Sinclair stations won't air `Nightline'

April 30, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The Sinclair Broadcast Group will yank Nightline from its seven ABC stations tonight because of a plan to devote the show to reading the names of the hundreds of American service members killed in Iraq, which Sinclair says is intended to damage support for U.S. actions there.

Ted Koppel, anchor of the ABC News program, is attempting to "disguise political speech as news content," said Mark Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate relations. "He's welcome to participate in political speech, but this purports to be a news program. There is no journalistic value here."

The decision to drop Nightline was made at Sinclair's corporate headquarters in Hunt Valley, not by its news editors, Hyman said. A statement posted on the company's Web site yesterday said: "The action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq."

Leroy Sievers, executive producer of Nightline, said he conceived of the program as a tribute, much as a June 1969 edition of Life magazine listed one week's toll of soldiers killed in Vietnam. Previously, Nightline has simply cited the numbers of dead American service members. "None of us were satisfied with that," Sievers said in an interview. "We want to remind people that they all have faces and names and families.

"If you agree with the war or disagree with the war, these people here have died in our names. We think it's the least we can do, to list their names."

Yesterday, ABC announced that the program would be extended to 40 minutes to accommodate the reading of all service members killed in Iraq. Initially, citing time constraints, Sievers said Nightline would only be able to read the names of those killed directly in combat.

One of the names read will be that of Marine Pfc. Nolen Ryan Hutchings, who was 20 when he was killed by American bombs in Nasiriya, Iraq, on March 23, 2003. His father, Larry Hutchings of Boiling Springs, S.C., said Nightline's plan doesn't bother him at all. "I was going to watch it because my son's going to be on it," he said.

Hyman, a captain with an intelligence role in the U.S. Naval Reserves, is a commentator for Sinclair's NewsCentral, a consolidated newscast that is broadcast on 37 Sinclair stations. The newscasts' tone resembles the blend of quick-paced news stories and pointed opinions found on the Fox News Channel. In his editorials, Hyman frequently blasts the media for a "liberal" bias and he traveled to Iraq in February to chronicle what he said were the overlooked achievements of the U.S.-led occupation there.

After the September 2001 attacks, officials at Sinclair stations were directed to read on-air statements supporting the Bush administration's efforts against terrorism. The move prompted internal objections by journalists at WBFF-TV, Sinclair's flagship station in Baltimore, after anchors there were told to read similar statements on the air. Company directors and executives have been frequent donors to Republican causes.

Koppel's early reporting during the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, when he was "embedded" with the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Infantry Division, was unjustified in its pessimism, Hyman contended yesterday. "He's a guy whose credibility as an independent journalist is a little bit suspect to begin with," Hyman said. As of yesterday afternoon, Koppel had not agreed to an interview with Sinclair reporters, he said.

Sievers responded angrily on Koppel's behalf. "To accuse us of manipulating the coverage of men and women's deaths is beneath contempt," Sievers said. "Anybody who knows Ted Koppel and has seen his reporting would never question his credibility."

Nightline is one of the most critically acclaimed news programs on network television, born from nightly coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979.

The Sinclair stations affected by the decision are in Asheville, N.C., Charleston, W.Va., Columbus, Ohio, Pensacola, Fla., Springfield, Mass., St. Louis, and Winston-Salem, N.C.

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