In times of war, the media grow skeptical of the American government’s role in controlling the flow of information. But the American people are also concerned about the media’s control of the flow of information. Will they act as a neutral observers, devoted to balance and accuracy? Or will they play an activist’s role in undermining our government’s effectiveness in waging war?
During a January 17 Nightline/Viewpoint special, ABC News President David Westin explained why he banned the wearing of flag pins by his reporters: “I think our patriotic duty as journalists in the United States is to try to be independent and objective and present the facts to the American people and let them decide all the important things....I respect any other news organization taking a different tack, but for me, part of the symbolism of the fact that what we’re doing in our constitutional democracy, what we’re trying to do to help quote, ‘the cause of the country overall,’ is to be objective and give just the straight facts to the American people and let them decide what they want to do about it.”
In a review of 234 stories on ABC’s World News Tonight from January 1 to March 7, the Media Research Center found that ABC News failed its promise to serve the American people as an independent and objective observer, offering straight facts and letting the people decide. Instead, ABC employed a dangerous double standard – harshly criticizing of the Bush administration and its policies, but failing to extend that same tough critical standard to other actors in this political crisis, from congressional Democrats, to UN bureaucrats, to skeptical allies like France, and even to the dictatorship in Iraq.
CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News presented a more balanced and less passionate evaluation of news developments. World News Tonight coverage of the crucial pre-war debate demonstrated a clear and repetitive bias on four fronts:
• ABC questioned the purity of the Bush administration’s ideological and economic motives for war, and constantly decried a lack of White House respect for the peacemaking efforts of countries like France and the United Nations. ABC did not apply the same skeptical standards on ideology, greed, or “hard line” demands when it came to the policy stands of France or the United Nations.
• While ABC treated Bush administration pronouncements with great skepticism, ABC routinely channeled propaganda from the Iraqi regime without investigating its accuracy or even treating it with equal skepticism.
• ABC has touted the size and broadly “mainstream” nature of anti-war protest movements, without skeptical coverage of their radical organizers, their radical speeches, or their potentially destructive impact on the popularity of the “peace” position.
• ABC selectively covered its own polling numbers, reporting results that show slippage for the White House case, while sometimes ignoring its own polls when they found growing support for the White House case.
While the American public grow more convinced every day of the need for war, they have not arrived at that opinion through objective reporting from ABC that demonstrated faith in letting the American people decide for themselves. Instead, ABC’s coverage on World News Tonight has scorned the notion of balance, lobbying the American people by favoring and highlighting information suggesting that war is unjustified, unnecessary, undiplomatic, and unwise.
1. Championing France and the United Nations Over the US
Throughout his months of presiding over pre-war World News Tonight coverage, ABC anchor Peter Jennings has projected the impression that his role is to accentuate all the negatives to slow down the “rush to war,” and put America’s impulsive militarism under the yoke of UN and French reasonableness. Every UN and ally’s objection was not a position to be debated, but a “problem” to be solved, presumably through a prolonged period of surrendering to further diplomatic delays.
The Impulsive, Problem-Plagued White House. The White House cites UN resolutions to argue Iraq is the party obligated to demonstrate that it has rid itself of weapons of mass destruction, and the burden is not on the U.S. or the UN inspectors to find fresh proof of improper weapons within Iraq. But Jennings began on January 9 with an on-screen graphic reading “UN weapons inspectors find no ‘smoking guns,’” and a verbal focus on White House problems: “We’re going to begin with problems for the Bush administration if it really wants to overthrow Saddam Hussein militarily. United Nations weapons inspectors have said today they are not finding evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. And the administration’s most loyal supporter for military action, the British Prime Minister, says Mr. Bush should not rush things.”
As the momentum toward war picked up on February 7, Jennings introduced another story with the usual hard foot on the brakes: “Now to the Bush administration’s campaign against Iraq. Just as the Iraqis appear to be making some concessions, the U.S. thinks it has growing support for war.” The White House “thinks” it had growing support? As shown later in this report, ABC’s own polls at that time showed growing support after Colin Powell presented evidence of Iraqi deceit to the UN.
Jaded Jennings ended the program on a note of cynicism: “Finally this evening, some notes about things to keep an eye on. The UN weapons inspectors go back to Baghdad this weekend. They have not been happy with Iraqi cooperation so far. We’ll see if the Iraqis do any better – and if that means anything to the Bush administration.”
