Story location:

May 1, 2004

Of Course Ted Koppel Was Making a Political Statement. So What?

Time for my political statement on Nightline's toll of the fallen last night.

Part I: Everyone’s Making Political Statements.

Despite what he said about it, Ted Koppel and Nightline were making a political statement last night by reading the names of “the fallen” in Iraq. And there is nothing wrong with that— although it is risky because many will object. (Koppel: “I didn’t want it to be seen in any fashion as a political gesture.”)

By refusing to air the show, (Koppel said it was the first time that had ever happened) Sinclair Broadcasting, the country’s largest owner of television stations, was making a political statement right back. (“The action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.”) Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, either, although it is risky and many will object.

Senator John McCain proved to be one. It was a political statement when he publicly objected to Sinclair’s decision (“I find deeply offensive Sinclairís objection to Nightlineís intention to broadcast the names and photographs of Americans who gave their lives in service to our country in Iraq.”) Sinclair made a political statement by replying. (“In no way was our decision intended to show any disrespect to the brave members of our military.”)

It was a political statement when ABC News said it disagreed with Sinclair’s decision. (“The Nightline broadcast is an expression of respect which simply seeks to honor those who have laid down their lives for this country.”)

It was a political statement when the Center for American Progress, in its weblog, highlighted some of Sinclair’s past actions. (“The record shows that Sinclair media has repeatedly leveraged its control over the airwaves to manipulate public opinion in favor of President Bush’s right-wing agenda.”)

From the New York Daily News: “ABC News will simulcast the show on its Jumbotron in Times Square, and ABC Radio will air excerpts.” That was a political statement by the network.

When, according to blogger Law Dork, Conan O’Brien on NBC Friday night announced…

… that “Nightline” was not being shown in seven cities tonight because the Sinclair Group thought Ted Koppel’s reading of the names of service members killed in Iraq was a sweeps-week stunt. Conan, however, then had his announcer, Joel, read the names of several programs broadcast by the Sinclair Group, including many Maury Povich shows about “he’s not my baby’s daddy,” Temptation Island, and any number of Jerry Springer shows.”

… that was O’Brien’s political statement. Law Dork, on his other blog, DeNovo, made his own political statement: “Without some action taken to stop this sort of censorship, what will happen next?”

According to a participant’s account that Atrios ran as news, protestors were making a political statement Friday night in front of Sinclair’s Ohio headquarters: “Several people carried signs and got a solid response from rush hour traffic with waves and honks— ‘Why is ABC 6 afraid of Ted Koppel?’ and ‘Censorship is UnAmerican’ were on two of them.” (And at least 281 comments—political statements—were received at Eschaton under that item.)

In a political statement, Ohio News Network, a cable channel, explained why it decided to carry the Nightline broadcast in a special arrangement:

Sinclair says the broadcast is a political statement disguised as news, meaning ABC viewers in Columbus would not get to see the program.

Nightline says the show is a tribute and the “right thing to do.”

Friday, ABC contacted the Ohio News Network and asked ONN to air the program. ONN decided to air the program and give viewers the choice.

Blogger Cable Newser (“This Is My Boiling Point”) makes his own political statement:

I headed up I-83 to Hunt Valley this afternoon. You can see the Sinclair building from the interstate exit. I pulled past the “No Trespassing” sign and dropped off my posters. Other messages included “737 Americans have died in Iraq: Sorry it’s not ‘good news.’” I dropped off the posters in the parking lot. I didn’t think they’d be too friendly inside. Apparently it was only a coincidence that two police cars tailed me as I headed back onto the highway.

When, under the heading “Republican Values,” Atrios re-published accounts from the Baltimore Sun and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporting on the 1996 arrest of Sinclair boss David D. Smith (“arrested in an undercover sting at Read and St. Paul streets, a downtown corner frequented by prostitutes, Baltimore police said yesterday…”) Atrios was making a political statement.

Now Koppel:

My executive producer Leroy Sievers remembered, and asked me if I remembered and I did, a two-page spread in Life magazine back in 1969 on the Vietnam war dead for one week and the impact; he reminded me of the impact that that had had. And said, why don’t we try to do something similar?

They were deciding, right then, to make a political statement, which they hoped would have impact.

And when Robert Cox of the The National Debate went back to ‘69 and reviewed what was happening in Vietnam, and at home, including the turns in the war at that time…

The “impact” of the Life magazine “ONE WEEK’S TOLL” was to crystalize opposition to the war in the wake the high casualties taken at Ap Bia mountain. The context of Koppel’s “tribute” mirrors those events - it is the one year anniversary of President Bush declaring the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq, Senator Kennedy recently called Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam”, the U.S. is coming off a particularly bloody battle in Fallujah and opinion polls show a decline in support for the War in Iraq.

… Cox was making his political statement.

So when Jeff Goldstein of protein wisdom published his “interview” with Koppel….

