Stations to Boycott 'Nightline's' List of the Fallen
By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, April 30, 2004; Page C07
The country's largest owner of television stations announced yesterday that it has ordered its eight ABC affiliates not to carry tonight's "Nightline" broadcast, in which the names of hundreds of U.S. servicemen and women killed in Iraq will be read as their photographs appear on-screen.
"The action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq," the Baltimore County-based Sinclair Broadcast Group said in a statement announcing that it would yank the show.
"We believe ['Nightline' anchor Ted Koppel's] motivation is to focus attention solely on people who have died in the war in order to push public opinion toward the United States getting out of Iraq," Barry Faber, Sinclair vice president and general counsel, told The TV Column.
"If they wanted to do a program on, is the cost of this war in human life worth it, and discuss that issue and explain the benefit of what [the U.S.] is doing and what the cost has been and allow people to comment on it, that public debate we would welcome.
"But without any context and any discussion of why we're there and why these lives are being sacrificed, it will unduly influence people," Faber said.
Which is ironic because just Wednesday, ABC approved expanding tonight's "Nightline" to 40 minutes to add the photos and names of the more than 200 U.S. troops killed in non-combat situations in Iraq after relatives of some of those dead complained about the omission, executive producer Leroy Sievers said.
(The show originally announced earlier this week that, because of time constraints, the telecast would include only the 500 troops actually killed in action.)
"I received a phone call from the father of a soldier who was decorated for bravery but was killed in a truck accident on his way back from the front," Sievers wrote in yesterday's "Nightline" Daily E-mail.
"His father asked how could we possibly not include his son and the others? The answer is that we couldn't."
ABC said in a statement yesterday that the "Nightline" broadcast is intended as "an expression of respect which simply seeks to honor those who have laid down their lives for this country.
"ABC News is dedicated to thoughtful and balanced coverage and reports on the events shaping our world with neither fear nor favor -- as our audience expects, deserves, and rightly demands," the news division said.
Faber estimated that the affected markets -- in Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis; Charleston, W.Va.; Pensacola, Fla.; Springfield, Mass.; Asheville, N.C.; Tallahassee; and Winston-Salem, N.C. -- represent less than 5 percent of the country's TV audience.
By way of supporting its contention that the "Nightline" broadcast is an antiwar statement, Sinclair noted that Koppel will not be reading the names of "the thousands of private citizens killed in terrorists attacks since and including the events of September 11, 2001."
"We do not oppose an honest and sincere effort to honor those who lost their lives in Iraq, but it's important at the same time to inform people about why we're there, leading to the loss of life," Faber told The TV Column.
But ABC News noted that all of its programs, including "Nightline," have reported "hundreds" of stories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that on the first anniversary of 9/11, ABC News broadcast the names of the victims.
"The average viewer who watches the show [tonight] is not going to remember that," Faber shot back.
Sinclair has been doing its own reporting on Iraq for its 62 stations. In February, when the company sent Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman and its "editorialist" Mark Hyman to Iraq, the Baltimore Sun reported that the men described their job as to cover "the positive 'untold stories' that the 'liberal media' don't recount during constant coverage of the attacks against U.S.-led forces and simmering political unease during the occupation of Iraq."
Faber told The TV Column yesterday that "our view was that the mainstream media focuses such a large percentage of their coverage of the U.S. efforts in Iraq on two things: one, the deaths of U.S. military members, and two, on Iraqis who are opposed to our presence in Iraq. We don't believe they're telling the whole story," he said, "so we sent people over there. We found, according to our reports, that the overwhelming majority are thrilled the U.S. is there after suffering years of oppression, and they are worried about what some radicals would do if we left."
In an interesting standoff, Sinclair yesterday tried to get an interview with Koppel for a program it has produced about its decision to pull "Nightline." It plans to air the show on its ABC stations tonight in the "Nightline" slot. Sinclair was turned down because, ABC News told The TV Column, Koppel would be airing against Koppel.
Meanwhile, ABC News's "Good Morning America" tried to book Sinclair's Hyman to discuss the controversy for this morning's telecast. Faber said Sinclair agreed, but only if the interview was live. "GMA" wanted to tape it, which, Faber noted, would give it the opportunity to edit the interview, so Sinclair turned ABC News down.
In an interview this week with the Associated Press, Koppel said he was concerned that tonight's "Nightline" broadcast not be seen as a political gesture.
"We had to be careful that it could not be seen as political on our part," he said. "I think it can be seen just as powerfully by people who are totally supportive of the war as those who aren't."
Yesterday, Sievers told the AP of tonight's telecast, "I'm somewhat surprised that anybody would object."
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