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Can’t Win for Losing

Remember when the hawks said being antiwar equated to not “supporting our troops”? Leaving aside the absurdity of that argument (though we shouldn’t forget its historical antecedent, the shameful way some Vietnam vets were treated by some antiwar folks when they came home), it seems we’ve come full circle: now supporting, or at least honoring and memorializing, our troops equates to being antiwar.

At least this is what the Sinclair Broadcasting Group and a small group of assorted others said when ABC’s Nightline decided to devote last Friday night’s show entirely to a reading by anchorman Ted Koppel of the names of soldiers who have died in Iraq in this conflict, while showing their photos on the screen.

Sinclair’s official statement said that the show “appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq,” and the company declined to carry the show on any of its eight ABC-affiliated stations. Barry Faber, Sinclair vice president and general counsel told the Washington Post that “without context” the reading will “unduly influence people” and noted that Koppel is not reading the names of “thousands of private citizens killed in terrorist attacks since and including the events of September 11, 2001.”

It seems fairly clear that Sinclair doth protest far far too much about Nightline’s “political” choice. If Sinclair—whose executives are all large Republican donors, by some accounts more consistently Republican than the famous Bush buddies at Clear Channel—thinks that the value of our presence in Iraq is so shaky in the American public’s mind that a tribute to lost soldiers could tip the scales, doesn’t that say a lot more about the state of the war effort than about the motivation of Koppel and his producers? Hiding some portion of the truth is always more suspect than presenting it.

Or take this gem of righteous outrage: “Honoring the troops by humanizing them and emphasizing the dangers they face and the sacrifices they’ve made should only be encouraged. Using them as pawns to further a political agenda simply is obscene.” This is from the New York Post, the paper that printed a picture on its cover of an NYU student in mid-air as she committed suicide by jumping out a high-rise window. I think they’ve forgone their right to comment on the obscenity of exploiting people’s grief.

But of course, questioning the motives and intentions of any media choice is always fair game. This was an unusual show, and clearly much thought went into it. Much has been made of Nightline producer Leroy Seivers’ statement that the idea came from the 1969 Life magazine devoted to photos of all the soldiers lost in Vietnam in a single week. That issue was widely credited with turning the tide of public opinion about the Vietnam war.

But knowledge that sharing certain information might lead to certain reactions doesn’t mean that a news organization is aiming for those reactions by sharing it. If that were the case, then similar readings and memorials to the victims of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, could have been criticized as fanning the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. Obviously, that was not the intent, though in some instances it was a predictable result.

News organizations are charged with giving people important information that will help them understand their world. Grasping the magnitude of a tragedy like a terrorist attack or a war, while not the usual fare, can fall within that mandate.

But frankly, I find the sputtering by Koppel and Seivers about not being “political” a little funny as well. I think it’s fair, if it’s true, for them to declare that they did not intend the segment to be antiwar. But in taking on the language of their accusers and insisting that they had no intention of being “political,” the Nightline folks are buying into the idea that a media organization covering politics can avoid being political, unless by political you narrowly mean stumping for one particular party. That’s not generally how people mean it.

Of course Nightline had reasons. They’ve said as much. “I’ve always felt, and I said it when I was in Iraq last year, that the most important thing a journalist can do is remind people of the cost of war,” Koppel told The New York Times. And Seivers told the Poynter Institute “It is too easy to not go beyond the numbers. . . . It is too easy to see the helmet, the flak vest, and the uniform, and forget that these are all individuals.”

In other words, they did what every single journalist and editor does: They looked at the practically infinite amount of information out there, chose something they felt was important that people understand, and devised a way of communicating it. Choosing what to cover, and how, is an inherently biased process. Faber’s comment that the memorial was for soldiers and not terrorist victims was true (though petty, since ABC had done numerous memorials to Sept. 11 victims). It also wasn’t for Iraqi civilians, Afghan civilians, British soldiers, or victims of childhood poverty in the United States. Your point? If you wanted to, you could argue that the show was valorizing American soldiers at the expense of all sorts of others. I’m not arguing that necessarily, but it would be no farther out there than Faber’s argument.

“Broadcasting the names is definitely a political act, and so is pulling the show. There is no way to be objective in this row. And we shouldn’t be,” wrote Jeff Myhre, a commentator on etalkingheads.com. He notes that in Britain, papers “have a clear and obvious slant, they choose their news stories that way, but their reporting usually gives some time to opposing views.” With a number of different papers, he says, you can get a fairly complete picture. To Myhre, who titled his column “More Biased Media Please,” this sounds about right.

The inherent bias in deciding what’s important (and feasible) to cover doesn’t devalue the journalistic mandate to give people information they need to make informed decisions, rather than give them propaganda that tries to convince them of one side a story or simplify a complicated issue. It just means that insisting that we are 100-percent objective not only sounds silly, but weakens both news organizations’ credibility and the ability of the public to piece together a complete picture by knowing what lens they’re looking through.

—Miriam Axel-Lute
maxel-lute@metroland.net

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