Win for Losing
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.
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.