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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 May, 2004, 04:32 GMT 05:32 UK
US media grapples with Iraq horrors
By Kevin Anderson
BBC News Online in Washington

April was the deadliest month for the US in Iraq. And on the home front, the battle is also heating up over coverage of the war and whether showing the horrors of battle undermines the war effort.

Flag-draped coffin of Army Sgt Major Michael B Stack is saluted as it is carried by an honour guard during burial services at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia
About 700 US soldiers have died in the Iraq conflict
Since Vietnam first sent the horrors of conflict into the living rooms of America, the US government and military has tried to carefully manage the media during times of war.

As the violence and chaos increases, supporters of the war and of the administration fear that coverage could turn public opinion not only against the war but also against President George W Bush.

Recent polls show support for the war and for President Bush's Iraq policy slipping.

And in the battle for hearts and minds at home, the media is on the front line.

Abuse allegations

World outrage at reports of abuse by American soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison was quick.

It was much quicker than the official response in the US, which came a full day after the airing of the report by CBS television.

Marine Capt Richard J Gannon II, of Escondido, California, who died on 17 April 2004
Killed in Iraq: Marine Capt Richard J Gannon II
And the reports of abuse received scant attention in the US until President Bush was asked about the allegations on Friday.

It has led to journalists outside the US to question whether the White House was pressuring the media not to cover stories critical of the American war in Iraq.

CBS did delay the broadcast two weeks after a request from the Pentagon due to tensions in Iraq.

But Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, told the BBC that the White House has not made an effort to quell the reports.

Mr Kurtz said that one possible explanation as to why the story was not receiving greater coverage in the US was that Democrats, the party in opposition, were not making the allegations an issue.

"We, in the media, are a little hesitant to start the debate ourselves, but if some member of the Democratic Party were to start a debate over this, we would be on it in a flash," Mr Kurtz said.

That is not to say that the Bush White House does not try to control the news and keep the images out of Iraq positive.

Recent attempts to block publication of photos of flag-draped coffins of American war dead were "a perfect example of administration news control", Mr Kurtz said.

But he added: "We can't pretend there is not a real human cost here."

Tribute or anti-war propaganda?

The latest controversy is over the decision by ABC television news magazine Nightline to devote an entire, expanded programme to reading the names of all 700 Americans who have died in Iraq.

Sinclair Broadcast Group has refused to air the programme on eight of its stations.

In a statement, the group said: "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."

Nightline [is] hiding behind this so-called tribute in an effort to highlight only one aspect of the war effort and in doing so to influence public opinion against the military action in Iraq
Sinclair Broadcast Group
Nightline executive producer Leroy Sievers told the BBC: "I somehow missed when honouring war dead became a political statement."

The programme had long run a feature called In the Line of Duty that reported on those who had given their lives in Iraq on that day.

"Our concern was that they were just becoming numbers," Mr Sievers said.

Growing up during the Vietnam War, Mr Sievers remembers the June 1969 Life magazine issue that printed the names and some of the photos of the 242 Americans who had been killed in the week before. He wanted to do something similar.

However, that issue of Life is remembered for stunning America and helping to increase anti-war sentiment.

Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes accused the show of "a cheap, content-free stunt designed to tug at our heartstrings and bag a big number on the second night of the May ratings race."

Mr Sievers and others at Nightline told Ms de Moraes that they were unaware that Friday was the beginning of the critical ratings period.

Mr Kurtz scoffed at his colleague's accusations that this was a ratings stunt.

"This isn't going to get big ratings. This isn't scintillating television. This is a moving gesture," he said.

And he pointed out that several executives of Sinclair are donors to President Bush's Republican Party and to Mr Bush's re-election campaign.

"If there is anybody has a political agenda here, it's the people who don't want the American public to see this particular 30-minute reading of the names of the fallen," Mr Kurtz said.


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