This morning, war is imminent.
It is a momentous and unusual time for everyone, members of the media included. In wartime, even governments of free peoples try to limit access to certain information — troop deployments, “sources and methods,” strategy — and this complicates the media’s job of informing the public fully. But the fact that the media may not be able to report fully is no excuse for them to report unfairly.
So the question is, have the media been fair?
The Media Research Center’s Special Report,
Peter’s Peace Platoon; ABC’s Crusade Against “Arrogant” American
Power, set out to examine network nightly news coverage in the run-up to war from January 1 through March 7. Our researchers soon found, however, that one network news organization stood so far apart from the others that our analysis had to focus on it alone: ABC News.
On the January 17 Nightline/Viewpoint special, ABC News President David Westin promised his coverage would be “objective and give just the straight facts to the American people.” I stand here today disappointed to report that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings has broken this promise again, and again, and again.
The promise was important. The current issue of the
Columbia Journalism Review contains a special section, “Waiting for War,” that discusses four aspects of wartime reporting, but before getting to any them, makes this point: “reporting
before... war is even more necessary than following the action or counting the dead.”
During this crucial period before war, Peter Jennings used
World News Tonight not to offer an objective look into the international crisis but to beat the American administration with a deceptive double standard, harshly criticizing the America and its policies, all the while taking a much lighter hand to congressional Democrats, UN bureaucrats, France, China or Russia — even Iraq.
Jennings impugned the White House’s ideological and economic motives but failed even to examine the motives of other players, up to and including Saddam Hussein.
Throughout his newscast’s 234 pre-war stories, Jennings gave the clear impression his role was not an impartial newsman but an activist, who’s role it was to slow down what he considered the “rush to war,” and to put what he considered America's impulsive militarism under what he considered the yoke of UN and French reasonableness. To Peter Jennings, every UN and ally objection was not a position to be debated, but a “problem” to be solved, presumably through U.S. surrender to further diplomatic delays. Our report, which is in your packets, identified four patterns of clear and repetitive bias on
World News Tonight that bolstered Peter Jennings’s world view.
First, ABC was unique among networks in championing the interests and motives of France, the United Nations and even Cameroon, over the United States.
Example: Reporting on the UN Security Council's debate over Iraq on February 27, ABC News stood alone in assigning blame — and pinned it on the White House. On
World News Tonight, Terry Moran characterized unchanging U.S. policy as harsh without characterizing unchanging UN policy in any way at all. Said Moran: “At the UN Security Council today, the Bush administration's hard line contributed to what diplomats said was an unusually bitter debate that yielded no consensus and left smaller nations feeling intense pressure from both the U.S. and France.” Thus, to ABC News, an unchanging policy is “hard line” when taken by the U.S. but not when taken by the UN or France.
Second, ABC News relayed Iraqi lies and propaganda essentially unchallenged. This is the same media that would question if the sun came up today if the U.S. government reported it.
In fact, Tariq Aziz himself could not have asked more of Dan Harris's story on the February 28
World News Tonight. After depicting a happy but anxious Baghdad populace shouldering on through tough times, Harris closed his piece with a report on “Iraq's youngest citizens,” as interviewed by Norwegian child psychologist and “peace” activist Magne Raundalen. The doctor asked the children: “If there was an attack, what would that mean?” Harris relayed: “‘They will attack us by airplanes and missiles and guns,' he says. His brother says ‘a great number of people, especially children, will die.'”
Third, ABC sanitized anti-war protests nearly beyond recognition. The major organizer of events in the U.S. is the Workers World Party (WWP), whose Web site pledges “solidarity” with communists in China and Cuba. I’m not the only one who finds this disturbing. Even David Corn of
The Nation magazine — The Nation! — has said that “It is not redbaiting to note the WWP’s not-too-hidden hand in the nascent anti-war movement.” And while reporters have tried to distance the anti-war movement from the WWP by maintaining that organizers just “happen to be active” in the WWP, I feel certain they would not apply the same standard if another protest organizer “happened to be active” in the Ku Klux Klan.
Finally, ABC News played hide-and-seek with polls. It is not an exaggeration to say that in its coverage of the run-up to war, ABC News selectively reported poll data, favoring polls that showed support for the White House slipping over those that showed support growing. Whether this was an attempt to shape public opinion is a legitimate and important question that I cannot answer.
For example, on January 21, Jennings reported that an ABC
News-Washington Post poll found support for the war slipped from 62 to 57 percent. One week later, he reported the number as back at 61 percent, but with no mention of an increase. The next night, after the State of the Union, Jennings reported polls were “essentially unchanged,” when the latest number was 63 percent. So by Jennings’s journalistic judgment, dropping from 62 to 57 percent was news, but rising back to 61 percent was not reported as a jump, and 63 percent was no significant change.
It should not have been difficult for Peter Jennings to have covered the run-up to war in a manner that approached ABC News President David Westin’s standard of “objective.” Both NBC and CBS News’s coverage, while not perfect, came far closer to meeting this standard.
Based on extensive analysis of coverage of the run-up to war January 1 through March 7, the Media Research Center offers the following four recommendations for improved coverage:
1. The media should not single out the U.S. for skeptical coverage. Instead, the media should apply the same standards of skepticism to the United States, U.S. allies, U.S. adversaries, and international organizations.
2. The media should be extremely dubious of the self-serving claims of an untrustworthy enemy dictatorship.
3. The media should provide the American people with a fuller picture of the “peace” movement, warts and all. The fact that Ramsey Clark compared the Bush administration to the Nazis from the stage of an October 26 anti-war protest is newsworthy and should not be spiked.
4. The media should do straightforward reporting on polls, not highlight polls with results they like and dismiss those with contrary findings.
These recommendations are actually a test of fundamental fairness. So why did ABC News fail? Because this was Peter Jennings on a mission. That mission was to thwart America’s ability to act in the way her elected representatives believe — rightly or wrongly — is in the best interests of national security.
This is a serious charge. But ABC’s bias has become so obvious and so expected that it’s even permeated light-hearted Washington moments. I’ll never forget the February 12 exchange between ABC’s relentlessly negative Terry Moran and Ari Fleischer, the Clark Kent of White House press secretaries. At the daily briefing, Moran asked whether the U.S. edging closer to war will essentially force Iraq to give terrorists weapons of mass destruction. Fleischer responded: “Does this mean that ABC News is acknowledging that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction?”
To which I would have only added, “finally.”
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