BOB GARFIELD: On Friday night's edition of Nightline, Ted Koppel read the names and showed pictures of the hundreds of American men and women who have been killed in combat in Iraq. It was a controversial broadcast. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which according to CNN has contributed to the Bush campaign but not to John Kerry's, ordered its 8 stations not to broadcast the episode, titled "The Fallen." According to Sinclair's online statement, the broadcast seemed to be, quote, "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq." But Nightline calls the episode a tribute, and executive producer Leroy Sievers, with whom we spoke prior to the broadcast, said that the program has been taking notice of the soldiers' deaths in Iraq all along, in a nightly feature called 'Line of Duty.'
LEROY SIEVERS: Then we realized what we were saying each night was two soldiers were killed in this ambush. Three marines were killed by a roadside bomb, and not getting past the numbers. Ted Koppel and I were both embedded with the Third I.D. during the invasion and we got to know the soldiers as individuals, and we realized that we've all sort of lost that, and it bothered us, and we thought we need to find a way to put the faces back on the people that are over there. So I remembered the Life Magazine. I was a child during the Vietnam War, and Life Magazine ran a spread in 1969 showing the names and faces of all those killed in a given week there, and we thought why don't we do the same thing. So they're not anonymous. I know some people think this is a political statement. The way we're thinking of it was, you know, if you agree with the war or not, these men and women are still over there in our names. They have paid the ultimate price in our names, and I think the least we can do is give them back their names for one night.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, I must say, on this program we noted with sadness the day the names of the dead stopped appearing on the front page of America's newspapers and became the sort of routine business of updating the toll. But, since you brought up the question of political statement, isn't there some sort of implicit editorializing in an exercise like this? A kind of shaking of the American public to see, yes, these are our young men and women who are dying here. Do you understand what is going on? Is none of that in your mind as you prepare for this broadcast?
LEROY SIEVERS: I mean, I have to admit I, I expected some kind of resentment-- I'm stunned by the vehemence and, and the anger. Who could possibly object to honoring the dead by saying this is who they were? I mean two weeks ago, President Bush in his press conference said it's important to acknowledge the sacrifices these men and women have made. That's what we're trying to do. You know, when is the right time? People said well why don't you wait till Memorial Day? Why don't you wait till, till Veterans Day? Why do you have to wait? There are men and women dying every day. The families live with it every day. This nation faces it every day. Is it only okay two days a year to recognize what they've gone through? That's editorializing. We don't want to hear about it except on those two days set aside?
BOB GARFIELD:I'm surprised, actually, that you're surprised that people are looking at this with raised eyebrows, because the way that this is being done, not in Life Magazine but in a news and public affairs program, does smack of, I don't know, editorializing. Are you saying it, it didn't occur to you that this would happen?
LEROY SIEVERS: Well-- of course it occurred to me, but when would be the right time then? Tell me when it's not, quote, "editorializing." Five years from now? Fifty years from now?
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's just say Memorial Day, for example.
LEROY SIEVERS:And so it's only on Memorial Day. To me doing it on Memorial Day is a little bit like people who go to church on Christmas and Easter. You know, on Memorial Day, people are going to picnics -- oh, yeah, that's right -it's about the soldiers. Okay, thanks, I'll have my hamburger well done.
BOB GARFIELD:There was one complaint in the Washington Post about Friday's broadcast, and that is that it's occurring during a sweeps period. This writer, Lisa de Moraes [sp?] was appalled that Nightline would be cynical enough to come up with a sweeps blockbuster on the bodies of the war dead.
LEROY SIEVERS: My only defense on that is I was too stupid to - and I'm not comfortable making this, but I was too stupid to realize the sweeps were starting. I know that any number of writers don't believe that and have said so. It never occurred to me that May sweeps would begin on a Thursday in April. People that know Nightline and know Ted and know me know that we don't worry about that a lot. We went into this not expecting this to be a huge ratings winner. I expect people to watch maybe 30 seconds or a minute. I have no idea how people are going to respond. But I have a more visceral response as well. Ted has covered 13 wars. I've covered 14. I've seen men die in combat. And for anyone, in particular someone who has never seen that and who goes to their office and goes home to their nice home every night, to accuse us of manipulating the deaths of men and women in combat, and remember we were over there in that war, is so offensive that I don't know how to respond in any other manner.
BOB GARFIELD:The Sinclair Group of stations has apparently -- I'm speaking to you on a Thursday -- ordered its ABC affiliates not to run this episode of Nightline. They said it was contrary to the public interest. Why does Sinclair object?
LEROY SIEVERS: I'll be honest with you. That's out of my world. I'm not trying to dodge the question. It's just sort of, you know, the affiliates and, and their decisions is not among - it's [LAUGHS] luckily not one of the things I have to deal with.
BOB GARFIELD:Now that the furor has swirled around this broadcast, do you wish that you had done it differently, or are you happy, actually, that this tempest has called attention to the very names and faces whose attention you were trying to draw the American public to, to begin with?
LEROY SIEVERS: I don't know. I mean I'm not, you know, particularly happy about the tempest, because I think - you know what I mean - one of the things the controversy has shown at least to me is just how polarized and how angry this country is, and my great fear is that lost in all of that is what we were trying to do, which is to acknowledge the sacrifice of more than 700 American men and women. I hope that isn't lost. I hope that wasn't lost. On the contrary, it's a controversy, and we have no control over that.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, thank you very much.
LEROY SIEVERS: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Leroy Sievers is the executive producer of Nightline which on Friday broadcast names and faces of the Iraq war dead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, an apology from the press, and the man who keeps and periodically releases the secrets.