Ted Koppel: “…Why, in heaven’s name, should one not be able to look at the faces and hear the names and see the ages of those young people who are not coming back alive and feel somehow ennobled by the fact that they were willing to give up their lives for something that is in the national interest of all of us?”

protein wisdom: “Are you asking me?”

Ted Koppel: “Yes.”

protein wisdom: “Well, because it’s depressing, it weakens the nation’s resolve, it twists idealistic self-sacrifice into cold material defeatism, and it reeks of the kind of self-serving media sensationalism that makes most Americans want to buggy-whip smarmy blowhards like you with a vacuum cleaner cord. Viciously. And that’s just off the top of my head. Want more?”

… he was cleary using satire to make a political statement.

And when Jeff Jarvis objected and told us what Nightline’s decision really means…

It means: Let’s hit the people over the head with what we think they’re ignoring; let’s add it up for them; let’s rub their noses in the enormity of it; let’s remind them of a story nearly ignored. But the Iraq war is hardly ignored. We don’t need Koppel to bring our attention to the danger and death there.

… Jarvis—by intepreting intent—was making a political statement.

Finally, when Ted Koppel ended his show last night choosing this rationale…

“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. Iím not. But thatís 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. I oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to question, criticize, or debate our leadersí policies. Or, for that matter, the policies of those who would like to become our leaders.

… that was Koppel explaining his political statement.

Part II: What the Nightline Statement Said.

I watched Nightline last night. It made me appreciate what the men and women of the United States military do. Not for the first time, just a little more… sharply.

Certainly Koppel, an intelligent man willing to credit you and I with some intelligence, wasn’t trying to inform me that all these people have died. He knows I know that. Nor was he “rubbing it in my face,” as I heard some people say. And aside from latest casualties (reported on air), the Nightline program Friday night had no “news” value. It was not a news program, really. We need another category of broadcasting to account for it. Trouble is, there is no such category that has broad legitimacy. This was one factor in the immediate ignition when Nightline’s plans became known.

For Ted Koppel wanted to make an statement, which I intend to call “political”—even though it wasn’t anti-war or pro-war—and he did it by reading on national television the names of all soldiers killed on duty in Iraq since the war began. If you like bloggers with positions on things, then my position is: Koppel was right to make his statement, wrong to say he wasn’t doing just that. But there’s a reason he found himself in a bind over Nightline’s plans, and it’s worth thinking about.

Koppel and his producers took a kind of political action Friday night. But the language they have for explaining that action does a pitiful job. And so they are attacked for “being political,” and hypocritical— and their replies to the charge only compound the original error. The press in general, and Koppel in a painfully real way this week, have over the years learned to describe themselves as political innocents, people who are without a politics that enters into the news. (I have also called this general philosophy the View From Nowhere.)

So I don’t disagree with Jeff Jarvis when he writes: “Koppel says he wasn’t making a political statement. That’s what’s dishonest about it.”

Political innocence is performed during controversies like this. The ceremony, conducted by journalists in their self explanations, presents a narrow and formulaic view of political life— and of statement making. You can hear it perfectly in one part of Koppel’s closer Friday. “”The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement.” The trouble with this kind of explanation, even when true, is that it only talks about the politics that isn’t going on— we’re neither this nor that.

But Koppel talked about the politics that is going on, the political statement he fully intended, at the close of the broadcast. You want to know what his agenda is? Here are the words he spoke about it: “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. I oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to question, criticize, or debate our leadersí policies.” I am opposed… That’s a political gesture he’s describing, and it even sounds like one.

What I think he meant by it was: “I am using this program, ABC’s Nightline, in opposition to the way daily politics and daily journalism dull us to what’s happening on a human level. I am also using this program, Nightline, in opposition to the way wartime pressures close down debate, and constrict the space of honest reflection. My purpose is not to inform or persuade, it is to invite reflection, a pause to re-think the meaning of 721 dead in Iraq. Yes, it’s a political statement, but it is not a politicized view of the war we undertake tonight.”

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Fox News host Chris Wallace (formerly of ABC) says his network will air a special program responding to Nightline’s:

After listening to all the debate, then watching the show, we think the folks at ‘Nightline’ made a mistake this week, listing all the brave men and women who have died in Iraq, but without providing the context of what they went half way around the world to do.

So next week, we here at Fox News Sunday are going to put together our own list, a list of what we’ve accomplished there, with the blood, sweat, and yes, lives of our military.

Obviously a political statement from Fox.

Blogger Tacitus, a supporter of the US action in Iraq, finds meaning in the faces and names flashed on Nightline:

As I write this, Nightline just flashed, together, the photographs of the two dead in Iraq whom I knew from younger days: Kim Hampton and Eric Paliwoda. I didn’t realize they were killed sequentially. They fell in the line of duty, on the field of battle, and there is honor in their lives and deaths. What remains is for us to impart honor to the cause in which they served. I speak not of the defense of the United States: this is forever honorable, and right. I speak of the creation of a just Iraq. This would be an Iraq in which jihadis do not walk free, in which Ba’athist generals no longer rule, and in which civil war is not the near-inevitable future. That this Iraq does not exist, and will not exist because of our choices, means we have profoundly dishonored our dead there. They deserve better: something right, and lasting. It is hard to see those faces, those young faces, among the roll call of the dead. I look at them, and it strikes me that in walking away from Fallujah, we are walking away from their graves; leaving their light and memory to the cruel care of those who killed them.

