Names and Pictures
By now we've all heard about how Nightline is going to spend tonight's telecast reading the names of those U.S. soldiers who have died from enemy fire in Iraq, along with a photograph of each solider. Some news outlets are banning this broadcast from their ABC affiliates, including one in nearby Columbus, Ohio. This move also has caused some to question whether it is merely a ratings ploy by ABC to get more people to watch during the all-important sweeps month of May.
I find the whole thing fascinating.
There appear to be a couple of issues at play here. I'll deal with the easy one first. Is this a ratings ploy? Maybe, but it strikes me as a phenomenally bad one if it is. I may be disproven by the numbers, but I suspect that not a lot of people are going to tune in for an hour to listen to Ted Koppel read over five hundred names and look at the pictures of more than five hundred casualties of war. To do so would exceed the tolerance of all but the most masochistic among us.
Of course, people enjoy some amount of solemnity. I couldn't stop reading the little biographies that the NYT ran of those who died on September 11. I even bought the book. But then I always could stop, and there were always touching moments to leaven the sadness somewhat. Not so here. Again, though, I could be wrong.
The second issue is more difficult and fascinating--is what Nightline doing "journalism?" Is it political? Is it politically-motivated? If so, is that okay?
Two assumptions I'm going to make: (1) The fact of these soldiers' deaths is "news" in the sense that it is a report on at least somewhat recent events--no one argues that these men and women did not die; and (2) the act of reading the names and showing the pictures is politically neutral on its face--I do not take into account any musical accompaniment or background graphic or particularly stylized vocalization. These obviously could remove the broadcast's neutrality, but we'll assume they won't.
It seems that the supporters and critics of the broadcast view it in two lights: as a memorial honoring these soldiers' sacrifices for their country or an indictment of those whose decisions led to their deaths. Personally, I think most will come away with a nuanced view somewhere in between.
However, the critics appear to contend without proof that the broadcast is meant to be seen merely as an indictment and to concede without argument that it will be.
I think the contention is irrelevant and the concession is revealing. Ted Koppel may mean to make people question the war, but he may not. And when you get down to it, I think what he and the Nightline producers mean to do is irrelevant, because as long as the act itself remains politically-neutral, people will view it both ways. Specifically, those who have already made up their mind about Iraq will see whatever they want to see: heroes, victims, courage, and/or tragedy.
However, for those who haven't made up their mind, it is simply a reminder of the truth: these men and women have died in United States uniforms, killed in the line of duty. Each person can draw his or her own conclusion. It is not an indictment, and it is not a memorial. It is merely a display of facts: pictures and names. We each bring our own context to that act, and that context colors our viewing.
But those who oppose the broadcast seem afraid that it will only foment dissent; but why are they so sure it will? Are they so insecure in their position in support of the war that they can't believe that others, when faced with facts, will agree with them? Are they elitist, believing that the weak-willed masses lack the character or moral fiber necessary to continue to support of war when they appreciate its toll? What is it? What are they afraid of?
Maybe they realize that, at the heart of it, war is a sometimes necessary evil, but one that most people will not support when faced with its true costs. Or maybe they are insecure about whether it really is necessary this time.
UPDATE: Drudge has a letter from Sen. McCain protesting the decision of the Sinclair Broadcast Group not to air Nightline: "Your decision to deny your viewers an opportunity to be reminded of war's terrible costs, in all their heartbreaking detail, is a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves."