Did Nightline spike a segment about a group of peaceful protesters at the World Economic Forum, because they failed to spark enough “violence” for a sensational story? So claims Phil Skaller, a first-year student at Hampshire College and a member of the Hampshire Direct Action Group.
Skaller says that about 10 days before the forum, Nightline producers and camera crews came to Hampshire to profile his 25-member anarchist group. Because the producers “seemed seriously concerned about the issues,” Skaller says, “we went out of our way to work with them.” Interviews were done on campus and at the protest, but while many Hampshire students were arrested, they maintained a peaceful presence.
Nightline had planned to air its segment on the protesters February 4, but that day, producer Ted Gerstein called Skaller to tell him the show had been postponed. Enron chairman Kenneth Lay had skipped out on Congress at the last minute, and Nightline higher-ups had deemed Lay the more important story. “I asked him, ‘Was it because there wasn’t enough violence?’ and he said, ‘Yes,’ ” recalls Skaller. He says Gerstein told him that Nightline might do the story the following week, with a different angle.
That’s when Skaller kicked into gear, firing off a message to Nightline‘s general e-mail address. He recalls writing, among other things, that “ABC might want to be careful about how much they marginalize and mistreat us in the anti-corporate globalization movement, provided you want to return from the next demonstration with all your equipment in one piece.” Big mistake. Soon after, Skaller sent the e-mail, Nightline executive producer Leroy Sievers e-mailed him an angry response and Gerstein called to tell him the story was dead. Gerstein declined to comment.
“[Skaller] made specific threats of violence against ABC equipment,” says Sievers. “So I killed it.” Regarding the initial decision to postpone the story, Sievers denies that Gerstein said there was not enough violence, while admitting that “it is an unfortunate fact that violence will trump most other news.” Producers were invested in the story, Sievers says, because they wanted to explain what makes protesters tick. And they were developing a new angle that would have followed “how ideas outside the forum were making their way inside the forum.” But “unfortunately, we hooked up with the wrong person, someone who just wanted to be on TV and be famous.”
“It’s not a conspiracy,” says the ABC executive. “My phone doesn’t ring from Disney headquarters.” But that hasn’t stopped him from being demonized in protest chat rooms by people who see the incident as the latest case of corporate bigfoot. Says Sievers, “I walk away from this really depressed.”