Last Friday marked something of a milestone for ABC's widely acclaimed news program Nightline when it aired a detailed look at life inside the chaotic emergency room at the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. The significance? It was the first time since July 18 that Nightline had broadcast a firsthand news report from Iraq examining the on-the-ground effects of the still-unfolding war there.
In the four-plus months in between, Nightline produced more than 230 separate news segments covering a kaleidoscope of topics, but just one was filmed in Iraq: a Green Zone-based profile of Gen. David Petraeus on the eve of his Capitol Hill testimony. As for the daily or weekly events of the war itself, for 18 straight weeks (or one-third of the calendar year), Nightline effectively walked away from Iraq. What took its place? Lots of Nightline reports on pets and pop music.
It didn't always used to be that way.
During the run-up to the war, Nightline host Ted Koppel was embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division for a little over a month, reporting first from Kuwait, and then moving with the Army across the border into Iraq, before finally entering Baghdad, where he chronicled the fall of the city.
And the program's commitment remained long after the invasion. In January 2004, Koppel returned to Iraq with a Nightline crew of 14 and produced a week-long series about the war, which kicked off with an hour-long Nightline special. That spring, Koppel and Nightline made headlines when he committed to reading the names of the 721 U.S. soldiers who, at that point, had died in the war. The Sinclair Broadcasting Group, owners of several ABC affiliate stations, refused to air the program, calling Koppel's tribute a political act.
In 2005, Nightline was awarded an Emmy for the program's nearly two-year-long series profiling the Marines of Fox 2/5 Company.
In November 2005, when Koppel left ABC News, Nightline was reconfigured. The program moved from Washington, D.C., and began broadcasting live from New York every weeknight. (Koppel had preferred pre-taping his segments). Hosting duties were split among Cynthia McFadden, Terry Moran, and Martin Bashir. The program no longer covered just a single topic each night and it mostly did away with the program's signature in-studio interviews. Instead, on most nights, Nightline now races from story to story to story within its 30-minute timeframe, usually tackling three topics each night.
At first, Nightline tried to carry on the show's commitment to covering Iraq. In fact, during the first week of the new format, Moran broadcast from Baghdad for consecutive nights. But over time, it became clear that Nightline's interest in covering the war had waned. The program certainly was not alone. Most television news outlets, and the networks, in particular, have drastically cut back on the amount of airtime they now give to the war. Sometimes it appears as though the war doesn't even exist.
For instance, on October 21, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney appeared on CBS' Face the Nation for an extended interview. Host Bob Schieffer asked Romney 18 questions about his candidacy, his beliefs, and his political agenda. Not one was about the war in Iraq.
What's so distressing is that television's wholesale withdrawal from covering the war comes at a time when Americans, week after week and month after month, tell pollsters that the "situation in Iraq" is the story they follow most closely, according to the Pew Research Center's weekly News Interest Index. According to Pew, for the week of September 16-21, nearly a third of the public (32 percent) followed news about the situation in Iraq very closely." That figure was virtually unchanged in Pew's most recent survey, for the week of November 11-16.
Yet what percentage of their total news coverage do television outlets devote to the situation in Iraq? Less than 5 percent. That disconnect between what news consumers are clamoring for (i.e. substance from Iraq) and what news professionals are providing (i.e. everything but) is astonishing.
What's obvious is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to find news about the war on television. If the U.S. military action inside Afghanistan is often referred to as "The Forgotten War," due to the lack of media attention it receives, what has Iraq become -- "The Forgotten War II"?
And perhaps nowhere is that amnesia stronger than at ABC's Nightline. The virtual news boycott from Iraq that Nightline has implemented since July went far beyond what any other major American broadcast has done. Again, Nightline aired more than 230 news reports between July 18 and November 22, and not one was about the events on the ground in Iraq. Nightline has not even bothered to cover the ongoing Blackwater USA scandal, involving private American contractors accused of opening fire on unarmed Iraqi civilians on September 16 at a crowded Baghdad intersection, killing 17. The mass shootings are now being investigated stateside by a federal grand jury. Yet, in the 10 weeks since the story first made headlines, there has not been one word about Blackwater USA mentioned on Nightline. Not one.
It's true that Nightline has recently covered some aspects of the Iraq story. As I mentioned, the program covered Petraeus' testimony before Congress in September, although the report was more of a profile of Petraeus and the debate surrounding the policy of the war, as compared to the events of the war itself. Nightline has also reported on how soldiers in Kansas are preparing for their tours of duty in Iraq, as well as the spike in the number of Army deserters.
But up until Friday night, what Nightline had not done for four months was broadcast a single report from Iraq that viewed the war from the perspective of those fighting it or those simply trying to survive it. And what Nightline still has not done for more than four months is broadcast a report that revolves around that day's events from Iraq. For instance, on the night after mammoth suicide bomb blasts in Iraq on August 14 killed more than 500 people, making it one of the deadliest acts of terrorism ever recorded, Nightline aired reports about a Mexican stem-cell doctor, lullaby singer Lori McKenna, and soccer star David Beckham. That same week, the program aired two separate reports about the earthquake in Peru that killed approximately 500 civilians. But nothing about the suicide blasts in Iraq that also killed more than 500 civilians.