In live coverage of the UN debate on February 14, the primary Jennings complaint was American non-cooperation, not Iraqi non-cooperation. Jennings painted President Bush, not France, as the impediment to allied unity: “Terry Moran, as you look at this from the distance at least of being on the road, and I think a lot of people got the impression this week that maybe the Bush administration doesn’t mind if the Western alliance as we’ve known it in the post-war period breaks up. Some people are puzzled by that.” A few hours later, Jennings flipped back again to how Bush alone is threatening to crumble the alliance: “What’s happening here...is an effort in the Security Council among allies, remember, for the most part, to go forward together and not rupture this, or any other international body to which they all belong. And yet the Bush administration is determined to have its way on this.”
On February 19, when the White House expressed hopes for a “second” resolution to underline the need for military action, CBS’s Dan Rather and NBC’s Tom Brokaw managed to launch their newscasts without heavy-handed rebukes.
Brokaw led off from Kuwait: “Countdown Iraq. The U.S. will bring a new war resolution to a vote at the UN, President Bush calls it ‘the last chance.’”
Also from Kuwait, Dan Rather announced at the top of the Evening News: “With the timetable for a possible new war with Iraq slipping, the United States is pushing for the United Nations Security Council to give Saddam Hussein a flat deadline for disarming. The White House said it will offer a draft resolution this week or next.”
Compare that to how Peter Jennings approached the Bush policy on Iraq, assuming it’s the Bush team, not a few allies, which deserved low marks on playing well with others. “It is quite clear in Washington tonight that the administration is prepared to jeopardize its relations with several of its oldest and best friends in order to get its way about Iraq.”
A journalist could have suggested “old Europe” was jeopardizing relations, perhaps even with economic motivations of trading partnerships with the Baathist regime. But not at ABC. White House reporter Terry Moran brought usual Bush-the-cowboy approach: “With nearly 200,000 U.S. troops now in the Persian Gulf, the White House today presented what amounted to an ultimatum to the fourteen other nations on the Security Council.”
On February 27, CBS’s John Roberts and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell both noted how the UN Security Council’s debate over Iraq grew “bitter,” but both refrained from blaming any one party. ABC’s Terry Moran once again blamed the White House: “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.”
Why does the U.S. have a “hard line,” but not France? France argued that it would veto any resolution, regardless of the language, if it authorizes military action. That’s not a hard line? Not at ABC.
Wonderful Worldly Delays. While the United States was arrogant and uncompromising, the statements and actions of United Nations personnel and allied ministers of state were rarely scrutinized by ABC. On January 27, CBS’s Dan Rather and NBC’s Tom Brokaw both noted the UN arms inspectors found no “smoking gun,” but both led their newscasts by stressing how Iraq has failed to comply with the UN resolution.
Rather led off his broadcast: “Tonight’s headlines: Chief inspector slams Iraq. U.S. says time is almost up.”
Brokaw began his show: “Road to War: UN weapons inspectors say Saddam is not coming clean. They want more time.”
On ABC, Peter Jennings opened with a milder tone: “On World News Tonight, the United Nations inspectors say Iraq has not yet accepted that it must disarm. The inspectors want more time to do their job.” Jennings stressed how the nuclear inspector, Mohamed el-Baradei, was much softer on Iraq, a point of view CBS and NBC treated as a minor detail later in their broadcasts. Jennings announced that el-Baradei “said they have found no evidence of a nuclear weapons program so far and, his words now, ‘provided there is sustained proactive cooperation by Iraq, we should be able within the next few months to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons program.’”
Jennings also treated the reaction to the UN report from the White House and Saddam’s minions as equally credible: “After spending last week in Baghdad listening to the Iraqi government, what we heard from the Iraqi government today is also as it was at the White House: true to form.” From Baghdad, ABC’s Dan Harris repeated that the Iraqi regime claimed “they have exhibited not only cooperation, but quote, ‘super-cooperation.’ Iraqi officials said the only way to avoid hostilities now is for the U.S. to stop its threats and warmongering.”
When Hans Blix presented a report to the Security Council on February 14 attempting to soft-pedal Iraqi violations, Jennings opened that evening’s World News Tonight: “The UN weapons inspectors have given their latest report on Iraq to the United Nations Security Council, and once again it brings into focus a lack of consensus on attacking Iraq. The Bush administration had hoped that the weapons inspectors would be very hard on Iraq today for not coming clean about weapons of mass destruction. It didn’t work out precisely like that. And even with some of its allies, the administration did not have its best day.” On this evening, CBS and NBC were equally negative about White House hopes.
But Jennings then presented a paper decree from Saddam as “another concession,” as if Iraq is continually cooperating: “Not long before Mr. Blix briefed the Security Council, the Iraqis announced another concession. Saddam Hussein issued a presidential decree banning the production or the importation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and all of the materials used to make them. This is something the inspectors have been requesting for a decade.” CBS reporter Mark Phillips at least added, “It’s a legal ban not likely to satisfy those who think he still has them.”
Earlier that day, all the networks presented the UN proceedings live, but ABC emerged as the least eager to describe Iraqi non-cooperation.
On CBS, Dan Rather declared his headline: “Hans Blix said today that Iraq has failed to account for many proscribed weapons and must still explain what happened to suspected stocks of anthrax, VX gas, and long-range missiles.”
On NBC, Andrea Mitchell reported: “He did find what you could call a smoking gun, which is that one of the missiles, the al-Samoud missile, as we reported last night, is longer than the range permitted. It is 113 miles rather than 90 miles.”
But Jennings summed up with vagueness: “On the one hand it’s better, on the one hand it could be better, on the one hand he argues for a little longer time. On the other hand he says it depends on the Security Council, it certainly depends on the United States, which has not much interest in giving the weapons inspectors any time.”
A few minutes after Terry Moran described the Bush team’s “ultimatum” to allies on February 19, ABC’s Dan Harris in Baghdad went a little easier on Iraq: “In recent days, Saddam Hussein has met many of the weapons inspectors’ key demands.... In fact, the chief inspectors have said they’ve seen the beginnings of a change of attitude. However, on closer inspection, there is less to Iraq’s cooperation than meets the eye.” Harris noted whose attitude leads to Iraqi non-cooperation: “Tonight one top Iraqi official hinted at why the government may not be feeling much pressure to act. He said given the huge international peace protests and the growing anti-war sentiment at the UN, it is America that is in trouble.” If America was “in trouble,” ABC would easily qualify as one of national media’s leading troublemakers.
On March 7, Jennings interviewed Secretary of State Colin Powell and hit him repeatedly from the left on the great utility of the inspectors: “So many people don’t understand why you shouldn’t let the inspections continue if they are accomplishing anything?” He followed up: “Most people think they’re doing a reasonably effective job at the moment.” He also accused Powell of “moving the goalpost...so the Security Council is left in the position of either agreeing with you completely or else.”
2. Channeling Iraqi Propaganda
While the White House was presented as a bull in a china shop, ABC often presented Saddam Hussein’s regime as... exactly the way Saddam wanted it presented. Reporting from Baghdad on January 21, Jennings told White House reporter Terry Moran, “it looks from here, maybe it looks from everywhere, that Mr. Bush is more and more determined to attack the Iraqis.” Jennings soon decided that “when Saddam Hussein looks out from here, he also sees many of America’s allies saying that President Bush is in too much of a hurry to go to war.”
That evening, the first few seconds of the network news displayed yet another contrast between the Big Three, with ABC coming in softest.
CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather began the show “Tonight’s headlines: Another terror attack on Americans in the Gulf.”
On NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw opened: “Showdown over Iraq: President Bush aims tough words at Saddam Hussein and also at U.S. allies who want more time.”
On ABC, Jennings began with the public-relations benefits for Saddam: “On World News Tonight this Tuesday, President Bush says there are no options left: Saddam Hussein is facing war the administration says it will go it alone if need be....An American killed in Kuwait: Anti-Americanism in the region may be a comfort to Saddam Hussein.” He not only claimed inaccurately that Bush would “go it alone,” the first words out of his mouth did not include “terrorism.” It was just “anti-Americanism” that made Saddam’s day.
But the real eye-opener that night came when the anchorman wrapped up with a celebration of Iraqi arts and letters: “For many years now, the United States and most Americans have looked at Iraq and tended to see only its dictator. But this a country with a very long history of, among other things, arts and letters. This week we were surprised to see several hundred artists and writers walking through the streets of Baghdad to say thank you to Saddam Hussein. He had just increased their monthly financial support. Cynical, you could argue with this particular time, but the state has always supported the arts, and some of the most creative people in the Arab world have always been Iraqis. And whatever they think about Saddam Hussein in the privacy of their homes, on this occasion they were praising his defense of the homeland in the face of American threats.”
Why would Jennings be “surprised” at Iraqi subjects being paraded before his eyes as their monthly checks arrived? And why would he do the Iraqi regime the favor of displaying this cynical parade as he dismissed its human props and “whatever they think...in the privacy of their homes”?
