Koppel Defends “The Fallen”

After almost two and a half decades anchoring ABC News’ “Nightline,” Ted Koppel says he is surprised that anyone could think that his special “The Fallen,” scheduled to air Friday night, is a ratings ploy or an attempt to make a political statement.


For 40 minutes Friday night, Koppel will read the names and show the faces of American servicemen and women who have died in the Iraq War. Initially, “Nightline” was going to air the names of the 500 Americans who died in combat, but Thursday the program announced plan to expand the Friday broadcast so it could include the 200 Americans who died in non-combat situations.


Radio talk shows and newspaper columnists have criticized Koppel’s plans. Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns 8 ABC affiliated stations in Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo.; and some smaller markets, said it would not air the “Nightline” broadcast. The company’s memo said, in part, “Despite the denials by a spokeswoman for the show, the action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.”


ABC responded, “The ‘Nightline’ broadcast is an expression of respect which simply seeks to honor those who have laid down their lives for this country. ABC News is dedicated to thoughtful and balanced coverage and reports on the events shaping our world with neither fear nor favor — as our audience expects, deserves, and rightly demands.”


(You can read the entire memos from Sinclair and ABC here.)


Thursday afternoon, I spoke with Ted Koppel by telephone about the special and response to it. This is a transcript of that interview. 

What do you think this program says that needs to be said still?

Koppel: Just look at these people. Look at their names. And look at their ages. Consider what they’ve done for you. Honor them.

You have been quoted in the press, most specifically The New York Daily News yesterday, as saying that you were initially concerned that this program not make a political statement.

Koppel: Not only initially, I still am. I don’t want it to make a political statement. Quite the contrary. My position on this is I truly believe that people will take away from this program the reflection of what they bring to it.


I think it is just as possible for a staunch supporter of the war to come away from this program very moved and content that it was done as it is for someone who is an opponent of the war to come with exactly the same feeling.


I also have no illusions. I think it’s entirely possible that people who hold those differing points of view will watch the same program and come away wishing it had not been done.


How do you think someone who is a staunch supporter of the war will be fortified in their position by seeing this? How could that happen?


I always find it kind of strange that when we send young men and women off to war we make a huge fuss about them. And indeed when they come back from the war we make a huge fuss about them. There are, understandably, joyous celebrations when a unit comes back from any war, although that has, as you and I both know, not always been the case. But it’s certainly the case right now.


Why, in heaven’s name, should one not be able to look at the faces and hear the names and see the ages of those young people who are not coming back alive and feel somehow ennobled by the fact that they were willing to give up their lives for something that is in the national interest of all of us?


“Nightline” has covered a lot of wars that have involved a lot of American casualties. Off the top of my head –- I know I’ll forget some –- I’m thinking of Grenada, Haiti, Panama, Somalia, the first Gulf War. You didn’t do a similar reading for those. So why now?

I think if you look at that list that you’ve just enumerated, there’s one thing that all those actions or wars have in common. They were very short. They didn’t last as long as this one.


So it’s the length of the war?


It’s the fact that we have –- I mean what caused us to do it, two things.

My executive producer Leroy Sievers remembered, and asked me if I remembered and I did, a two-page spread in Life magazine back in 1969 on the Vietnam war dead for one week and the impact; he reminded me of the impact that that had had. And said, why don’t we try to do something similar?

I’ve been doing “Nightline” for over 24 years, I’ve been at ABC for 41 years, if that’s really the impression I’ve left with people then I have failed in such a colossal way that I can’t even begin to consider the consequences of it.And the other part of it is that we — for months and months and months now — have been doing a segment at the end of “Nightline” called “In the Line of Duty.”

And basically all I can do there, because that’s all the information we have on any given day, today for example, I think so far 10 people, 10 Americans have died in Iraq. And all I’ll be able to say was eight died in this incident and two died in that incident, and maybe I’ll be able to give the branch of the service that they were in, but no names, no pictures, just the number of people who died over the last 24 hours.

And we have been doing that for a very long time and our fear was by virtue of the fact that we’ve been doing it for such a long time, people are almost numb to it and really not paying that much attention anymore unless the number is extraordinarily high.

And so we wanted to just take one program and say, here, let’s show you the faces and the names of all these who have laid their lives down.

How much of the decision to air these names and faces was inspired by the fact that you and Leroy Sievers spent time in Iraq and came to know, presumably, some of those whose names you’ll read tomorrow?


I would say that was a very small part of it. I mean there’s no question but that Leroy and I made good friends over there. Tragically, the person that I was closest to was Michael Kelly who was not a soldier, he was another journalist. And happily, yes I knew a couple of the men who have died over there but I didn’t know them well enough that I can now suggest that that was part of the reason for doing this. I think if it was any part of it it was a small part of it.


Are you surprised, in the end, that this program has gotten this much attention and I assume will get more in the next 24 hours?


Yes. I really am. I didn’t expect that. I thought it would get attention, but did I think it would become so controversial, did I think that people would feel the need to question the patriotism of those who are putting it on the air? Did I think that it would descend to the depths of some people suggesting we were doing this because the networks are going into a sweeps period when ratings become important?


You start to wonder after a while. I’ve been doing “Nightline” for over 24 years, I’ve been at ABC for 41 years, if that’s really the impression I’ve left with people then I have failed in such a colossal way that I can’t even begin to consider the consequences of it.

But quite apart from that, it seems to me absolutely silly that anyone would suggest that we were doing this for ratings. In point of fact, we were sitting around (a) unaware that it was sweeps, that’s how dumb we are at “Nightline.”

But we were actually sitting around saying, you know, what’ll probably happen is that people will tune in for 30 seconds or two minutes or maybe five minutes, but I doubt very much that many viewers are going to hang on for the whole broadcast. If anything, our expectation was that this program might have fewer viewers than normal. It never occurred to us that someone might think we were doing this for ratings.

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