Network anchors, reporters, and analysts relentlessly suggested the War on Terror, whether at home, in Iraq, or around the world, was wildly controversial and overwhelmingly ineffective. The utter lack of another attack on the American homeland for the rest of the Bush presidency carried no weight, as liberal journalists highlighted that the Bush administration never passed their evaluations for competence.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan. From the beginning, some TV reporters were eager to show how the U.S. military often killed innocent people instead of terrorists. When asked why in October of 2001 why the Taliban would allow Western journalists in, ABC’s Dan Harris announced “They have one single, unerring goal, which is to show that civilian casualties are mounting that the U.S. is responsible for.”
In a survey of the first three weeks of Afghanistan air strikes, MRC analysts found that ABC’s World News Tonight devoted nearly four times as much of its programs to allegations of civilian casualties as the CBS Evening News, and almost twice as much as NBC Nightly News. While all three newscasts displayed pictures of structures identified as damaged civilian buildings, ABC repeatedly used disturbing images of wrapped bodies and injured people, including children with facial wounds.
At the same time, ABC downplayed the American military’s dedication to keeping such casualties low, and the obvious benefits to the Taliban of exaggerating the number of deaths caused by U.S. bombs. The CBS Evening News spent twice as much airtime covering these points as did ABC’s World News Tonight.
Worse yet, ABC skipped over intentional civilian casualties that weren’t caused by American bombing. On Sunday, October 28, 2001, terrorists massacred 16 Christians as they worshiped at a Catholic church in Pakistan. ABC’s World News Tonight skipped this nightmarish massacre of innocents in its entirety. But they did find time that night for a full story on how two people in the Northern Alliance-controlled portion of Afghanistan were accidentally killed by U.S. bombs. “An old woman cried out to God in pain,” David Wright relayed.
CBS and NBC both reported the story on their next evening news broadcast, but World News Tonight never touched it. It wouldn’t have been missed if the church had been accidentally bombed by the U.S. instead of intentionally shot by extremists.
Did Bush Knowingly Allow 9/11? On May 15, 2002, CBS reporter David Martin first reported that President Bush had received intelligence reports of a potential al-Qaeda hijacking last August. He calmly put this scoop into the context of larger intelligence failures, lamenting it was “as close as U.S. intelligence came to alerting the President to an airliner attack.”
Hours later, CNN’s Judy Woodruff transformed it into a declarative statement about how “President Bush knew that al-Qaeda was planning to hijack a U.S. airliner.” The following morning, NBC’s Katie Couric led with the dramatic Watergate-scandal question “What did he know and when did he know it?” On ABC, Charlie Gibson echoed that and topped it. He wondered out loud if President Bush was “really surprised” when chief of staff Andy Card told about the World Trade Center bombing.
By nightfall, CNN was exploiting this notion to bash Bush, reporting an instant poll: “Did the Bush administration act on 9/11 warnings the proper way? Forty-one percent said yes, 52 percent said no.”
This burst of coverage underlined that the networks disliked President Bush enough that they could entertain the notion that Bush was told of a specific al-Qaeda plan to attack America and did nothing, that he would allow 9/11 to happen. No one can imagine that these same networks would ever suggest President Obama could be that callous.
Then the conspiracy fever broke. On ABC’s Nightline, Ted Koppel suggested that intelligence warnings aren’t always obvious: “At times like these, it can be difficult to remember that no one had ever deliberately flown a plane into a building before. It is easy to overlook the fact that reams of raw intelligence data inundate the FBI and CIA every day. What seems glaringly significant now could easily, and understandably, have been overlooked ten months ago. Still, Congress is stirring and the administration is twitching.”
Petraeus: From Bumbler to Brilliant Choice. One obvious double standard in network coverage came in stories on Gen. David Petraeus, who was maligned by left-wing activists as “General Betray Us” under Bush. The media didn’t really object to a MoveOn.org full-page ad in The New York Times using that epithet, although they did report President Bush’s objection to it.
On the September 10, 2007 World News, reporter Jonathan Karl related: “War critics inside and outside the hearing room attacked Petraeus, saying he had manipulated statistics – failing, for example, include many killings in his calculation of ethnic violence. The anti-war group MoveOn.org went further, accusing the General of cooking the books for the White House.”
On the September 12, 2007 NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams interviewed Gen. Petraeus, and despite telling viewers he had a Ph.D. from Princeton, the anchorman treated him as someone who couldn’t grasp that the U.S. invasion had created terrorists.