Tomorrow’s Lies Tonight. ABC even went the extra mile of anticipating Iraqi propaganda lines and advancing them before they could be concocted. After live coverage of the State of the Union address and the Democratic response on January 28, Jennings called on reporter Dan Harris in Baghdad who called President Bush’s charge that Iraq is not cooperating with inspectors “low hanging fruit” for them to dismiss:
“When the leadership of this country wakes up in a couple of hours, the sun is just coming up right now, I suspect they will latch on to many of the complaints we’ve heard from President Bush tonight. Most notably I think the low hanging fruit is this idea that they’re still hiding weapons of mass destruction. They’ll point out that the inspectors have been here for more than 60 days and have so far found nothing. I think you’ll also hear a reaction to this idea that President Bush put forward of liberating Iraq. Saddam Hussein was on TV a couple of hours ago saying the Americans want to enslave Iraq.”
This was one of those moments where viewers might wonder: If reporters truthfully despise being “stenographers to power,” how can they stand in Baghdad and not only act as stenographers for tyrants, but go so far as to compose their next set of talking points while they sleep? CBS and NBC coverage also featured reaction pieces from their reporters in Iraq, but CBS’s Elizabeth Palmer and NBC’s Ron Allen refrained from so generously relaying potential enemy propaganda lines. They focused on how Iraqi citizens may or may not hear what Bush said and how Iraq responded to the latest UN report.
“Human Shields.” Another Iraqi propaganda ploy was loosening its migration standards for so-called “human shields,” left-wing activists who pledged to stand in front of civilian targets and risk death to keep the war from happening. On the February 26 World News Tonight, Baghdad-based Dan Harris trumpteted the cause of one such American. “Ryan Clancy, a substitute English teacher from Milwaukee, became so convinced that a war with Iraq would be unjustified and unwise that he sold his stake in a local record store and came to Baghdad where he just moved into a food storage facility to act as a human shield....He says the goal of the human shields is to stop the war, or at the very least, to stop the U.S. from bombing sites vital to Iraqi civilians.” Harris allowed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested that placing innocent civilians around likely bombing targets is a war crime, but he also rebutted: “But human rights lawyers say if the Pentagon bombs places inhabited by human shields, that too would be a war crime.”
Harris toyed around with the obvious point: “The human shields themselves are facing a problem as well: how to avoid being tools of the Iraqi government, which is paying for their transportation and their housing, including stocked refrigerators.” He didn’t find a spokesman to expand on that little “problem,” but simply concluded with stenography for Ryan Clancy: “He says he’s not here to protect Saddam Hussein, just the Iraqi people.”
CBS and NBC both offered more skeptical coverage of these Saddam-assisted publicity stunt specialists. The night before Harris’s report, Dan Rather briefly profiled Ryan Clancy on CBS Evening News, mentioning “he’s left one troubled family behind.” While his mother was scared but proud, Clancy said his father “accused me of siding with the enemy and pretty much called me a terrorist.” The next night, as Harris puffed Clancy on ABC, CBS reporter David Martin suggested “Saddam is bringing in anti-war activists to serve as human shields and placing more and more military equipment near religious and civilian targets” to “complicate American battle plans.”
NBC Nightly News didn’t profile “shields” until March 4, but they also had a more balanced story than ABC. Reporter Kevin Tibbles found: “There are about fifty Americans already in Iraq, representing various groups and religious organizations working to prevent war. But to many other Americans, acting as a human shield is both foolish and unpatriotic.” Tibbles balanced that critical viewpoint from David Riddell, whose brother Sean is a Marine, with rebuttals from his aunt Michele Riddell, who is a “human shield.”
Jovial Saddam, Terrified Kids. On February 28, ABC’s Dan Harris created another Baghdad blast of anti-war hype, underlining how a U.S. invasion will kill children and cause massive miscarriages. He began by emphasizing the regime’s focus on normality. As viewers saw video of a couple getting married and crowded streets with people out shopping, Harris reported over video of Saddam and his soldiers: “Even from Saddam Hussein there’s a measure of public levity...On Iraqi TV recently one of his soldiers told him a joke, something about a married couple. ‘That’s a good one,’ said the President.”
Harris then shifted to growing anxiety: “The government has given people six months worth of food rations. People are digging wells in their backyards, and hospitals, including this maternity hospital, are bracing for war.” A nurse then predicted in English: “For sure there’ll be premature labors and for sure there’ll be high percentage of miscarriages, for sure it will be like that.” Then Harris shifted to “Iraq’s youngest citizens,” as interviewed by Norwegian child psychologist and “peace” activist Magne Raundalen. Dr. Raundalen asked children: “If there was an attack, what would that mean?” Harris concluded the story by relaying one child’s answer: “‘They will attack us by airplanes and missiles and guns,’ he says. His brother says ‘a great number of people, especially children, will die.’”
