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‘Nightline’ Fuels Iraq Images Feud

Times Staff Writer

ABC News’ plan to devote Friday’s “Nightline” to a solemn roll call of U.S. service people killed in Iraq is fast becoming the latest focus in the charged debate over the role images play in influencing attitudes about the conflict.

“Nightline” producers said the show -- in which anchor Ted Koppel will read the name, rank and age of more than 700 dead troops as their photos are shown -- will air under the title “The Fallen.”

The initial plan was to include only those who were killed in battle, because there wouldn’t be enough time on the half-hour show to include noncombat deaths.

But “Nightline” Executive Producer Leroy Sievers said Wednesday that the program would be expanded to 40 minutes to include all who died in Iraq, after receiving what he said was an emotional phone call from the father of a serviceman killed in a truck accident.

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“Nightline” routinely airs the names of fallen service members as they are released but wanted to “get past the numbers,” Sievers said. He added that the broadcast was inspired by the “powerful” Life magazine issue in June 1969 that chronicled the U.S. dead in Vietnam for a single week. The decision to do “The Fallen” came after discussion with “Nightline” producers and Koppel, Sievers said.

He denied any political motivation for the program. “Ted and I were embedded” with American troops last year in Iraq, he said. “We got to know these men and women. That’s lost now for most people.

“We see these guys in helmets and vests, and they all look the same. Whether you agree with the war or not, these men and women are over there in our names and died in our names. We’re not trying to make a statement other than that all these people are individuals,” he said.

The White House said it had no objections to the show. “The president believes we should always remember and honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedoms. We are forever grateful for their sacrifice, and we keep their families in our thoughts and prayers,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

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But talk show hosts such as Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh took up the topic Wednesday, as did Internet message boards. O’Reilly’s website, referring to “Nightline” and a series of “Doonesbury” strips in which a character loses part of his leg in Iraq combat, raised the question, “Are these fair tributes, or is the press contributing to the demoralization of our troops?”

One post on the National Review website message board was typical of the Internet criticism. It read: “Too bad ‘Nightline’ won’t be reading the names of the people who AREN’T dead today because Saddam is gone and Al Qaeda is on the run.”

Sievers said “Nightline” had expected some controversy over the broadcast, but he expressed frustration at the criticism.

“Why is it that showing names and faces of soldiers who died in Iraq is controversial?” he asked. “The president at his press conference [this month] said that it is important to honor their sacrifice.

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“People are asking, why now? Well, why not now? Why is one time better than another? Families have to live with this every day.”

The controversy comes on the heels of the publication of photos of the flag-draped coffins of American service people returning to the U.S., images that had been largely kept out of the public sight until a website operator filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Pentagon. The Pentagon subsequently called the release of the photos a mistake, saying it banned such images to protect the privacy of fallen troops’ families.

Earlier, media outlets had debated internally whether to show graphic pictures of American contractors who were killed by Iraqis and their bodies mutilated.

CBS News, meanwhile, aired photos Wednesday night that apparently showed American soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners.

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Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, noted that “Nightline” had covered the war in Iraq more than any other broadcast program.

Rosenstiel said that “if there is a watchdog or advocative quality to doing this, it would be about the fact that the administration for whatever reason has not allowed a lot of focus on the dead.”

But he called it “an oversimplification to suggest this is a kind of protest.”

On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many broadcasts covered the roll call of the dead, and the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for community service for its small obituaries of the victims, he noted, adding, “There’s something about attaching names to the numbers that changes things.”

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The “Nightline” broadcast will include advertising, Sievers said, noting that “in a perfect world you wouldn’t do it,” but it proved too complicated to strip out all ads, some of which were sold by ABC’s local stations.

He denied suggestions by some that the broadcast was a stunt to boost ratings during the upcoming ratings period, saying, “I don’t even know if people will watch it.”

Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.

For a searchable online database of the dead from the conflict, go to latimes.com/wardead.

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