repeated requests from Sinclair to comment on their decision regarding the content of tonight's program.

It is "Nightline's" failure to present the entire story, however, to which Sinclair objects. "Nightline" is not reporting news; it is doing nothing more than making a political statement. In simply reading the names of our fallen heroes, this program has adopted a strategy employed by numerous anti-war demonstrators who wish to focus attention solely on the cost of war. In fact, lest there be any doubt about "Nightline's" motivation, both Mr. Koppel and "Nightline's" executive producer have acknowledged that tonight's episode was influenced by the Life Magazine article listing the names of dead soldiers in Vietnam, which article was widely credited with furthering the opposition to the Vietnam war and with creating a backlash of public opinion against the members of the U.S. military who had proudly served in that conflict

In closing, I would like to quote for you the words of Captain Kate Blaise of the U.S. Military. Captain Blaise served in Iraq as a member of the 101st Airborne Division and suffered the loss of her husband Mike who was killed while also serving in Iraq. In commenting on exactly the type of practice which "Nightline" intends to employ, Captain Blaise had this to say:

"I was watching the news, watching this anti-war demonstration and they were reading off names of soldiers who had fallen in Iraq and they read off my husband's name. That made me very angry because he very strongly believed in what he was doing and they were using his name for a purpose that he would not have approved of."

I hope that this letter has adequately addressed your concerns and explained why Sinclair has taken this action. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you in greater detail. In addition, if you are available, we would be delighted to provide you with a chance to be part of our program this evening discussing this issue.

Sincerely yours,

David D. Smith

The political storm around the broadcast has eclipsed a second one over the timing of the show. Washington Post TV critic Lisa de Moraes cynically asked "Who'd have thought that the only people in broadcast TV with no awareness of ratings sweeps periods all work at ABC News? I mean, what are the odds, really?"

When the question was put to him, Koppel responded in his interview with CNN's Cooper: "I have to admit, I'm not proud of this, that I didn't realize the May sweeps began in April."

And in his usual incisive manner, friend and colleague Rick McGinnis wrote in his TV column in the Toronto edition of the Metro daily newspaper: When pressed, they also expressed shock that Designing Women had been cancelled.

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