War Dead Names Read On 'Nightline'

Ted Koppel headshot, as ABC News "Nightline" anchor, 1-24-00 AP (file)

Ted Koppel solemnly read aloud the names of 721 U.S. servicemen and women killed in the Iraq war during an unusual edition of "Nightline" Friday.

Koppel's recitation - illustrated with corresponding photo, military branch, rank and age of each of the fallen since March 19, 2003 - occupied the expanded 40-minute program.

There was no music, no graphic flourishes. Name followed name, photo followed photo, with two Americans' pictures on the screen at any given moment. Some of the faces looked determined. Others were smiling. There were brief station breaks, but, jarring as they may have been, they were also welcome, giving viewers a chance to catch their breath.

The "Nightline" presentation seemed to occupy the calm eye of a storm stirred up by soldiers' relatives, media watchdogs and Sen. John McCain after a TV station group announced its refusal to air the ABC News program, accusing it of having an anti-war slant.

"Nightline" anchor Koppel addressed the uproar in his introduction.

"This was never intended to be about us," he said, "and for all the controversy swirling around the program, tonight is just going to be about the men and women who have died in the war in Iraq."

When the names had been read, Koppel added a closing thought.

"Our goal tonight was to elevate the fallen above the politics and the daily journalism ...," he said. He added that the reading of the names "was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement."

Some viewers couldn't see or hear him, or the "Nightline" tribute.

The Fox affiliate in Greenville, S.C. - one of the affected markets - planned to air the program blacked out by the local ABC affiliate.

But earlier in the day, McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, sent a strongly worded letter to Sinclair Broadcast Group about its decision to pull "Nightline" from seven ABC stations throughout the country.

"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," the Arizona Republican said in the letter Friday.

Military Families Speak Out, whose anti-war members have relatives or loved ones in the military, condemned Sinclair's decision, saying it was "dishonoring our troops and their families."

The group's Web site posted one member's letter of opposition.

"The Sinclair Broadcast group is trying to undermine the lives of our soldiers killed in Iraq. By censoring `Nightline' they want to hide the toll the war on Iraq is having on thousands of soldiers and their families, like mine," wrote Jane Bright of West Hills, Calif. (Her son, Sgt. Evan Ashcraft, was killed in July near Mosul, Iraq.)

"We should be honoring all the men and women who have served," said Ivan Medina, 22, of Hinesville, Ga., who was with the Army in Iraq and whose twin brother, Irving, died there. "My hat goes off to `Nightline."'

Free Press, which describes itself as a national media reform group, sent its own letter to Sinclair questioning whether the company's actions violated federal rules governing "stewardship of the public airwaves."

The letter, signed by Free Press managing director Josh Silver, said the group intended to encourage viewers served by Sinclair stations to weigh in when TV license renewal hearings are held.

Robert McChesney, the organization's president, called Sinclair's motives into question.

"No one thinks for a second this decision has anything to do with journalism," McChesney said. "It's a politics-slash-business decision that Sinclair made because they don't want to (anger) the White House."

Sinclair, a political supporter of the Bush administration, is trying to curry favor with the White House to bolster chances of gaining changes in station ownership rules, McChesney alleged.

"The stench of corruption here is extraordinary," he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday: "I don't think we decide you all's coverage. I think we should always remember and honor all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedoms."

Maryland-based Sinclair, whose holdings include 62 TV stations, made $65,434 in 2004 political donations - 98 percent of that to Republicans and 2 percent to Democrats - according to the Web site opensecrets.org, which tracks contributions.

Sinclair announced Thursday it would pre-empt "Nightline" on its ABC affiliates, including stations in Charleston, W.Va., Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis, Mo. It said the program "appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq."

Calling the broadcast a political statement "disguised as news content," Sinclair pointed to the producers' omission of "the names of thousands of private citizens killed in terrorist attacks" since 9-11.

WTXL-TV, the Tallahassee, Fla., ABC affiliate that has an agreement to share resources with Sinclair but controls its own programming, planned to air Friday's "Nightline."

Early reports had wrongly included the Media Venture Management-owned station among those dropping the show. That prompted a flood of correspondence, said WTXL station manager Mike Plummer.

"The overwhelming response has been people want it," he said Friday.

ABC noted its news division had reported "hundreds of stories on 9-11" while adding that, on the first anniversary of that tragedy, it aired the victims' names.

Still, some observers questioned ABC's motives.

Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, derided what he called the program's "partisan nature," saying its one goal was "to turn public opinion against the war."
  • Dan Collins

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