Cheerleaders for the Revolution

Network Coverage of Barack Obama's First 100 Days

Foreign Policy: The Whole World As Barack Obama's Stage

As Barack Obama took office, network news reporters were smitten with the notion that our new President possessed near-magical powers to heal the wounds of the world and would, by retreating from the despised policies of the Bush years, make America one of the most loved nations on the planet.

All three networks showcased an enthusiastic global reaction to Obama’s inauguration, as if the peoples of the world were more unanimous than the American electorate that split 53 to 46 percent in Obama’s favor in November. “America’s euphoria is spreading across the globe,” NBC’s Dawna Friesen celebrated on January 20. “Many people tuning in to see this moment of history unfold — and, they hope, the beginning of a new era....He is the man of the moment...and, many hope, the man who can navigate the world through the new century.”

Over on CBS that night, the mood was nearly as ecstatic. “From Europe, to Asia, to Africa, his inauguration is seen as a new beginning,” Evening News anchor Katie Couric celebrated. Reporter Mark Phillips surveyed the globe and found only admirers: “Never have so many felt so close from so far....The world seemed to stop to watch the man many see as their new leader, too....He will inherit the world’s problems, but Obama, perhaps more than any before him, is being carried along on a river of good will.”

As the new administration settled into day-to-day business, reporters like NBC’s Andrea Mitchell kept up the kudos. When Obama showed up at the State Department to meet his new Secretary, Hillary Clinton, Mitchell could barely contain her glee, declaring on the January 22 Nightly News: ”The State Department got a boost of adrenaline today: marching orders from the President and a new Secretary of State....Diplomacy is back!”

For the networks, Obama’s first 100 days were a rolling celebration of the end of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Two of Obama’s key initiatives — surging troops into Afghanistan and reaching out to America’s enemies, like Iran — earned uniformly favorable press coverage from the networks. When it came to Obama’s steps to re-shape the “War on Terror” into a kinder, gentler set of “Overseas Contingency Operations,” the networks permitted criticism of the new President, but spent much more airtime lambasting the departed former President. (More on each of these issues below.)

President Obama’s trip to Europe in early April was another chance for network reporters to tout his popularity. NBC’s correspondents were the most sycophantic. On the April 1 Nightly News, correspondent Chuck Todd celebrated how Obama had finished “a diplomatic decathlon, packing in a week’s worth of international diplomacy into 12 hours.” He also declared the Obamas to be “America’s unofficial royalty,” and slobbered over how President Obama was “the new star of the world stage.”

TextBox6Chief Foreign Affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell could barely contain herself on the April 2 Nightly News: “The reviews are already in, rave reviews” for Barack Obama. “He is blessed by the comparison with his predecessor, because George W. Bush was very unpopular here in Europe. It was more like Ronald Reagan coming with the charm.” NBC reporters also gushed over First Lady Michelle Obama. (See box.)

Visiting France on April 3, President Obama told Europeans that the U.S. has been an arrogant power. “There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive. But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious.”

To many American ears, this was unprecedented: an American President talking down his own country while overseas. To their credit, all three network newscasts that night allowed viewers see Obama’s remark. But none of the three portrayed it as controversial, presenting it as a benign statement on the need for mutual cooperation. Here’s how the three White House correspondents set up the quote:

ABC’s Jake Tapper: “Before the young, enthusiastic crowd, Mr. Obama said both the U.S. and Europe need to change to move forward together....”

CBS’s Chip Reid: “On rocky relations between the U.S. and Europe, the President blamed both sides....”

NBC’s Chuck Todd: “The President addressed the elephant in the room when it comes to trans-Atlantic diplomacy....”

None of the networks spent any more time on the remark, which became a hot topic on talk radio over the following days. Assessing the President’s trip on ABC’s World News on April 4, George Stephanopoulos said while Obama did not get everything he wanted in terms of policy: “The President’s stagecraft on this trip and his star power have really held up all through his trip to Europe.”

