TERENCE SMITH: Since March 19, 2003, more than 725 American service personnel have died in Iraq, three-fifths in combat. And tonight, ABC News Nightline anchor Ted Koppel will read the names of all those killed during a special 40-minute broadcast entitled, "The Fallen."
Leroy Sievers is the executive producer of Nightline. He and Koppel traveled with U.S. forces during the invasion last year.
LEROY SIEVERS: Nightline, since the beginning of the war, has been doing a feature called "Line of Duty," where we've been reporting on all the casualties. And we realized we were saying, 'three soldiers died here, two Marines died there.'
And our fear was that it was becoming meaningless; it was just becoming numbers. And so we were looking for ways to humanize, to make these numbers into individuals.
TERENCE SMITH: But in seven television markets around the country, viewers will not see those individuals. Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns the ABC affiliates in those markets, decided in advance that the broadcast is "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq."
Viewers of Sinclair-owned ABC stations will not see the program in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, N.C.; Pensacola, Fla.; Springfield, Mass.; Charleston and Huntington, W.Va.; Asheville, N.C.; Columbus, Ohio; and St. Louis, the 21st largest market in the country.
The decision was made at the corporate level, not by news editors at Sinclair, which is the largest operator of independent stations in the U.S.
Mark Hyman, vice president of corporate relations for Sinclair, is a regular commentator on many of its stations.
MARK HYMAN: For us to trivialize their deaths, for those who served, for some other purpose doesn't make any sense to us whatsoever and it's not in the public interest. Certainly political speech disguised as news content is not the way to serve the public good.
LEROY SIEVERS: They say they see a political agenda. The only political agenda I see here is Sinclair's.
I must have missed somehow when honoring the war dead became a political act or a disloyal act.
TERENCE SMITH: William Powers, media writer for the National Journal, is critical of Sinclair's decision.
WILLIAM POWERS: I think it shows a fundamental misunderstanding, actual wrong-headedness, about what journalism is about. They are claiming that Ted Koppel is in this for political reasons but, in fact, I think they are the organization in this for political reasons.
And, they have a track record of being rather politically motivated and not actually caring as much about news, particularly about local news, as a lot of other national news organizations.
TERENCE SMITH: Arizona Sen. John McCain, a supporter of the war in Iraq, sent a letter of protest today to David Smith, Sinclair's president and CEO, calling the decision "unpatriotic" and "a gross disservice to the public and to the men and women of the United States armed forces."
MARK HYMAN: Well, the beauty of this country, Terry, is we can all have lots of opinions. God bless John McCain for his service and opinion. It's been 25 years since he served in military uniform. I can tell you that I personally have a different take.
TERENCE SMITH: Nightline is not the only news outlet to call attention to those Americans killed in Iraq. Today's Washington Post has three full pages of pictures of those killed since March 13. The Post has printed similar collections on seven previous occasions since last April. Today's edition of USA Today also printed photos of the Americans killed this month.
JIM LEHRER (archive): And again, before we go, to our honor roll of American service personnel killed in Iraq.
TERENCE SMITH: And as names and pictures have been made available since the beginning of the war, the NewsHour has also closed its broadcast regularly with a silent rendering of American war dead, a practice started during the first Gulf War in 1991.
Because of the controversy, some national advertisers have withdrawn their support from tonight's broadcast. In addition, ABC has taken the unusual step of allowing other TV and radio stations in the affected markets to air tonight's program.