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'Nightline' airs war dead amid controversy

Owner ordered affiliates not to broadcast program

Ted Koppel
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ABC's "Nightline" aired the names and photos of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war, calling it a tribute to their heroism. Some talk show hosts called it a move to turn people against the war.
Ted Koppel
Sinclair Broadcast Group Incorporated

(CNN) -- A controversial Nightline program carrying the names and photos of more than 700 U.S. forces killed in the Iraq war ran for about 35 minutes late Friday, amid a swirl of debate over the political nature of the program.

Republican senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain lambasted the Sinclair Broadcast Group Friday for insisting its ABC stations not air the program, calling the move "deeply offensive."

At the end of the broadcast, host Ted Koppel addressed the political controversy.

"Our goal tonight was to elevate the fallen above the politics and the daily journalism," Koppel said in his closing thought.

"The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war nor was it meant as an endorsement.

"Some of you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I am not, but that's beside the point. I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can be waged by the sacrifice of the few without burdening the rest of us in any way."

Koppel explained that 16 names of fallen service members -- including two Marines killed Friday -- were not released, and not included in the program.

ABC issued a statement defending the program, which aired one day before the anniversary of President Bush's May 1 declaration that major combat was over in Iraq.

The ABC statement noted that on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks it aired the names and pictures of the victims.

"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.

The show, titled "The Fallen," aired at 11:35 p.m. ET Friday, and ran until 12:09 a.m.

ABC News showed the tribute live on its Jumbotron screen in New York's Times Square.

McCain wrote a letter to Sinclair Broadcast Group president and CEO David Smith, protesting its call to ABC stations not to air the program.

"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 wrote.

"It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves."

Smith, who has contributed $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, stood by his company's decision in a response to McCain.

"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.

"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."

In an interview with CNN, Koppel denied charges by critics who called the program an anti-war statement.

"The fact that the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, for example, would charge me with being unpatriotic, would say I was doing this to undermine the war effort, I think is beneath contempt, quite frankly," Koppel said.

The veteran newsman, who said he has covered at least 11 wars in his career, said journalists "have a responsibility in our business to keep reminding people of the cost of war."

The mother of one soldier killed in Iraq supports the program.

"I feel it's extremely important that the American people put a face and a name to the dead. When you just listen to a number, you don't think about what may be behind that -- that there's a family, that there's actually a person who has lost their life," said Sue Niederer, whose son, Army 2nd Lt. Seth Dvorin, was killed in February by an improvised explosive device.

Donations to Bush campaign

Sinclair's owned-and-operated ABC stations are in Pensacola, Florida.; St. Louis, Missouri; Charleston, West Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; Asheville and Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Springfield, Massachusetts.

Some of those stations told CNN they are receiving angry telephone calls and e-mails in response to Sinclair's decision.

The Fox affiliate in and around Asheville, North Carolina, said it has received permission from ABC to carry Friday's program since the ABC affiliate isn't.

"Our opinion is that it's a good broadcast and that it honors the troops," said Micah Johnson, vice president for the Meredith Broadcast Group, which owns the Fox affiliate.

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 John Kerry's campaign, the campaign finance records show.

"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.

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