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'Nightline' to honor fallen GIs

NEW YORK -- "Nightline" is calling tonight's program a simple tribute. Others call it antiwar propaganda. And one TV station group is pre-empting it.

During the ABC News broadcast (locally, it airs on Channel 5 at 11:35 p.m.), anchorman Ted Koppel will read aloud the names of US service personnel killed in the Iraq war, as a corresponding photo appears on the screen along with that person's name, military branch, rank, and age.

Expanded by 10 minutes from its usual half-hour, "Nightline" will include more than 500 killed in action in Iraq since March 19, 2003, as well as 200-plus noncombat deaths.

"These people have paid the ultimate price in our name," said "Nightline" executive producer Leroy Sievers, "and it's important to remember them, whether you think the price is worth it or not.

"It may not be great television. But it's the right thing to do, and that's why we're doing it."

Sounds simple enough. But with the war in Iraq much in dispute during a highly charged election year, nothing is accepted at face value. So some observers think there's more here than meets the eye.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Maryland-based media company whose holdings include 62 TV stations, announced yesterday that it would pre-empt "Nightline" on its eight ABC affiliates, including stations in Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo.; and Tallahassee, Fla. The company said tonight's program "appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq."

The company called the broadcast a political statement "disguised as news content," pointing to the producers' omission of "the names of thousands of private citizens killed in terrorist attacks" since Sept. 11, 2001.

In its own statement, ABC said its news division had reported "hundreds of stories on 9/11" while noting that, on the first anniversary of that tragedy, it aired the victims' names.

Tonight's "Nightline" broadcast "simply seeks to honor those who have laid down their lives for this country," ABC said.

"I think it's intellectually dishonest to deny the partisan nature of this broadcast," said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center. "Of course, it's partisan! What's the purpose? There's only one goal in mind: It's to turn public opinion against the war."

"I think it's probably fair to say that `Nightline' is against this war in Iraq," political pundit Fred Barnes agreed.

"Koppel is drawing from a Vietnam analogy," added Barnes on Fox News Channel. "The country in 1969 was turning against the Vietnam War."

Barnes was referring to a Vietnam War-era issue of Life magazine, which "Nightline" has cited as the broadcast's inspiration. Like many other readers in June 1969, Sievers said he was stirred by an 11-page spread titled "One Week's Dead" consisting of photographs of the more than 200 servicemen killed in the Vietnam War in a seven-day period.

Readers were urged to "pause to look into the faces . . . of one week's dead" who, Life wrote, "are suddenly recognized by all in this gallery of young American eyes."

When that Life cover story appeared, antiwar sentiment was strong and growing stronger. For many readers, "One Week's Dead" was more than a tribute -- it was a timely contribution to the antiwar movement.

Thirty-five years later, Bozell is among those claiming bias in "Nightline," which, he complained, will illustrate the tragic outcome of war, but without mention of the accomplishments by its fallen heroes.

"Nightline," he said, should "tell you what they're dying for. If it doesn't do that, it's nothing but antiwar propaganda."

But even to approach the war as a pro-or-con matter is to oversimplify it, argued Bob Steele, director of the ethics program for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

"The issue of war is not unlike the issue of abortion, immigration, or capital punishment: There are multiple sides to it," he said. "What Life magazine did was give us a very compelling composite portrait of one side of the horrors of war. To some degree, that's what `Nightline' is doing: telling us one element of the horror of war, and that's the loss of life."

For his part, "Nightline" executive producer Sievers said: "I'm somewhat surprised that anybody would object."

He also dismissed charges of any ulterior motives behind scheduling the broadcast during the extra-competitive sweeps rating period, when high-profile, audience-drawing fare is key to every network.

Not only did Sievers deny knowing that sweeps -- which started yesterday -- is under way, he added: "We don't think this will be a ratings winner."

Globe on NECN

Here's what's happening on "Around the Globe" today on NECN:

* 9:30 a.m.: "Talk of New England"

* 12:30 p.m.: "Globe at Home" -- Boston.com producer Angela Shaw and Azure chef Robert Fathman on how to create an herb garden.

* 4 p.m.: "Around the Globe"

* 6:30 p.m.: "New England Business Day"

* 8 p.m.: "NewsNight" Schedule is subject to change.

Talk of the dial

11 a.m. WBIX-AM (1060) -- "MoneyLife" with Chuck Jaffe. Guest: Ilyce R. Glink, author, "The Really Useful Guide to Working Smarter, Not Harder."

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