Even as the time for war drew near in March, ABC kept pressing the Iraqi talking points about their great compliance efforts, as if they came straight from Saddam stooge Tariq Aziz. Jennings set up a March 4 story from Dan Harris in Baghdad: “In Iraq today, while the Iraqis continue to comply with the UN weapons inspectors, the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, was attacking the United States in a public letter to Iraqis.”
3. Sanitizing Radical Protesters
Historically, ABC’s reporting on protests has sought to present a “peace” movement that would resonate with Middle America, and separate it from what reporter Jackie Judd called “oddball fringe elements.” When asked in 1991 about the marches being organized by the WWP, Judd said, “I think most reporters would tend to talk about who is part of the mainstream of the movement....I included the people who I thought were important to this and representative of it.” At the time, ABC producer Juliet Cassone also explained her goal was finding the most presentable protesters: “We were looking for mainstream demonstrators.”
But many protesters are not in the political “mainstream.” In the first Gulf War and now the buildup to a second, the major organization behind large protests on Washington has been the Workers World Party. While reporters have tried to maintain that the brain trust of the protest movement “happens to be active” in the WWP, this is a little like saying that some old-time Southern men’s group isn’t racist, but its brain trust “happens to be active” in the Ku Klux Klan. The WWP Web site pledges “solidarity” with “workers“ from communist Cuba to communist China while America, the locus of “world imperialism,” tries to stop them “in a global class struggle.” What does “peace” or “protest” mean in these ossified dictatorships other than a prison term or execution?
Reporters also often leave out what protesters actually say at protests. At a protest last October, former attorney general Ramsey Clark, the leader of the protest movement, compared the U. S. government to the Nazis: “Heinrich Himmler led the Gestapo. He said, ‘Shoot first and ask questions afterward and I will protect you.’ And that’s what we plan to do with Iraq and other countries.”
This questionable journalistic tactic – don’t report on what happened and what was said at “peace” protests, but sanitize it to enhance its persuasive power – is being employed again. On Sunday, January 12, World News Tonight/Sunday anchor Carole Simpson predicted hopefully: “In this country, protests against the war have been lightly attended, but that may change soon.” Los Angeles-based reporter Judy Muller touted: “From Los Angeles to Minneapolis...Thousands of Americans this weekend demonstrated against war with Iraq. The peace rallies included a lot of old familiar faces, but many new ones, as well....More and more, these crowds are filled with middle-class Americans who have never demonstrated before.” ABC featured first-time protester Bonnie Morrison of Pasadena and Igor Brobowsky of Veterans Against the Iraq War. Promoting plans to march in Washington on the 18th, Muller wished aloud: “As more and more troops head overseas, more and more Americans may head for the streets.”
To explain this ever-growing phenomenon, Muller called on Columbia journalism professor Todd Gitlin, a veteran of the hard-left movement against the Vietnam War: “I think mainstream America is worried sick about a war that does not make sense to them.” He promised protests would be greater once violence began, because pre-war protests don’t “bite the way pictures of bodies and burning villages will ignite sentiment.” Muller ignored Gitlin’s controversial stand within the “peace” movement: his sharp criticism of Ramsey Clark for a “near total unwillingness to rebuke Saddam Hussein.”
When the march came to Washington on January 18, ABC didn’t even wait for crowds to assemble to portray them as diverse. On the night before the march, reporter Bill Blakemore extrapolated from the bus he was riding: “Never mind the cold, they’re going to protest. Democrats and Republicans. Many middle-aged. From all walks of life. And some students.”
On Saturday night, the protests led the newscast, with substitute anchor Terry Moran laying the day out in glory: “It was a day of protest across the nation. On the West Coast and in Washington, DC demonstrators marched in vast numbers in the name of peace in the nation’s biggest one-day expression of opposition to U.S. war plans in Iraq.”
ABC’s Lisa Sylvester proclaimed, “Braving frigid temperatures, they traveled across the country: black and white, Democrat and Republican, young and old.” ABC’s Geoff Morrell covered the trip to D.C. by a doctor and his “honor student” daughter: “So they rode a bus all night from Asheville, North Carolina. On board were businessmen, soccer moms and military veterans, all members of the same church.” ABC left out the podium speakers calling the Bush administration “greedy imperialist murderers.”
Another round of Saturday protests warmed ABC hearts a month later on February 16. Again, anchor Terry Moran glowingly opened the broadcast: “It’s no secret there is a lot of opposition to the Bush administration’s plans for war in Iraq. Today, around the world, we got a sense of the sheer scale and intensity of that opposition. Millions of people from New York to London to Rome and in scores of other cities, took to the streets to protest against any U.S.-led invasion against Iraq. It was an enormous display of anti-war and, in some cases, anti-American sentiment. We start tonight with Hilary Brown in London, where one of the largest rallies took place.”