Williams told Petraeus NBC had counted how many he times he mentioned al-Qaeda in his testimony (160), but “all these insurgents, how can you be so sure in a war without uniforms or membership cards, the claim by the critics is it fuzzes it up, it makes it a convenient, unified argument....How are we so sure all of these insurgents can be labeled al-Qaeda?” Williams insisted the general admit that “al-Qaeda in Iraq wasn’t around” on 9/11, and demanded to know “how are we so sure all of these insurgents can be labeled al-Qaeda?”
He also pounced on what liberals found to be a gaffe: Petraeus’ admission that he’s not sure if the war has made Americans safer. Williams said, “Moments after you responded to a question that you weren’t sure that the war in Iraq had made Americans safer, I heard a commentator on television say, ‘Can you imagine Eisenhower saying the same thing?’”
That unnamed commentator: Williams’ MSNBC colleague Chris Matthews, who exclaimed, “This must be a first, an American field commander who can’t say whether the sacrifices he’s asking of his troops every day and night are worth it to their country. Did General Washington not know the answer in the American Revolution? Did General Eisenhower not know the answer in World War II? What are we doing in Iraq if the very man commanding the war doesn’t know if it’s doing us any good in terms of our national security? This is the real news of the so-called Petraeus Report.” Petraeus worked for Bush, so he was a bumbler.
This came at the same time the Democrats in Congress were expressing the notion that Petraeus was out of his depth. Sen. Hillary Clinton, then in full campaign mode, stared across at the general and insisted “Despite what I view is your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief.” Clinton added that “any fair reading of the advantages and disadvantages accruing post-surge, in my view, end up on the downside.”
But fast-forward three years, and when Gen. Petraeus was appointed to oversee Obama’s surge strategy in Afghanistan on June 23, 2010, the journalists were immediately giddy. In live afternoon coverage, NBC Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski declared: “This is nothing less than a stunning development, Brian, and quite frankly, at a quick glance, almost brilliant.” White House correspondent Chuck Todd added: “Politically, in this town, it’s going to be seen as a brilliant choice by the President.”
“Brilliant” was the word of the day. “It sounds like a pretty brilliant decision, really,” said CBS White House reporter Chip Reid. Over on CNN, anchor Wolf Blitzer echoed: “Politically, a very brilliant move to tap General Petraeus.” The next morning, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos added, “That pick really seems to have been the political masterstroke that got President Obama out of the tight box he was in.”
Not only that, Obama’s critics should be silent. Reid explained: “So the President avoids both the criticisms here, number one, putting somebody new in charge and, number two, since he fired McChrystal, he’s not going to be accused of being weak.” Miklaszewski noted: “This may quiet some of the critics up on Capitol Hill.” Todd later predicted “you will not hear a single word from Capitol Hill, no Republican will dare say a negative thing about this decision.”
Warmer to Obama’s War. President Obama’s decision to implement a surge of new U.S. troops to Afghanistan drew positive network coverage, in sharp contrast to their reaction to President Bush’s 2007 move to send additional troops to Iraq.
In 35 stories in the first 100 days, 91 percent of the statements made on a network evening news broadcast about Obama’s Afghanistan strategy were favorable. Most of the favorable comments naturally came from President Obama and his aides. The numerical tilt came from an almost complete absence of critics from the airwaves, from the right or left. In 2007, congressional Democrats – including Obama himself – loudly decried Bush’s troop surge as a mistake. But none of the networks’ 100 day coverage noted the irony that President Obama was adopting a similar strategy, when Obama proclaimed in 2007 that “The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year – now.”
Back then, the networks cast the Iraq troop surge as wildly risky and profoundly unpopular. The day after Bush’s announcement, on the January 11, 2007 Evening News, CBS anchor Katie Couric argued it was a non-starter: “If the early reaction to President Bush’s new Iraq strategy is any indication, selling the American public on it could be a mission impossible....The reviews of the speech last night were largely negative, from the American public and Congress.”
On the day of the long-anticipated report from General David Petraeus on the “surge,” Couric’s newscast ignored how its latest poll had discovered the third straight month of an increase in the percent of Americans who believe the surge has “made things better” in Iraq. As public support grew, CBS’s interest in the result disappeared.
In July, anchor Katie Couric led her newscast with how only 19 percent thought the surge was “making things better.” A month later, in August, when that number jumped to 29 percent, CBS and Couric waited 20 minutes into the show and gave it just 12 seconds. When the share crediting the surge for “making things better” rose to 35 percent in the survey, CBS skipped it and found time to highlight three other findings that stressed public opposition to the war and distrust of President Bush.
The network reaction to President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan was vastly different. When word came on February 17, 2009 that Obama was dispatching 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, none of the networks cast it as controversial or even worthy of more than perfunctory coverage. ABC and CBS held themselves to brief reports, while NBC’s Miklaszewski argued that with violence in Afghanistan rising, “these additional forces are urgently needed.”
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