Two PressThink posts that bear on this one: Players: Toward a More Honest Job Description For the Political Press. (Argues that the press is a player that thinks it cannot describe itself that way.) Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate. (Explains a critical distinction typically ignored in these debates: the difference between a political and a politicized view.)

Chicago Sun Times columnist Mark Steyn, Don’t count on Koppel for whole war story.

Poynter’s Al Tomkins, interview with Koppel defending “The Fallen.”

Those with a deep interest in the problems with news coverage of Iraq ought to read Peter Levine, who asks: why do we care about press coverage of Iraq? (Yes, he has answers.) Money quote: “we need to decide what obligations we have as citizens, in order to decide what role our press should play, in order to assess the performance of the press in the Iraq war.” Levine is a political philosopher who blogs. He and colleagues have also put together a new resource site: The War, the Press, and Democracy.

Stephen Waters, Ted Koppel Needs a Blog: “Koppel’s program can exert a potent and powerful educational influence on people. Someone with that power owes it to the audience to test the soundness of what is presented. How do you sift out the questionable ideas and go with the best?”

From the comments at Jeff Goldstein’s protein wisdom.

For those who don’t agree with what Nightline is doing:

It’s your broadcast tonight. How do you honor the sacrifices of US soldiers who’ve lost their lives? And how do you do so in a non-political manner?

Posted by: SamAm at April 30, 2004 09:04 PM

I’d start by not doing it during Sweeps Week. Then, I’d include the Afghanistan dead. And I’d avoid letting Ted Koppel or ABC anywhere near it. But if I had to let them near it, I wouldn’t let Ted Koppel go on Air America the day of the broadcast and badmouth the war. And I wouldn’t let his producer compare the show to the Vietnam / Life Magazine issue that galvanized anti-war sentiment.

For starters.

Posted by: Jeff G at April 30, 2004 09:10 PM

After watching Nightline Friday, Robert Cox at the National Debate reflects: “Perhaps the most interesting thing came in Koppel’s closing remarks when he stated that ‘some of you believe that I am against the war…I am not.’ I want to ponder that for a bit before commenting. I will say this, although I believe my criticism over the past week has been valid, and ABC News could have handled the situation much better, I felt a twinge of guilt. My sense that whatever else was going on with the powers that be at ABC this past week, Ted Koppel has a sincere respect for those who gave their lives.”

Moving the Numbers: More on Koppel’s agenda from Tim Graham at National Review’s Corner: “This show is designed to goose the poll numbers on that question ‘Has Iraq been worth the cost?’ Koppel wants you to say ‘no.’”

Writing on Tacitus, Harley points to Sinclair Broadcasting’s news philosophy: “they think local news broadcasts are too expensive and a thing of the past and too expensive. So, if you happen to live in a Sinclair market, you’ll get about seven minutes from the local news team. Then a commercial break. And then a new anchor on a similar set will take over, presenting national and international news, and pretending all the while to be part of the local team. Except he won’t be. He’ll be working out of ‘Central Casting’ at the company’s national headquarters, doling out the bulk of the news to Sinclair stations all over the country.”

Twisted Chick @ livejournal on an American tradition: (Thanks, Ellen Nagler.)

We remember them by name. They’re not anonymous. Nobody who dies while serving in the military is anonymous. They are not living private lives, but official ones; their deaths are public whether they occur at the point of a sabre during Pickett’s Charge or under napalm or on a land mine in Vietnam or as a result of a British raid on a settlement in 1779. We remember them by name. We know them… We are not borne down by the weight of our history yet, as older countries may be, but still new enough that every one of those names matters.

Blog on the Run’s Lex Alexander reflects at length on Sinclair’s decision and the reaction in Blogistan: “this week’s episode illustrates only one way in which a segment of the blogosphere can lay some serious jujitsu on a political action in a very short time.” (via Ed Cone.)

(May 3) After accusations that Nightline was after ratings during “sweeps week,” The Drudge Report has figures confirming what anyone who knows television should have known: reading the names of the dead is not a winner. Drudge: NIGHTLINE RATINGS DOWN IN MAJOR CITIES WITH DEATH LIST; LOSES AUDIENCE FROM PREVIOUS FRIDAY WITH READING OF IRAQ WAR CASUALTIES… But wait a minute: Lisa Morales in the Washington Post (May 4): “ABC News’s Nightline scored nearly 30 percent more viewers on Friday night than it did the rest of last week, according to preliminary numbers.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 1, 2004 12:14 PM