That the news blackout occurred at Nightline, where news consumers used to go for insightful reporting on foreign affairs, and in particular about Iraq, is particularly distressing. Nightline, after all, was born out of an earlier foreign policy crisis; the 1979 hostage calamity in Iran. The nightly news update that Koppel hosted, "The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage," proved so popular that it gave birth to Nightline, which quickly earned a reputation for in-depth investigative journalism, as well as extended interviews. In 2002, the George Foster Peabody Awards for Broadcast Excellence recognized Nightline with a Lifetime Achievement Award, reflecting the widespread admiration Nightline enjoys within the broadcast news industry.
Some Nightline alumni, though, no longer recognize the program. Dave Marash, a former correspondent, recently noted, "Today's Nightline, on many of its broadcasts, no longer looks unique, ambitious, detailed or devoted to news which is really important."
Nightline's Pole Dancing as Exercise
What has Nightline been covering during the last four months instead of the war in Iraq? Here's a look at some of the fluffier segments the program has aired in place of reports from Iraq (The slugs, or names of the reports, come right from the Nightline archives.):
- Twin Skateboarding Stars
- Pole Dancing as Exercise
- Rock & Roll Camp for Girls
- Death of the Postcard
- Barbie vs. Bratz
- Great Lobster Hunt
- Burger King's Gamble on Marketing
- Butlers In High Demand
- Frozen Yogurt Wars
- Discrimination Against Redheads
- Expensive Parking Spaces
- Pasta Wars
- [Barry] Bonds' Navy
- Babies at the Box Office
- Paddington Bear a Sellout?
- A Football Fan Makes Wine the New Beer
- Deeper Vocals Attract Women
- Larry Wilmore is "Seriously Funny"
- Celebrity Reality
- Colbert for President?
- The Jane Austen Renaissance
- The Real Estate Blogger
- Dental Spas
- The Gentle Side of Sharks
- Ghost Hunters
- The Diva Treatment
Along with the stable of soft features, Nightline's been displaying a Casey Kasem-like indulgence in pop music. A new regular segment on the program features well-known performers discussing their favorite records. In recent months, Nightline has sat down with Kid Rock, Michael Bublé, James Blunt, Tony Bennett, Alison Krauss, Pete Wentz, The Edge, The Fray, Seal, Angélique Kidjo, Trisha Yearwood, and Laura Bell and asked them about their favorites.
Separately, Nightline has aired stand-alone features on artists Lori McKenna, Annie Lennox, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, and the passing of opera great Luciano Pavarotti.
And then there's ubiquitous American Idol host Ryan Seacrest -- who Nightline recently devoted almost an entire evening to profiling. Here's a sample as Moran, the former ABC News White House correspondent, parried diligently with the elusive interview subject for a morsel of news:
MORAN: You don't mind if I say, "Ryan, are you gay"?
SEACREST: No, I'm not. Don't mind.
MORAN: Didn't bother you?
SEACREST: Didn't bother me. I'm straight. Doesn't bother me.
Also noteworthy has been Nightline's recent obsession with pet stories. As described by program synopses at abcnews.go.com:
- Pampering Pets with Organic Food: "Lobster, crab, shrimp, and filet -- items that appear on the best Zagat rated menus. So, which restaurant are we talking about? We're not. We're bringing you the latest on organic pet food. Following the scare of animals falling ill from contaminated Chinese pet food, some pet owners are going to extremes to protect the health of their beloved pooch."
- Dog Lovers in Japan: "In Japan, dogs are all the rage. Canines are increasingly the companions of choice in this island nation. Companies are banking on the trend, making doggy acupuncture, couture and even funeral services available to pet owners."
- Fat Pets: "It's hard to resist a wagging tail or a pleading glance. But excessively doting on your pet by overfeeding it has led to an epidemic of obese animals. Pet owners are killing their pets with kindness, says one veterinarian who is on a crusade to slim down our furry friends."
- No Expense Spared on Pets: "New York City's Animal Medical Center treats dogs, cats, parrots and mice -- from chemotherapy to psychotherapy, some owners spare no expense on their Pets' medical care. Jeffrey S. Klausner, the CEO and president of the nonprofit facility, says 'we are the Mayo Clinic for pets.' "
In highlighting the stories above, I'm not suggesting Nightline no longer does any serious journalism. It does, as evidenced by recent reports on breast cancer, presidential politics, autism, school shootings, the mortgage meltdown, childhood obesity, and the spread of neo-Nazism. Also, on November 12, Nightline aired an extraordinary firsthand look at the fighting that still rages in the mountains of Afghanistan.
An ABC News spokeswoman tells me there has been no conscious decision at Nightline to look away from the war, and that it's "not fair" to suggest the program has turned its back on the Iraq story. She also points out that Nightline has undertaken several multi-night series, such as its recent look at patients facing life-threatening illnesses, and that in turn limits the number of topics the program can tackle at any given time.
That's a fair point. But it's also fair to note that Nightline's new, post-Koppel format allows it to address far more topics on a weekly basis. Meaning, the program usually reports on 10-15 topics each week. Yet even with those additional opportunities the program is reporting far less about Iraq than when Nightline addressed just one topic each night when Koppel was the host.
Marking his exit from Nightline, as well as ABC News, in November 2005, Koppel, a former State Department correspondent, bemoaned the lack of foreign news on network television:
At a time that we really have to worry about what's going on in the rest of the world, what people in other countries think of us, we are less well informed by television news than we have been in many years."
When it comes to the war in Iraq, Nightline viewers have certainly become less well-informed.