Typically, Brown went looking for newly minted protesters, “some had never marched before,” and concluded with another diversity sales job: “This anti-war demonstration here in Hyde Park is being described as one of the biggest demonstrations in British history. It cuts right across political and social lines.” After Brown, John McKenzie checked in from New York City where he also found everyday protesters. He carried soundbites from a teacher who said he’s “ashamed” of the U.S. government, as well as a female pediatrician. He concluded: “So many voices, filling the streets, struggling to be heard.” McKenzie’s worry about “struggling to be heard” came about four-and-a-half minutes into ABC’s hot-and-heavy protest coverage.
Enormous, Massive, Huge...Did I Mention Enormous? Two days after the rally, CBS and NBC had moved on to other, more timely subjects, but not Peter Jennings, who jumped on his first weeknight opportunity to employ the protesters as an authentic political powerhouse: “President Bush said today that the enormous anti-war demonstrations here and overseas in the last several days have not changed his mind about Saddam Hussein. But they have certainly given Mr. Bush’s opponents some sense that they have momentum.” ABC’s Martha Raddatz explained: “For the first time today, President Bush responded to the massive worldwide protests against war and against his own administration.”
In case the “massive” rallies hadn’t been promoted enough, Jennings returned at story’s end to ask: “At the White House, certainly the President and others will have seen, as we all did, those huge demonstrations here and overseas. They have any effect that you know of?” Raddatz replied: “Well, certainly they won’t talk about it publicly, Peter, but they can’t stand the fact that the world is having these massive protests. It makes the United States look bad. It makes the United States look like it is bucking the rest of the world, and they think Saddam Hussein is laughing at them.” If Raddatz could peer into White House minds on this question, she could also guess that they felt ABC was also in the business of making the United States look like it’s bucking the rest of the world.
Protesters didn’t even have to take the trouble of flying or driving to Washington to land on ABC. On February 26, Jennings picked up the publicity gimmick of a “virtual” march of electric complainers: “In Washington today, thousands of people opposed to war against Iraq bombarded the Senate and the White House with phone calls, faxes and e-mails. They called it a virtual march on the Capitol. Communications were virtually paralyzed in the Senate for a while. Many congressional phone lines were jammed for several hours and one Senator reported 18 times more e-mail than usual.”
But is the protest movement a political powerhouse? Does it represent a vast uprising in public opinion, or a tiny minority? It’s fair to describe a protest of 100,000 strong as “massive,” but not compared to the 105 million Americans who voted in the 2000 presidential election. (Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate, received more than 384,000 votes. Does that make his campaign a political juggernaut?) ABC’s own polls showed American support for war growing monthly, despite regular protests. It might be suggested that the protests had the effect of turning Americans against the “peace” position. But they didn’t ask that question at ABC.
Dueling Daisies. Lyndon Johnson shocked the political world in 1964 with a “Daisy” ad that showed a little girl picking daisy petals while an ominous voice counted down from ten to a picture of a mushroom cloud – outrageously suggesting that electing Barry Goldwater equaled nuclear war. The ad aired only once, but in recent years, this infamous ad has been recreated twice, most recently with an anti-war message.
On the January 16 World News Tonight, Peter Jennings explained, “An anti-war group called MoveOn.org that’s organized primarily over the Internet, started airing a television commercial opposing war against Saddam Hussein.” Reporter Brian Rooney repeated the line: “This new version is made by a group called Move On that espouses political causes over the Internet.”
Neither journalist suggested any distaste for the ad, and had no political description for the very liberal, very partisan Democrats who formed Move On, which was first assembled to fight Bill Clinton’s impeachment tooth and nail.
The Move On ad ends with a mushroom cloud, and the claim: “Maybe that’s why Americans are saying to President Bush, let the inspections work.” An ad suggests that President Bush’s policy will lead to nuclear war, but Rooney couldn’t even call it “anti-Bush.” He concluded the ad was a sign that “the anti-war movement is still relatively small but appears to be growing with a lot of help from the Internet...the anti-war movement has gone from the streets to the information superhighway.” The anti-war movement is always “growing,” even as ABC’s polls showed the percentage of Americans favoring war was the real growing number.
