Monday, October 08, 2007

Reporters or Partisans?

If you were to ask your typical journalist what their role is, I'm sure their immediate answer would be that it's to gather and report the news. They are no doubt aware that conservatives and others believe they go beyond simply reporting "the facts" and subtly (and not so subtly) advance their political views. And, no doubt, they'd vigorously deny it.

Take a look at this excerpt from Howard Kurtz's new book about network news coverage of the Iraq war. (Kurtz is the media writer for the Washington Post). Although Kurtz is a liberal and no doubt toes the party line on the "objectivity" of the mainstream media, sprinkled throughout this excerpt are revealing nuggets about how these journalists are determined to make sure that their personal opinions make it into their reporting.

As War Dragged On, Coverage Tone Weighed Heavily on Anchors

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2007; C01

Charlie Gibson is a product of the Vietnam War era. When he was a television reporter in Lynchburg, Va., he had driven to Washington on weekends to march in antiwar demonstrations. And he had lost friends in that jungle war.

Now Gibson had friends whose sons were dying in Iraq. His thoughts kept returning to one central question: When you commit kids to war, what are they fighting for? What was the mission in Iraq? How could a family say that the war was worth little Johnny's well-being?

The ABC anchor was obsessed with this point. If you were president, and you decided to go to war, was there a calculus in your mind, that the goal was worth so many American lives? After all, your generals would tell you that X number were likely to die. What was the acceptable trade-off? Gibson's threshold would be one: Was the war worth one life? [How did this simpleton get to be the anchor for a major network? Of course it is tragic that lives are lost in war. But, what's the alternative? Do we call up the terrorists and tell them that we don't believe in violence so the war is over? Maybe you could invite them to a world-wide group hug? More to the point, he's supposed to REPORT the news. If he's obsessed with the war and wants to do something about it, quit your job and run for office.]

As the U.S. occupation of Iraq stretched into its fourth bloody year, the media coverage was turning increasingly negative, and the three evening news anchors constantly agonized over how to deal with the conflict. [What do you mean, "deal with the conflict"? They're supposed to REPORT on the conflict, not "deal" with it.]

Their newscasts had become a nightly tableau of death and destruction, and whether that was an accurate picture of Iraq had become a matter of fierce political debate. Certainly the constant plague of suicide bombs, explosive devices, sniper fire and, occasionally, the massacre of large numbers of civilians played into television's need for dramatic events and arresting visuals. Certainly, by 2006 it was easier for the anchors and correspondents to offer a skeptical vision of the war, now that a majority of the country disapproved of the conflict, than in the heady days after the toppling of Saddam Hussein seemed to strike a blow for democracy in the Middle East. By training their powerful spotlight on the chaos gripping Iraq, the anchors were arguably contributing to the political downfall of a president who had seemed to be riding high when he won his second term. [Whew, that's a relief -- although it took us a couple of years, our constant sniping and criticism is finally starting to pay off. Now we don't have to be as subtle in our partisan attacks on the president and can "offer a [more] skeptical vision of the war in our "professionally detached" and "objective" reporting.]

Through the routine decisions of daily journalism -- how prominently to play a story, what pictures to use, what voices to include -- the newscasts were sending an unmistakable message. And the message was that George W. Bush's war was a debacle. [What an unintentionally revealing statement. No, our job is not to REPORT, it's to "send a message". And, of course, our message is to destroy and undermine the president.] Administration officials regularly complained about the coverage as unduly negative, but to little avail. Other news organizations chronicled the deteriorating situation as well, but with a combined 25 million viewers, the evening newscasts had the biggest megaphone.

Painful Images

When Brian Williams thought about Iraq, he thought about his visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He was tortured by these trips to comfort the veterans being treated there. It was hard to look at their wounds. He remembered one soldier who had five titanium pins sticking out of his toes. His heart ached for these brave men and women who had been to Iraq, on orders from their commander in chief.

For Williams, it all went back to Sept. 11, 2001. As a citizen, he thought on that fateful day, thank God that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell were on the team. How together we all seemed. There was something about the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that, in the eyes of the White House press corps, gave Bush a stature that could not be violated. And that was no accident. The administration's deft use of 9/11 against its critics had created an impenetrable shield. It was political magic.

Some people, the NBC anchor knew, believed that the administration was jonesing for a fight, exploiting Sept. 11 as an opportunity to launch a war in Iraq. Whatever the truth, he had to admire, in a clinical sort of way, the political management of the press during what came to be known as the war on terror. It was truly remarkable.

Williams did not enjoy looking back on the run-up to war, knowing what he knew now about the media's flawed performance. He did not want to look back on this period with the same sense of regret. He recognized how deeply the war had divided the country.

Every day, Williams asked the question: Did Baghdad correspondent Richard Engel have any news other than another 20 Iraqi civilians killed when an IED detonated, leaving the same smoking carcasses and pathetic scenes of loved ones crying? That, Williams felt, was the problem: The horrible had become utterly commonplace. To most Americans, he believed, the war could not be more ephemeral. It was half a world away, and it required no sacrifice by those who did not have a family member in the armed forces.

