Sinclair Broadcast Group has ignited sharp debate with the decision to pull last night's Nightline from its seven ABC stations, drawing strong condemnation from Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is a Vietnam War veteran.
Earlier this week, the Baltimore County broadcaster charged that anchor Ted Koppel's plan to read aloud the names of hundreds of U.S. service members killed in Iraq on last night's program was a politically calculated move by ABC News to undercut support for the U.S.-led occupation. Nightline executives have dismissed that criticism as outrageous, saying they intended a tribute with no political overtones.
While some commentators expressed support for Sinclair's stance, liberal groups such as MoveOn.org generated protests, swamping the company's telephone switchboard. Several people said they were intending to hold a candlelight vigil outside Sinclair's Hunt Valley headquarters late last night, at the time the program was to air.
"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 backer of the invasion, wrote yesterday to Sinclair CEO David D. Smith. "It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic."
In a written response, Smith expressed his strong support for President Bush's decision to invade Iraq last year and said he also held the dead soldiers in high regard.
"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 to McCain. "In simply reading the names of our fallen heroes, this program has adopted a strategy employed by numerous anti-war demonstrators who wish to focus attention solely on the cost of war."
Local television stations and regional cable news networks arranged to pick up the show in several markets affected by the Sinclair pre-emption, including portions of Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, North Carolina and New England, according to ABC spokeswoman Emily Lenzner. The network also offered a free radio feed to local outlets in all markets where Sinclair has an ABC station.
Initially, some critics chided ABC for seeking to create publicity at the outset of a "sweeps" period during which ratings are closely monitored. Nightline executive producer Leroy Sievers said yesterday that he had been unaware of the ratings schedule, and expected only modest audiences.
Smith has long been skeptical of the mainstream media, which he deems blatantly liberal. Along with his family members and fellow corporate executives and directors, the Sinclair CEO has been a consistent financial backer of Republican causes, including the Bush campaign.
Not everyone agreed with his decision. "I feel that I'm going to be cheated of the opportunity to see somebody honor my son," said Chuck Norman of Hendersonville, N.C., whose son, Army Cpl. Robert Roberts, was killed in Baghdad in November."If someone's going to show a picture of my son on national television, and somebody nationally known is going to say my son's name, I deserve to see that."
Mark Hyman, Sinclair's chief editorialist and vice president for corporate affairs, said the company's centralized news division was preparing a show about the controversy - for which Koppel did not submit to an interview.
"Standing on principle can sometimes be a lonely endeavor," said Hyman, a Navy veteran who is a captain with an intelligence role in the U.S. Naval Reserves. "Obviously, I'm biased about this. This is my fiber. This is who I am."
On WBAL-AM yesterday, talk show host Chip Franklin spent two hours on the Sinclair-Nightline flap. "Whether Koppel really believes it or not, it sure appears that it's political," Franklin said in an interview. But he said he disagreed with Sinclair's decision to pull the show.
On Fox News Channel yesterday, media critic Eric Burns pointed to Sievers' inspiration for the show - a June 1969 edition of Life magazine that depicted the U.S. war dead for a single week. "The suggestion of an analogy to Vietnam" is loaded, when covering the Iraqi conflict, Burns said.
Sievers responded, "When did honoring the dead of the war - or any other - become a problem or a political gesture? What's happened to this country?"