Not every “daisy” ad knockoff received the pom-pom treatment from ABC. On October 27, 2000, then-ABC substitute anchor Aaron Brown wasn’t so sanguine when an obscure Texas group ran a low-tech “daisy” ad claiming the Clinton-Gore team had sold national security secrets to China. ABC labeled it on screen as an “Anti-Gore Ad.” Brown explained: “Every ad is designed to get your attention. This one attacks Al Gore. It says he sold out to China for campaign funds.” He quickly added: “The Bush campaign has asked that the ad be pulled....By then, the ad will have been seen by millions for free and without much analysis.” But unlike the 2003 story, Brown went for analysis to liberal professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who decried “its inaccuracy and its hyperbolic nature.” That wouldn’t define comparing President Bush’s policy to nuclear war? Brown concluded: “You can expect more of this as we get closer to election day as groups with political agendas see how much they can get away with.” Getting away with it did not require more subtlety, more nuance, more class. It only required a more liberal political agenda.
“Outspoken” Tony Benn. ABC’s aversion to placing the protest movement anywhere to the left of the mainstream also surfaced when British leftist Tony Benn secured an interview with Saddam Hussein, asking “questions” such as: “I wonder whether you could say something yourself directly through this interview to the peace movement of the world that might help to advance the cause they have in mind?” Benn, whose questions are reproduced on his Web site TonyBenn.com, also claimed protesters were “the real Americans in my opinion, the real British, the real French, the real Germans, because they think of the world in terms of their children.”
CBS’s Bob Simon stood apart by describing Benn as “a 79-year-old British politician and lifelong left-wing activist.”
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell explained Saddam “told an anti-war British politician he has no links to al-Qaeda and no illegal weapons.”
But ABC tried to disguise Benn’s left-wing perspective as Peter Jennings intoned: “The Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, has given his first television interview today, to a non-Iraqi, in 12 years. It was conducted by a former member of the British Parliament, Tony Benn, one of Britain’s most famous and outspoken politicians.” He couldn’t even identify Benn with the Labor Party, which would have informed at least the political junkies. Only late in the story did reporter Dan Harris reveal that Benn “said he conducted this interview to stop the war.”
4. Playing with Polls
The major networks, news magazines, and newspapers use polls to help them figure out how politicians and policies are faring with America. But they also have used them in the past to manipulate public opinion by touting results gleaned from loaded questions, such as public opposition to nonexistent spending “cuts.” In the pre-war buildup, ABC manipulated public opinion with very selective reporting on poll results. They favored polls showing support slipping for the White House, and sometimes failed to tell viewers when their own poll numbers revealed growing support for the White House case.
On the night after the State of the Union address, the January 29 NBC Nightly News ended with a story by Jim Avila on how a post-speech Gallup poll revealed a nation impressed: “Before, only 47 percent believed President Bush made a convincing case for military action. After, 67 [percent] supported an attack.”
On World News Tonight, however, Jennings began: “And now to the President’s impact last night on public opinion. We knew going into the speech that the country was divided on many issues, including what to do about Iraq, or in some cases, when. And as we do on occasions like this, we conducted a poll when he was finished and we found that people had not changed their minds in significant numbers.”
So how could Jennings maintain that they found no significant change in the numbers? In the eighth paragraph of Langer’s Web site report, he noted little change, but the time between polls was only one day: “63 percent support military action – essentially unchanged from 61 percent Monday night.”
Hours before the State of the Union address the night before, Jennings mentioned the 61 percent figure on his newscast, but surrounded it with more liberal-pleasing numbers: “An ABC News poll for this occasion finds that 64 percent of Americans believe the UN weapons inspectors should be given a few more months to do their jobs, 61 percent support attacking Iraq eventually. But only 44 percent of American support a war if the UN does not approve.”
Jennings tried to make a trend out of a blip a week earlier on World News Tonight, when ABC found a slip in the polls: “An ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that public support for attacking Iraq has declined somewhat: 57 percent of Americans now support U.S. military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein. It was 62 percent in mid-December, and as high as 78 percent a few months after the 9-11 attacks.” So dropping from 62 to 57 percent was news, but rising back to 61 percent was not reported as a jump, and another bump to 63 percent was dismissed as no change. (The 62 percent rating was mentioned in the midst of a wave of protest-promoting coverage on January 18, as well as the finding only 42 percent supported war “if the U.S has to go it alone.”)
Downplaying the Powell Effect. In the aftermath of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 address to the UN laying out the case of Iraqi non-compliance with UN orders to disarm, Jennings noted a new ABC News poll found that 71 percent thought Powell was convincing and 61 percent thought the Bush team justified going to war. So he went overseas to find discontent: “There’s a degree of opposition to war in every country, even where the government has been supportive” and that “many Arabs, even if they dislike Saddam Hussein, wonder about America’s long-term intentions.”
