Last week, images of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. troops published online and in the Seattle Times caused a furor in light of the Pentagon's strict policy against such photographs. This week, Ted Koppel and Nightline are at the center of a similar controversy about how the media should cover U.S. soldiers killed in combat.
Koppel is devoting one broadcast (tonight) to a roll call of names and photos of fallen U.S. troops. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, by the way, has been doing something similar on a regular basis, using the last few minutes of its broadcast to show, in silence, photos of U.S. troops killed in combat as the images become available.
Many newspapers today published stories about the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting group's decision to ban the Nightline broadcast from its eight ABC affiliates because, in its view, Koppel et al are making an antiwar statement Sinclair sees as unfit for its viewers. Similarly, Fox News rejected running the coffin images, despite their obvious news value, because doing so would violate Pentagon policy banning such photos.
Sinclair is blasting Koppel for violating journalistic principles, yet professional ethics seem foreign to Sinclair, and its own blatant bias has been underreported so far in the Nightline coverage. The Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes wrote today that: "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.'" (More on Hyman, who refers to the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys.")
Sinclair's series of positive stories about Iraq was called "In Iraq, Going for the Upbeat." In September 2001, Sinclair ordered local news and sports anchors -- even one weathercaster -- to read messages of support for the Bush administration's efforts against terrorism. It's also important to note that Sinclair executives have donated more than $130,000 to President Bush and his political allies since 2000.
Along with a right-wing attack, Nightline has been accused, of all things, of attempting a crass sweeps-week ratings-grab. The charge came from the Post's de Moraes , who wrote:
"We might be left thinking that Friday's broadcast, which ABC will simulcast on its Jumbotron in New York's Times Square, is a cheap, content-free stunt designed to tug at our heartstrings and bag a big number on the second night of the May ratings race. Koppel acknowledged that Memorial Day might have been 'the most logical occasion' to do the program. Ya think?"
In a letter to the editor of the Post, Koppel said that charge was nonsensical and offensive: "There are ways to artificially boost Nightline's ratings and they could involve a list of names. Kobe Bryant, for one; Scott and Laci Peterson seem to attract a lot of viewer attention, as, of course, does Michael Jackson. But that's not what we do. It's not who we are."
Koppel and his producers, who have spent considerable time covering the war, say it is completely appropriate to spend one show saying the names of the war dead aloud instead of just mentioning the dead by the numbers, which is more customary in a news report. Indeed, Koppel's decision seems not based in bias or ratings greed so much as a sense of journalistic responsibility to cover an important aspect of the war -- the human toll.
Ted Koppel, just like the First Amendment activist who FOIA'd the coffin photos, and the Seattle Times and its amateur photographer Tami Silicio, must be onto something. The powerful images of war -- all of them, not just the ones the Pentagon wants us to see, belong in the public eye. More journalists should consider it their duty to remind the American people how high the stakes are in Iraq -- and how high the sacrifice -- from every angle possible. As the Fox News creed suggests, journalists should report, and the American people can decide.