Analysis: The politics of 'The Fallen'

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  April 30, 2004 at 4:20 PM
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LOS ANGELES, April 30 (UPI) -- ABC's decision to use an extended edition of "Nightline" to recite the names of U.S. military personnel killed in the Iraq war, and the decision by a TV station ownership group not to air the show on its ABC affiliates, are emblematic of the deep political divisions in the United States over the war and the media's role in covering it.

As of April 29, the Pentagon Web site listed 734 Americans dead in Iraq, 532 of them killed in action.

Ever since ABC announced plans for "The Fallen" -- inspired by a famous 1969 issue of Life magazine that carried the photos and names of 329 Vietnam War dead -- the network and "Nightline" host Ted Koppel have been rebutting charges that the show is either an attempt to gin up opposition to the Iraq war or to capitalize on U.S. war dead for ratings, or both.

The controversy escalated when the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group announced that the eight ABC affiliated stations it owns would not carry "The Fallen." In a statement, Sinclair said it would support "an honest effort to honor the memory of these brave soldiers," but it did not believe the "Nightline" program will do that.

"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," said the company.

Sinclair urged Americans to question Koppel's decision to read the names of the dead, "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."

In an interview with National Public Radio Friday, Koppel acknowledged that the show is a "political statement," but only to the extent that it will have personal political meaning for each viewer who tunes in.

"I don't quite know how you can look at something as neutral as simply showing the faces and reading the names of the war dead and presume to know that we have a political motive in mind," he said. "I assure you we don't."

The White House sidestepped the controversy.

"I'm not getting into being a media critic," spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We should always remember and honor those that made the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedoms, and it's not our position to tell stations what to air or not to air."

However, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., defended ABC's programming choice. In a letter to Sinclair President and Chief Executive Officer David Smith, McCain questioned Sinclair's patriotism.

"I supported the president's decision to go to war in Iraq, and remain a strong supporter of that decision," wrote McCain. "But every American has a responsibility to understand fully the terrible costs of war and the extraordinary sacrifices it requires of those brave men and women who volunteer to defend the rest of us; lest we ever forget or grow insensitive to how grave a decision it is for our government to order Americans into combat."

McCain said Sinclair was shirking its responsibility as a broadcaster and keeping its viewers in the dark about the sacrifices made by Americans serving in Iraq.

"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," he said. "It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic."

In response, Smith wrote to McCain that "no organization more fully supports our military than Sinclair," and that the pre-emption was not intended to show disrespect to the military.

"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," Smith wrote.

Free Press, a non-partisan group that promotes "informed public participation in crucial media policy debates," said it would investigate whether Sinclair has "fulfilled its obligations as a steward of the public airwaves," and would challenge Sinclair station license renewals. In a letter to Smith, Free Press President Robert McChesney said Sinclair's decision was a misuse of its power as a broadcaster.

"What we see in Sinclair broadcasting, with its cozy and corrupt relationship to the Bush administration, is TV journalism that is anything but independent of the government," said McChesney in a statement. "It is a commercial version of Pravda, and it is an outrageous and entirely unacceptable use of the public's airwaves."

McChesney cited data provided by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics showing that Sinclair executives had donated more than $16,000 in hard money and more than $120,000 in soft money to President Bush and other Republicans and conservatives since 2000. He also noted that the president supported changes in media-ownership rules in 2003 that "would have benefited Sinclair handsomely."

Wayne Smith, a spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Washington, said the "Nightline" program is "long overdue." Smith told United Press International the public needs to be informed about the number of U.S. war dead in Iraq, particularly in light of an incident Thursday, in which Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in testimony to Congress put the number of combat deaths in Iraq at "approximately" 350.

"Here is the man, second in command at the Department of Defense, responsible for U.S. military forces, and he didn't know how many Americans had died," said Smith. "I submit this is a case of out of sight, out of mind. It is an insult for any veteran and family not to know the cost of this war."

Koppel said he was deeply offended by any suggestion that "The Fallen" was aimed at cashing in on war deaths.

"Anyone who thinks that sitting there and reading 700 some odd names and showing 700 odd pictures is going to draw a huge audience, I think knows little or nothing about television," he said.

Wayne Smith doubted that "The Fallen" would have much impact on public opinion about the war.

"Sadly, in this country it seems that more Americans are willing to watch Jay Leno or 'The Apprentice' or that type of so-called reality-based programs," he said, "when the reality is that our nation is at war on two fronts, and our sons and daughters are dying in a war that half of the country doesn't believe is right and the other half doesn't care."

In all likelihood, the viewing audience for "The Fallen" will include a disproportionately high percentage of relatives and friends of people serving in the U.S. military. Wayne Smith said it was possible that the recitation of the names of war dead might influence that relatively small but politically influential constituency.

"It could be," he said, "but I can only tell you, having spoken to some family members -- and they too have political leanings for or against -- in the final analysis, all they're thinking about is supporting the soldiers and praying that they'll come home alive."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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