TextBox7The networks were similarly thrilled during Obama’s Latin American summit two weeks later, although the key issue was his unilateral decision to relax the trade ban with communist Cuba. “President Obama made it clear he’s interested in forging a new spirit of cooperation between the U.S. and its neighbors in the Western hemisphere,” CBS’s Jeff Glor touted on the April 18 Evening News.

That night, CBS’s Michelle Miller found only fans of Obama’s actions when she visited Cuban-Americans in Union City, New Jersey. “President Obama’s overtures to Cuba raised possibilities and hopes,” she asserted, while back in Cuba, “the signs of a thaw in the relationship were welcome news.”

These themes of “possibility” and “hope” were also in evidence in coverage of the main foreign policy stories of the Obama 100 days: the War on Terror, the war in Afghanistan, and Obama’s overture to Iran:

War on Terror (68 stories): When it came to the War on Terror, President Obama’s main policy initiatives during his first 100 days seemed aimed less at al Qaeda and more at his predecessor in the Oval Office. Of the Obama terror-fighting policies that drew network TV attention, the only one that involved actual aggression against the enemy was the continued use of drone aircraft to attack terrorist targets along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Chart4The 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 President Obama’s activities in these areas was split, with a bare majority of statements from reporters and quoted news sources (51%) supporting his actions, vs. 49 percent who disapproved. NBC and CBS were mostly positive of Obama’s softer line, but ABC’s World News actually offered mainly critical coverage.

The networks generally framed the issue exactly as Obama and other liberals have. “The new President says America is taking the moral high ground in making the country safer,” ABC’s Charles Gibson announced on the January 22 World News, talking about the closing of Guantanamo and ending of harsh interrogation methods. “He has told the world that we will practice what we preach,” Bob Schieffer applauded on the next night’s CBS Evening News.

“The White House insists it was the number one recruiting tool for al Qaeda worldwide: tactics like waterboarding, which they say was clearly torture, tactics they say have now stopped,” NBC anchor Brian Williams intoned in an April 20 piece about the Bush-era memos.

“Acknowledging the CIA’s job is more difficult because America’s enemies do not adhere to the same values, the President said the agency must live up to a higher standard,” reporter Savannah Guthrie echoed.

But the networks gave nearly equal time for Obama’s critics. “Can Obama’s radically new direction actually defeat al Qaeda and keep America safe? Or is it, as some say, a terrorist’s dream come true?” ABC World News Saturday anchor Dan Harris pondered on January 25. The following piece, by reporter Rachel Martin, ended on an equally-skeptical note: “Closing Guantanamo and releasing the detainees may improve Obama’s image around the world, but it won’t dilute al Qaeda’s anti-American propaganda, and it may end up giving it a boost.”

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%) 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, who was quoted in network stories after granting interviews to FNC’s Hannity and The Politico.

The supposed guilt of the previous Republican administration was often just assumed. “How much pressure do you think the Obama administration is getting to hold Bush officials accountable?” CBS’s Katie Couric asked analyst Jeff Greenfield on April 21.

The Bush administration was rarely defended. ABC’s World News on April 18, for example, presented a one-sided attack without any rebuttal, citing liberal journalist Jane Mayer and the like-minded former CIA officer Larry Johnson. ABC reporter John Hendren allowed Mayer to claim 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 on ABC.

For all of their early claims of bipartisanship, Obama officials, including the President, also openly attacked the previous administration. “President Obama called it a dark and painful chapter in our history,” ABC’s Charles Gibson relayed on April 16, a phrase that was repeated on NBC that night. “The President said today that the Bush policies reflected a loss of what he called ‘our moral bearings,’” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell noted in an April 21 report.

Network reporters never suggested that President Obama or his aides should justify their criticisms of President Bush’s record on fighting terrorism. While the networks offered a balanced debate over the wisdom of Obama’s lenient approach to terrorism, their one-sided coverage of the former Bush administration’s “harsh” approach is evidence of another issue in which the media are in sync with the Obama administration’s liberal mindset.

