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ABC News reporter Ted Koppel, the anchor of the network’s late-night news show Nightline, marks the first anniversary of the end of what President Bush called “major combat operations” (see May 1, 2003) by reading alound the names of the US troops who have died in Iraq, and showing their pictures as he goes through the list. After the 35-minute segment, which Koppel titles “The Fallen,” he explains the rationale behind it. “Our goal tonight was to elevate the fallen above the politics and the daily journalism,” he says. “The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war nor was it meant as an endorsement. Some of you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I am not, but that’s beside the point. I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can be waged by the sacrifice of the few without burdening the rest of us in any way.” (CNN 5/1/2004)
Heavy Conservative Criticism - Author and media critic Frank Rich will call it “an unbelievably poignant roll call.” Others, mostly conservative pundits and lawmakers, disagree. Neoconservative pundit and editor William Kristol calls Koppel’s tribute a “stupid statement.” Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly says the show might undermine morale if it tries to “exploit casualties in a time of war,” but fails to mention his own tribute to slain soldier Pat Tillman (see April 23, 2004 and April 29, 2004) the night before. (Rich 2006, pp. 125) Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, criticizes what he calls the program’s “partisan nature,” and says its only goal is “to turn public opinion against the war.” (Associated Press 5/1/2004)
Station Owners Order Broadcast Censored - The Sinclair Broadcast Group, a large regional consortium of local television stations whose executives are heavy donors to Republican campaigns, orders its eight ABC affiliates not to air Koppel’s broadcast. In its statement, Sinclair writes: “The action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.… 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.” The statement goes on to ask why ABC does not read the names of the thousands of Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks. Sinclair spokesman Mark Hyman says the broadcast is irrelevant: “Someone who died 13 months ago—why is that news? Those people did not die last week. It’s not an anniversary of the war, it’s not Memorial Day—so why this day? If this is Memorial Day, then go ahead and do it.” Hyman goes on to say of Koppel, “I think clearly here’s a guy who is opposed to the war and is trying to stir up public opposition to it,” and says that ABC is obviously trying to boost its ratings. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) calls the Sinclair decision “deeply offensive,” writing in a letter to Sinclair Broadcast Group president and CEO David Smith: “Your decision to deny your viewers an opportunity to be reminded of war’s terrible costs, in all their heartbreaking detail, is a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves.” Smith replies: “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. 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.” (Rizzo 4/30/2004; CNN 5/1/2004; Jay Rosen 5/1/2004; Associated Press 5/1/2004; Rich 2006, pp. 125) Jane Bright, who lost her son Sergeant Evan Ashcraft, writes in response: “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.” (Associated Press 5/1/2004) Koppel says that any suggestion by Sinclair that he is “unpatriotic” or trying to “undermine the war effort” is “beneath contempt.” (CNN 5/1/2004)
Media Watchdog Group Alleges Underlying Agenda - Robert McChesney of the media reform group Free Press says that Sinclair has an underlying motive in censoring the Nightline broadcast: “No one thinks for a second this decision has anything to do with journalism. 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 says. “The stench of corruption here is extraordinary.” (Associated Press 5/1/2004)
Political Statement? - Koppel says he has no intention of making any sort of “political statement” by airing the segment. “I don’t want it to make a political statement. Quite the contrary,” he says. “My position on this is I truly believe that people will take away from this program the reflection of what they bring to it.… Why, in heaven’s name, should one not be able to look at the faces and hear the names and see the ages of those young people who are not coming back alive and feel somehow ennobled by the fact that they were willing to give up their lives for something that is in the national interest of all of us?” New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen disagrees. “Despite what he said about it,” Rosen writes, “Ted Koppel and Nightline were making a political statement last night by reading the names of ‘the fallen’ in Iraq. And there is nothing wrong with that—although it is risky because many will object.… By refusing to air the show… Sinclair Broadcasting, the country’s largest owner of television stations, was making a political statement right back.… Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, either, although it is risky and many will object.” ABC makes a political statement by choosing to air the segment, not only on the airwaves, but on the Jumbotron in New York City’s Times Square. And ABC affiliates who decide to ignore Sinclair’s order and air the broadcast are making their own political statement. (Al Tompkins 4/30/2004; Jay Rosen 5/1/2004)
