Once Barack Obama was elected, the narrative changed, detained terror suspects faded from view, and Guantanamo wasn’t as much of an international outrage.
An MRC review of the first 100 days of the Obama presidency on network television news found the networks focused most of their coverage on Obama’s decision to end the “torture” of detainees; to close the prison for suspected terrorists Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and to publicly release Bush-era Justice Department memos on permissible interrogation methods.
Coverage of the president was not uniformly positive. In fact, a slight majority of statements from reporters and quoted news sources (51 percent) supporting Obama’s actions, vs. 49 percent who disapproved. NBC and CBS were mostly positive of Obama’s softer line, but ABC’s World News remained critical of detainee policy.
While these stories presented a nearly balanced debate about President Obama, the networks cast former President George W. Bush and his administration in a far harsher light. Four out of five statements (80 percent) on the network newscasts during President Obama’s 100 days cast the Bush administration as corrupt or criminal in their handling of terrorist detainees. Only a handful included a response from any former administration official such as Vice President Dick Cheney.
The Bush administration was rarely defended. ABC’s World News on April 18, 2009, for example, presented a one-sided attack without any rebuttal, citing liberal journalist Jane Mayer claiming higher-ups pushed CIA interrogators to abuse prisoners. “We’ve got people inside the CIA saying, ‘We don’t want to do this. This is criminal. This is not what America is about,’ and they were ordered to do it anyway,” Mayer alleged.
For all of their early claims of bipartisanship, Obama knew his liberal base wanted outspoken attacks on the previous administration. Network reporters never suggested that President Obama or his aides should justify their criticisms of President Bush’s record on terrorism or detention of terror suspects.
Clubbing Navy SEALs. One obvious demonstration that the networks (and other national media) were still more concerned about suspects than they were about American military personnel was the case of three Navy SEALs who were court-martialed in late 2009 for allegedly punching a terror suspect named Ahmed Hashem Abed, believed to be the mastermind behind four American contractors in Iraq being brutally murdered, burned, and hung from a bridge in Fallujah.
Kate Wiltrout had the story for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot: “The military confirmed Wednesday that Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe, 24, was charged last month with assaulting a detainee, dereliction of duty for failing to protect a detainee and making a false statement. Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe are accused of failing to protect the man, whose identity is classified.”
The New York Post wasn’t shy about this outrage. “And so the SEALs will be arraigned on December 7 – another reason for the date to live in infamy,” it stated. “Ironically, if the three had treated Abed like Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq has routinely treated American soldiers it captures, his bloody, mutilated corpse would’ve turned up floating in a river.”
Eventually, the three SEALs were all cleared – Huertas and Keefe in April 2010, and McCabe in May 2010. None of these verdicts drew any more network interest than the court-martials did. These fighting men and their plight under the Obama administration were never defined as newsworthy.
Ahmed Ghailani. The Obama Justice Department’s first showcase attempt to try a Guantanamo terrorist suspect in civilian court was a man named Ahmed Ghailani, accused of aiding the bombing of two U.S. embassies in 1998, which killed hundreds, including 12 Americans. A Clinton-appointed federal judge mangled that attempt by barring a witness that was important to the case. On the October 6, 2010 CBS Evening News, Katie Couric offered an anchor brief, calling it a “big setback for federal prosecutors,” not for the Obama administration. ABC and NBC skipped it.
A month later, on November 18, CBS Early Show news anchor Erica Hill asserted that “the verdict is in for the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court and it is being seen by some as a serious setback for the government.” Ghailani was acquitted on 284 out of 285 charges against him. Obama’s name never came up on CBS.
Over on NBC’s Today, the four-hour morning program devoted a scant 40 seconds to the topic. News anchor Ann Curry at least softly allowed “the decision could undermine President Obama’s plan to put other Guantanamo Bay detainees on trial in civilian courts.” NBC never offered more than anchor briefs on Ghailani’s trial and verdict.
ABC offered one full story, but Jake Tapper was the only reporter to include criticism from Republicans, with Peter King lamenting the verdict “demonstrates the absolute insanity of the Obama administration’s decision to try al Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts.” But later, news anchor Juju Chang offered an anchor brief that only repeated the administration line: “Obama administration argues Wednesday’s conviction of an al Qaeda operative on only one of nearly 300 charges, does not show that civilian courts can’t handle terrorism trials. The White House says that one conviction will send Ahmed Ghailani to prison for at least 20 years for his role in two embassy bombings in Africa.”
Ahmed Warsame. On July 6, 2011, the story broke that Team Obama had held Somali terror suspect Ahmed Warsame on a Navy ship in the Persian Gulf for two months while he was interrogated. Does anyone recall those allegedly objective, nonpartisan journalists unleashing outrage about the floating “gulag”?
This story broke as a front-page story in The Washington Post and New York Times and Los Angeles Times, but somehow that didn’t translate to TV. ABC’s Good Morning America offered a brief 97-word story from news anchor Josh Elliott. That’s 33 words more than the 64 words on CBS’s The Early Show. NBC News apparently skipped reading newspapers that day and offered nothing. The harshest critique from the Big Three was this bland sentence from ABC’s Elliott: “The case will likely stir more debate in Washington over whether military detainees should be brought into the U.S.”
Even MSNBC was almost silent in prime time. Rachel Maddow was the only evening host on the “progressive” network to cover the Warsame story and protest that the alleged terrorist was questioned before he was read Miranda warnings. Terror suspects and their defense lawyers didn’t have much of a megaphone any more.
Previous: Civil Liberties: Bush’s Abuse?
Next: Bush and His Inept Villains on Terror