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McCain rebukes Sinclair's 'Nightline' decision

Owner has ordered affiliates not to broadcast program

Ted Koppel
Ted Koppel
Sinclair Broadcast Group Incorporated

(CNN) -- The decision of Sinclair Broadcast Group, which ordered its seven ABC stations not to broadcast Friday's "Nightline," has received criticism from U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.

Friday's edition will broadcast the names and photographs of the more than 500 U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war.

"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," McCain, a Vietnam veteran, wrote in a letter to David Smith, president and CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group. "It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves."

In a statement online, the Sinclair group said the "Nightline" program "appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq."

Sinclair's decision, announced Thursday, drew angry calls from the public and a sharp response from ABC News.

"We respectfully disagree with Sinclair's decision to pre-empt 'Nightline's' tribute to America's fallen soldiers," ABC News said in a statement. "The 'Nightline' broadcast is an expression of respect which simply seeks to honor those who have laid down their lives for this country."

Some of the stations have received many calls and e-mails in response to Sinclair's decision.

"I have not gotten one positive response," said an assignment desk editor at WSYX, the ABC affiliate in Columbus, Ohio.

WEAR in Pensacola, Florida, has been inundated with phone calls and e-mails. A man who answered the phone in the station's newsroom said people mostly wanted to know why the decision was made.

On the Web site for WLOS in Asheville, North Carolina, the station invited viewers to e-mail the station and said it would forward the messages to Sinclair.

But viewers in Asheville have another option. They will be able to watch the program on Fox affiliate WHNS, based in nearby Greenville, South Carolina.

The Meredith Broadcast Group, which owns WHNS, got permission from ABC to carry the program.

"Our opinion is that it's a good broadcast and that it honors the troops," said Vice President Micah Johnson, who is also the news director there. "We have a lot of people in South Carolina and North Carolina that have sons and daughters that are fighting over there. It's a good program and they deserve to see it."

The group's other ABC stations are in St. Louis, Missouri; Charleston, West Virginia; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Springfield, Massachusetts.

Debate over images

The show, titled "The Fallen," will be broadcast at 11:35 p.m. Friday. In it, newsman Ted Koppel will read the names of the U.S. troops killed in action while their pictures are shown to viewers.

As of Thursday, 533 U.S. troops have been killed in action in the Iraq war; another 204 troops have died from nonhostile incidents.

Smith stood by his company's decision.

"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 Friday.

"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."

"ABC News will continue to report on all facets of the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism in a manner consistent with the standards which ABC News has set for decades," it said.

An earlier statement from Sinclair accused ABC of politicizing the war.

"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 said.

According to campaign finance records, four of Sinclair's top executives each have given the maximum campaign contribution of $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.

The executives have not given any donations to the campaign of Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, the records showed.

Sinclair owns and operates, programs, or provides sales services to 62 stations in 39 markets, according to its Web site.

In addition its ABC outlets, Sinclair's television group includes 20 Fox, 19 WB, six UPN, three CBS and four NBC affiliates, and two independent stations.

It reaches approximately 24 percent of all U.S. television households, according to the Web site.

ABC News will show the tribute live on its large television screen in New York's Times Square.

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