The anchorman’s acknowledgment of growing domestic support might seem generous, but it’s not. On this question – “Do you think the Bush Administration has or has not presented enough evidence to show why the United States should use military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power?”– the number rose from 48 percent three weeks before Powell spoke to 61 percent afterwards. Langer’s Web report on ABC’s polling found movement after Powell’s speech: two-thirds now supported war on Iraq, and the number of those supporting war without UN endorsement rose from the 44 percent Jennings announced before the State of the Union to “half.” Langer also found “the preference for giving the UN inspectors a few more weeks or less, rather than a few months or more, is up by eight points to 59 percent.” Jennings left these numbers out of his show.
“No Consensus”? As the polls solidified behind Bush, Jennings began the February 10 World News Tonight from Portland, Oregon in denial: “On the road in America, listening to Oregon. There is no consensus about war.” But at the end of the show, as he described his duties hosting a town meeting in Portland, Jennings explained: “There is a lot of anti-war sentiment in the city. In January 25,000 people demonstrated against going to war. As of this week, the state as a whole supports the President. Last night at a town hall meeting, there was no consensus.”
But early in the broadcast, Jennings relayed the latest polling swing toward the White House position: “A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that most Americans support attacking Iraq even if the United Nations opposes it. Two-thirds of Americans say they favor military action to remove Saddam Hussein. That number drops to 50 percent if there is United Nations opposition, but it rises to 57 percent if there is support from some U.S. allies even if the United Nations Security Council remains opposed.” So much for “no consensus about war.”
Slipping UN Support. On February 24, as President Bush decided to push another (“second”) UN resolution demanding Iraqi disarmament, ABC’s latest poll found public support for war remained steady at 63 percent. Langer’s Web report noted that four in ten surveyed supported war “strongly,” compared to only two in 10 who “strongly” oppose military action.
But on air, Peter Jennings mysteriously presented the ABC poll as grounds for slower action and more solicitude for the UN: “The President wants to move quickly on this. A number of other countries wish to go slowly or not at all. And in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll just finished, we find that 56 percent of Americans want the administration to take it slower and try harder to get more UN support. Even though, as you can see there, only 38 percent of Americans think the UN is doing a good job handling the situation.” After a report from Terry Moran, Jennings added: “Our new poll finds that President Bush’s approval rating for handling Iraq has slipped by six points to 55 percent.”
Let’s put those numbers closer together. The UN’s handling gets a 38 percent approval rating, while President Bush gets a 55 percent approval rating. For months, Peter Jennings painted a picture of Bush versus a world opposing his brash cowboy act, and now a poll showed more Americans approve of Bush than the UN. It’s too bad Jennings put a whole story between those numbers instead of reporting them side by side.
As for Jennings noting the slipping approval rating, he did not report on earlier burps up and down in that number: 58 percent approval in December, 50 percent on January 20, back up to 57 percent a week later.
By March 10, Jennings did not avoid reporting how a new ABC News poll found that “61 percent believe support from the UN Security Council is not necessary to attack.” He did not note that was up from 44 percent in January. A check of Langer’s Web report on the March 5-9 survey also revealed that the number for those who feel UN authorization is not necessary jumped to an impressive 71 percent “if allies participate.”
Conclusion: Recommendations for Improved Coverage
• Reporters should seek a balance of arguments and a balance of skepticism in covering both the United States and allies and international organizations. The American people should expect skepticism in coverage of the White House, but they also expect skepticism in presenting the United Nations and difficult allies like France. All of these actors played a crucial role in the pre-war debate, and merited journalistic skepticism of their positions, motives, and in the case of the UN, their ability to function as a cohesive organization.
• Untrustworthy enemy claims should not be given equal weight with the statements of American officials. The free American media should be extremely dubious of the self-serving claims of an enemy dictatorship. Journalists are at their worst when they hammer away at the legitimacy of the government which grants them their freedoms at the same time they’re presenting credulous Potemkin-village propaganda reports from a dictatorship. At the bare minimum, U.S. and Iraqi claims should be submitted to a similar acid test of truthfulness.
• The American people deserve a fuller picture of the “peace” movement. The newsworthiness of protesters should not be determined according to their “mainstream” attractiveness. Who are the leaders of the protest movements, and what are their beliefs? What statements are made in podium speeches, not just from average Americans marching down the street? What are the policy consequences if their wishes were fulfilled? Protest leaders deserve as much scrutiny of their ideology, motives, and financial support as our governing leaders receive.
• The American people deserve a fuller picture of network polls. Network pollsters should ask straightforward polling questions without loaded language. Network reporters and anchors should do straightforward reporting on the results, and avoid playing hide-and-seek games with poll numbers that might aid politicians and causes they don’t like. Tricks like these encourage public skepticism about network pollsters and poll reporting.