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Analysis: Fox News answers ABC on 'Fallen'

By
PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, May 11 (UPI) -- Upset with the April 30 recitation of the names of U.S. military personnel killed during the current Iraq war on ABC's "Nightline," "Fox News Sunday" offered its own list Sunday: an accounting of what it called U.S. accomplishments in the war.

Fox's Chris Wallace, a former ABC News correspondent who frequently sat in for Ted Koppel as "Nightline" anchor, first told "Fox News Sunday" viewers on May 2 that "Nightline" erred when it aired "The Fallen," in which Koppel read the names while viewers saw photos of the war dead.

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"After listening to all of the debate and then watching the show, we think the folks of 'Nightline' made a mistake this week, listing all the brave men and women who have died in Iraq, but without providing a context of what they went halfway around the world to do," said Wallace. "So next week, we here at 'Fox News Sunday' are going to put together our own list: a list of what we've accomplished there through the blood, sweat and, yes, lives of our military."

When Wallace introduced the segment, titled "What We've Accomplished," during the May 9 broadcast, he defended Fox's news judgment.

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"Some of you have written in to say that we are pushing the White House agenda," he said.

He pointed out that in a segment focusing on the Iraqi prison-abuse scandal, the program had asked "hard questions" about Bush administration policy on Iraq.

Wallace's list of accomplishments ran for more than seven minutes. At the top of the list was "ending the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein," ending the theft of billions from the Iraqi people and ending "the threat that weapons of mass destruction will be developed and used."

Wallace listed quality-of-life issues including education, healthcare and legal rights. The report, which showed pictures of several U.S. military personnel who were killed in Iraq, noted that 2,500 Iraqi schools had been renovated and that new textbooks are not filled with pro-Saddam propaganda.

The report also noted that Iraqis now have the right to remain silent when they are arrested, as well as the right to a speedy, open trial and the assistance of legal counsel. Wallace said Iraq now enjoys "something approaching freedom of the press," with 120 newspapers now publishing. He acknowledged that two papers had been shut down for "inciting violence."

The Iraqi infrastructure has recovered, Wallace said, to the point where oil production now exceeds pre-war levels. But the report did not address the failure of oil production so far to measure up to pre-war promises that it would pay for post-war reconstruction.

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The report also listed improvements in supplies of electricity and clean water and the increased number of daily flights in and out of Baghdad airport.

Wallace left some questions unanswered about his decision to air "What We've Accomplished."

He has not explained why, in particular, he thinks the "Nightline" broadcast was a mistake. He has not said whether he agrees with other critics of "Nightline," who charged that Koppel's broadcast was a political statement. And he has not addressed the question of whether "What We've Accomplished" could itself be understood as a political statement.

During the week leading up to Wallace's broadcast, United Press International contacted a spokesman for "Fox News Sunday" and requested an interview with Wallace. The spokesman did not return subsequent telephone calls or e-mails until the day after the broadcast, when he referred UPI to a story written by another news agency.

Wallace told a reporter that he was offended by Koppel's numerous media appearances to talk about "The Fallen." He said he thought his approach was more balanced than that of "Nightline." And he said he took Koppel at his word that the "Nightline" program was not intended as a ratings stunt or a political statement, but he thinks that's what the show turned out to be.

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"Nightline" scored a rating for "The Fallen" that was significantly higher than its normal number, but "Nightline" spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told UPI the rating will not count towards ABC ratings for the May sweeps, when networks compete for the highest possible ratings so they can set the highest possible ad rates.

That's because, although local stations were permitted to carry ads during local breaks, ABC aired the show on what is known as "a sustaining basis," meaning that it did not sell network advertising time.

Schneider also denied that "The Fallen" lacked context.

"ABC News -- across all of our programs, and particularly on 'Nightline' -- has asked the hard questions in the lead-up to war, which seem to be the very questions that everyone else is asking now," he said. "And it is no small irony that Chris Wallace would make an issue of context, since he actually worked on many of those broadcasts and reported many of those broadcasts when he was still at ABC News."

Schneider said "Nightline" had previously reported on improvements in daily life in Iraq in a series of broadcasts titled "Where Things Stand."

Victor Navasky, editor and publisher of the liberal magazine The Nation, told UPI he disagrees with Fox's assertion that the "Nightline" broadcast was a mistake, but he thinks the contentiousness between two broadcast news programs is healthy.

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"It's a more civil and appropriate conversation to have than the screaming that you get in the zoo of 'The McLaughlin Report,' where they're yelling at each other and they're talking over each other," he said.

However, Navasky, director of the George Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, suggested that hidden agendas are at work in journalism.

"The thing that interests me is that no one wants to admit that they have an agenda," he said. "I think there's nothing wrong with an agenda as long as you admit you have one."

Murray Fromson, director of the Center for International Journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, said networks should show viewers the cost of war and avoid "sanitized, romantic" Hollywood-style coverage.

"Until people are confronted by the nastiness of war -- and I've covered 12 of them -- they're never going to wake up," he said. "This is a time for awakening."

Fromson is a former correspondent for CBS, NBC, the Associated Press and Stars and Stripes. He has covered wars dating back to Korea.

At the center of Wallace's argument against "The Fallen" -- and for "What We've Accomplished" -- is the question of what U.S. troops have died for in Iraq. On the day that "Fox News Sunday" was listing accomplishments in Iraq, the Iraqi prison-abuse scandal was overshadowing virtually all other war news.

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One of Wallace's guests that day, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the scandal threatened the purpose of the Iraq mission.

"America's greatness is defined by the treatment of our enemies," he said. "And if we came to Iraq to install a regime, or just to replace one authoritarian regime with another that's not quite so bad, it's just not worth the sacrifice of over 700 American lives."

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

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