Williams had his own private intelligence channel on the war. He had an e-mail relationship with a number of military men -- some still in the war zone, some who had returned from the region -- and they were candid about the conflict in a way that top generals were not. These informants alerted him to a wide range of problems with IEDs, armor and morale. But they never spoke on the phone, which would be too dangerous, since they were barred from talking to journalists. Private e-mail was the only safe form of communication.

Under Pressure

Katie Couric had always felt uncomfortable with the war, and that sometimes showed in the way she framed the story. ["Framed the story"? I thought she was simply supposed to REPORT the story. "Framing" the story means "spinning" -- i.e., manipulating the story to promote a particular point of view. So much for "fair and balanced".] When Bush had been marshaling support for the invasion, she felt, the country seemed to be swept up in a patriotic furor and a palpable sense of fear. There was a rush to war, no question about it. The CBS anchor could never quite figure out how Iraq had become Public Enemy No. 1, how the United States had wound up making many of the same mistakes as in Vietnam. She was happy, like most people, when the war initially seemed to be going well. Nobody wanted to see all these young kids getting killed. But the frenzied march to war had been bolstered by a reluctance to question the administration after 9/11.

She had firsthand experience with what she considered the chilling effect on the media. Two months before the 2004 election, when she was still at NBC's "Today" show, Couric had asked Condoleezza Rice whether she agreed with Vice President Cheney's declaration that the country would be at greater risk for terrorist attacks if John Kerry won the White House. Rice sidestepped the question, saying that any president had to fight aggressively against terrorism.

Couric interrupted and asked the question again. Would a Kerry victory put America at greater risk? Rice ducked again, saying that the issue should not be personalized.

Soon afterward, Couric got an e-mail from Robert Wright, the NBC president. He was forwarding a note from an Atlanta woman who complained that Couric had been too confrontational with Rice.

What was the message here? Couric felt that Wright must be telling her to back off. She wrote him a note, saying that she tried to be persistent and elicit good answers in all her interviews, regardless of the political views of her guests. If Wright had a problem with that, she would like to discuss it with him personally. Wright wrote back that such protest letters usually came in batches, but that he had passed along this one because it seemed different.

Couric felt there was a subtle, insidious pressure to toe the party line, and you bucked that at your peril. She wanted to believe that her NBC colleagues were partners in the search for truth, and no longer felt that was the case. She knew that the corporate management viewed her as an out-and-out liberal. When she ran into Jack Welch, the General Electric chairman, he would sometimes say that they had never seen eye to eye politically. If you weren't rah rah rah for the Bush administration, and the war, you were considered unpatriotic, even treasonous.

Couric believed that many viewers were now suffering from Iraq fatigue. She tried not to lead with the conflict every night, unless there were significant developments. And when the day's Iraq events were too big to ignore, Couric made clear -- in starker terms than the other anchors -- her disgust with the whole enterprise. One night she led her CBS newscast, "With each death, with every passing day, so many of us ask, 'Is there any way out of this nightmare?' "

Getting Graphic

By the fall of 2006, an urgent tone began creeping into the anchors' coverage of Iraq. No longer were they describing the war as a difficult battle whose outcome was in doubt, or depicting the military struggle as part of a larger effort to rebuild the battered country. Now it was all about the violence, and they were framing the situation as an unmitigated mess. The anchors were giving real weight to what had once seemed unmentionable, the possibility that the United States might have to pull out.

They were, to be sure, reflecting the rapid erosion of support for the war, and a level of killing and chaos that seemed to grow worse by the day. But given their huge platform, they were also shaping public sentiment, reinforcing the notion that nearly four years after the invasion, the situation was all but lost. [In two sentences, Kurtz totally flip-flops. In the first sentence, the networks are merely reporting "the rapid erosion of support for the war", that is 'just the facts, ma'am'. But in the next sentence, the networks aren't reporting, they are "shaping public sentiment" and "reinforcing the notion ... that the situation was all but lost". Oops, Howard, I think you're lifting the veil a bit too much here. That sure doesn't sound like REPORTING to me. It sounds like INDOCTRINATING.]

"In plain English," Brian Williams said, "this has been a tough week to be hopeful about the prospects for victory in Iraq."

Charlie Gibson spoke of a "killing spree," a "horrific surge in religious violence, Iraqis killing Iraqis in unprecedented numbers." After correspondent Terry McCarthy reported that 50 to 60 bodies were turning up each day, Gibson could not remain silent. "Sobering to see people simply driving by a body in the streets," he said. "But such is life in Baghdad today."

Couric, in particular, appeared to openly yearn for a pullout. One night she spoke of "opposition to the war in Iraq growing and no end in sight." And at times she came close to describing the situation as hopeless: "The day everyone is hoping for, the day American forces can finally come home from Iraq, seems more and more elusive."

The anchors looked for ways to dramatize the grim statistics. Williams, noting "the bloodshed that has become an all-too-common fact of life there for so many people," highlighted a report on how Baghdad coffinmakers could not keep up with demand. Gibson, reporting a United Nations finding on Iraqi casualties in July and August, tried to bring the impact home: "And just to put the 6,600 Iraqi deaths over the past two months in perspective -- if the U.S. lost an equivalent percentage of its population, that would represent 75,000 American dead."

This article is adapted from "Reality Show," which is based on two years of research that included extensive interviews with journalists and executives at all levels of ABC, NBC and CBS. The interviews were conducted on condition that they be used for the book.

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