Afghanistan War (35 stories): President Obama’s decision to implement a surge of new U.S. troops to Afghanistan and negotiate with some elements of the Taliban was given roundly positive coverage by the broadcast networks, in sharp contrast to their reaction to President Bush’s decision two years ago to send additional troops to salvage the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Back then, the networks cast the Iraq troop surge as wildly risky and profoundly unpopular. Previewing Bush’s plan on the January 8, 2007 Nightly News, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski was pessimistic: “Military officials warn the plan would take three months to assemble the forces, while many experts warn it’s too little, too late.” 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.”

The network reaction to President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan was vastly different. When word came on February 17 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.” He also deemed it a plus that the troops were being diverted from scheduled duty in Iraq: “That could meet two of President Obama’s campaign promises — to reduce the number of forces in Iraq, while increasing the number in Afghanistan.”

Overall, 91 percent of the statements made on a network evening news broadcast about Obama’s Afghanistan strategy were favorable, a sharp contrast to the reaction to Bush’s Iraq surge. Most of the favorable comments came from President Obama and his aides; the positive tone was the result of a near-absence of critics from the airwaves. Two years ago, 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.

Obama’s Overture to Iran (27 stories): As noted earlier, President Obama attempted to reach out to a number of America’s international adversaries during the first 100 days — including Russia, Cuba and Venezuela — but his overture to Iran drew the most attention. Reporters were especially thrilled when Obama sent a video greeting on March 20 for the Iranian New Year — NBC fill-in anchor Natalie Morales called it “dramatic,” while correspondent Andrea Mitchell applauded it as “conciliatory, respectful.” CBS’s Lara Logan called it “a bold move.” ABC’s Jim Sciutto said that “President Obama promised a new day in U.S.-Iranian relations.”

But the next day, Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khaminei rejected Obama’s plea in an anti-American rant delivered in front of what ABC termed “a huge rally.” That night, only ABC offered a full report on the Iranian rejection. While reporter Hilary Brown noted Khamenei’s slam that “America is hated around the world and that nothing would happen until the U.S. administration changes its foreign policy,” she optimistically argued: “It wasn’t a flat rejection of the President’s overture.”

For its part, NBC ran only a brief, three-sentence item on the Iranian rebuff to Obama, while the CBS Evening News was pre-empted by basketball.

Network reporters seemed little bothered by the Iranian regime’s continued recalcitrance in the face of Obama’s charm offensive. On the April 9 Evening News, CBS’s Elizabeth Palmer reported from Iran how that government was claiming more advances in its nuclear program, as if Obama’s “conciliatory” messages might be a real deterrent: “The Iranian government has demonstrated today that its nuclear program is up and running quite smoothly and nothing, not even conciliatory messages from the White House, can take that away.”

The sentencing of a freelance journalist with American citizenship, Roxana Saberi, to eight years in prison for alleged “spying” was cast as another setback for Obama. NBC’s Tom Aspell warned on the April 18 Nightly News that if the Obama administration tried to “pressure” Iran to release the woman, it could “complicate” his effort to establish better relations with Iran — sidestepping whether the imprisonment of an American might also endanger good relations.

ABC’s Rachel Martin, on the April 18 World News, however, uniquely ran a soundbite from an expert on Iran, Karim Sadjadpour, who suggested Iran’s bad behavior was the regime’s response to Obama’s overture: “Whenever there is an effort by the United States to try to reach out to Tehran and build confidence, the Iranians often respond in kind with these efforts to try to sabotage this rapprochement.”

Four days later, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked if he accepted Obama’s “personal word that she is not a spy.” In an excerpt shown on the April 22 World News, Ahmadinejad basically told the President of the United States to mind his own business: “I think Mr. Obama, as a sign of change and also to encourage friendship, should allow laws to be processed fairly and allow the judiciary to carry out its duties.”