Undermining Public Support of War? - Many pundits who argue against the Nightline memorium say that to air such a segment would undermine public support for the war, an argument which Rich later answers: “If the country was as firmly in support of this war as Bush loyalists claimed, by what logic would photographs of its selfless soldiers, either of their faces or their flag-draped coffins (see April 18, 2004 and After), undermine public opinion?” (Rich 2006, pp. 125) Sue Niederer, who lost her son, Second Lieutenant Seth Dvorin, to a roadside bomb, says: “I feel it’s extremely important that the American people put a face and a name to the dead. When you just listen to a number, you don’t think about what may be behind that—that there’s a family, that there’s actually a person who has lost their life.” (CNN 5/1/2004) Tim Holmes, who lost his son, Specialist Ernest Sutphin, says of Koppel’s broadcast: “That’s something I’d like to see. I feel like people have a right to see something like that—what’s going on over there.” Marine reservist Chief Warrant Officer David Dennis adds: “Let the American people know the Marines who have died, and everyone who has died. The people need to know who it is that is going out there and making the ultimate sacrifice for them.” (Rizzo 4/30/2004) “We should be honoring all the men and women who have served,” says Ivan Medina, who lost his twin brother, Irving Medina. “My hat goes off to Nightline.” (Associated Press 5/1/2004)
Fox News Responds - Fox News reporter and anchor Chris Wallace says his network will “answer” Koppel’s broadcast by airing its own segment: “[W]e here at Fox News Sunday are going to put together our own list, a list of what we’ve accomplished [in Iraq], with the blood, sweat, and yes, lives of our military.” (Jay Rosen 5/1/2004)
Former Washington Post editor Barry Sussman, the head of the Nieman Watchdog project at Harvard University, asks a number of pertinent questions about the recently exposed Pentagon propaganda operation that used retired military officers to manipulate public opinion in favor of the Iraq occupation (see April 20, 2008 and Early 2002 and Beyond). Sussman notes that “[t]he story has implications of illegal government propaganda and, possibly, improper financial gains,” and asks the logical question, “So what happened to it?” It is receiving short shrift in the mainstream media, as most newspapers and almost all major broadcast news operations resolutely ignore it (see April 21, 2008, April 24, 2008, and May 5, 2008). Sussman asks the following questions in hopes of further documenting the details of the Pentagon operation:
Does Congress intend to investigate the operation?
Do the three presidential candidates—Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republican John McCain, have any comments (see April 28, 2008)?
Since the law expressly forbids the US government to, in reporter David Barstow’s words, “direct psychological operations or propaganda against the American people,” do Constitutional attorneys and scholars have any opinions on the matter? Was the operation a violation of the law? Of ethics? Of neither?
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld created the Office of Strategic Influence in 2001 (see Shortly after September 11, 2001), which was nothing less than an international propaganda operation. Rumsfeld claimed the office had been closed down after the media lambasted it, but later said the program had continued under a different name (see February 20, 2002). Does the OSI indeed still exist?
Did the New York Times wait an undue period to report this story? Could it not have reported the story earlier, even with only partial documentation? Sussman notes: “Getting big stories and holding them for very long periods of time has become a pattern at the Times and other news organizations. Their rationale, often, is that the reporting hasn’t been completed. Is reporting ever completed?”
Many of the military analysts cited in the story have close ties to military contractors and defense firms who make handsome profits from the war. Is there evidence that any of the analysts may have financially benefited from promoting Pentagon and Bush administration policies on the air? Could any of these be construed as payoffs? (Barry Sussman 4/23/2008)
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