August 24, 2008 in Nation/World

‘Nightline’ producer who chronicled cancer dies

Leroy Sievers shared battle on blog, radio
By Adam Bernstein Washington Post
 

Leroy Sievers, 53, a former executive producer for ABC’s “Nightline” news program, was most remembered in recent years for chronicling his struggle with brain cancer in a popular online diary for National Public Radio.

Sievers, who died of the tumor Aug. 15 at his home in Potomac, Md., drew tens of thousands of listeners and Web viewers into his life with his NPR blog, “My Cancer,” and radio commentaries updating his condition.

Balancing wit and pathos, he drew enthusiastic support from cancer survivors, including champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, and created a large virtual community of those curious to understand how he and others faced a terminal diagnosis.

One of Sievers’ most vulnerable moments came in March, when his 83-year-old mother died of the same cancer after blaming herself for passing on the disease.

He found a vivid way to express their relationship. “When I was young,” he wrote, “I had a toy fire truck that actually sprayed water. She would make shoebox houses, set them on fire in the driveway, and let me put them out. Some 40 years later, I wrote about that in the ‘Nightline’ daily e-mail. She called me, worried that people might think she was a bad mother for letting me play with fire.”

As a Miami-based producer for CBS, Sievers covered U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America and the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. He also was among the first to enter Kuwait City during the Persian Gulf War.

He joined “Nightline” in 1991 and was the program’s executive producer from 2000 to 2004. During his 13-year association with the show, he did hidden-camera exposes, covered the trial of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot for crimes against humanity and explored race relations in America.

With Ted Koppel, he accompanied the 3rd Infantry Division as it fought its way from Kuwait to Baghdad after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

He achieved notoriety for suggesting the April 2004 segment called “The Fallen,” which devoted an hour to reading the names of 721 American soldiers and Marines killed during the first year of the Iraq war.

“The Fallen” attracted high ratings and superlatives from media writers but was too provocative for some.

Sievers said “The Fallen,” which ran without advertising, was an extension of a “Nightline” feature periodically updating casualty lists. “And we realized we were saying, ‘Three soldiers died here, two Marines died there,’ ” he told “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” “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.”

He said he had long been guided by a compulsion to humanize the many natural disasters, wars and bloody conflicts he had covered in a 25-year career. At times, he lamented that the stench of human misery could never transcend the camera lens.

“There is evil in the world,” he wrote about a visit in 1994 to a Rwandan refugee camp, where a lone, starving boy died with his fingers caught in Sievers’ boot laces.

“A stranger’s face, my face, was the last thing he saw,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 2005. “And all I could do was shake my foot to free my laces from his fingers, and then move on to catch up to my team.”

After leaving “Nightline” in 2004, he traveled to Africa for Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group and volunteered for the American Red Cross in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Sievers said he left network television distressed by a relentless work schedule and the general direction of TV news as celebrity-driven profit center.

“The audience has changed,” he told LA Weekly in 2005. “People don’t necessarily want to hear both sides of the story, which is what ‘Nightline’ did best. They want to hear, ‘You’re right! They’re wrong!’ ” He added: “Someone said to me once that people want to go to bed happy and the show didn’t let them. My response to that was it’s not necessarily a happy world.”


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