No conspiracy in `Nightline' honor roll of the `fallen'

May 02, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

FRIDAY'S Nightline -- the one Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group goofily denounced as "motivated by a political agenda to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq" and refused to air on its ABC-affiliated television stations -- was titled, "The Fallen," and somewhere Paul Fussell must have been amused.

To Fussell -- professor emeritus of English literature at the University of Pennsylvania, skilled curmudgeon, connoisseur of irony, grand essayist on matters of war and culture -- anything in modern media called "The Fallen" would hark back to a bygone age of high diction and reality-masking euphemisms, and essentially would glorify war.

In Fussell's seminal work, The Great War and Modern Memory, he presents a list of the noble and poetic language that once lived in Europe and supposedly died in the mustard clouds of World War I -- danger was "peril," the enemy "the foe," to die was "to perish," and the dead were "the fallen."

This language is in something of a revival 90 years later. Some of these flowery words and phrases -- "raised, essentially feudal, language," Fussell called it -- are used by military leaders and politicians, and the media, particularly broadcasters, have picked up on them. I hear it in television and radio newscasts.

Friday's Nightline was essentially a video memorial wall, with faces and names appearing and dissolving every four seconds on the television screen, most of them handsome, formal portraits of 721 U.S. servicemen and women killed in Iraq. Ted Koppel had time only to read names, not ranks.

I don't understand why anyone supporting the war would complain about this, other than to pick a fight and grab publicity for themselves.

We did not see dead Americans sprawled on dusty roads around Baghdad. We did not see the maimed or mangled. No bodies. No body bags. No blood. "The Fallen" was a straight-ahead, dignified -- Fussell would say "sanitized" or "monotonous" -- honor roll of the dead.

Was it news?

Not really. But then, I don't always count on Nightline for news. It's more of a one-topic magazine show. Ted Koppel is a skilled interviewer, but he certainly brings his own voice to the program. His interviews are fair, but he certainly gives up his opinions. It's not a straight news show.

Was it journalism? In that "The Fallen" provided a record of the dead and put faces to all those names -- or, on some days, those routine headlines: "Two Marines killed ..." -- yes, indeed, it was.

And the broadcast's timing was certainly journalistic. "The Fallen" came at the end of a particularly bloody -- the old poet would say "cruel" -- April, and on the eve of the anniversary of Bush's cocky declaration of the end of "major combat operations."

But, undermining the war effort?

A political agenda? A liberal conspiracy?

I don't think so. But then again, I don't think any shots came from the grassy knoll, either.

I suspect all the noise made by the attention-seekers at Sinclair, out in Hunt Valley, had more to do with competition than anything else. It must truly gall any deaf-to-lies supporter of George Bush with a broadcast license that ABC -- the Peter Jennings network -- decided to honor the American dead this way.

If Sinclair executives are riled about anything it's probably that they didn't think of it first.

And the people at Fox are probably just as steamed.

Had they thought of it, they probably would have presented it the same way Nightline did -- with some glorious, patriotic music laid in for max impact.

But let's leave market forces out of this.

Let's take Sinclair at its word -- that it believes that a respected, Emmy-winning anchorman reading the names and showing the faces of American war dead on national television, while the war is still going on, undermines the war and, in effect, the November election. That's the same mentality that condemns photographs of flag-draped coffins, the belief that frank exposition and debate, while troops are engaged, is subversive. It's one of many things about this episode that reminds us of Vietnam.

It comes from the fear that support for this war -- and confidence in this president -- is a mile wide and an inch deep, and from the belief that you can't carry out a poorly conceived war plan while Americans are paying too much attention.

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