Red, White, and Partisan
Table of Contents:
Averse to Nationalism as a Pro-Bush Platform
The media are averse to nationalism. They associate it with a surrender of their journalistic independence. This is why you can easily notice reporters skipping the Pledge of Allegiance at official events.
Shortly after the 9/11 horror faded, the media elite reverted to being transnational, willing to emphasize (and overemphasize, and then caricature) the dark motives and actions of the United States. Someone inside the Reuters wire service sent the Washington Postâs Howard Kurtz an internal memo from Stephen Jukes, their global head of news: âWe all know that one manâs terrorist is another manâs freedom fighter and that Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist...To be frank, it adds little to call the attack on the World Trade Center a terrorist attack.â
Kurtz asked Jukes: Why this neutrality between murderers and victims? âWeâre trying to treat everyone on a level playing field, however tragic itâs been and however awful and cataclysmic for the American people and people around the world,â Jukes replied. âWeâre there to tell the story. Weâre not there to evaluate the moral case.â
That sounded like complete neutrality, to the point of refusing to acknowledge the attacks were intended to terrify the American people. But Reuters wasnât really abandoning moral judgment. On September 3, 2002, came this photo caption: âRecovery and debris removal work continues at the site of the World Trade Center known as âground zeroâ in New York, March 25, 2002. Human rights around the world have been a casualty of the U.S. âwar on terrorâ since September 11.â It was distributed with a story âRights the first victim of âwar on terror.ââ
NPR foreign editor Loren Jenkins told the Chicago Tribune that his âmarching ordersâ from his taxpayer-subsidized network were to find where American troops are and âsmoke âem out.â When asked if he would reveal the location of a U.S. commando unit in Pakistan, he declared âYou report it. I donât represent the government. I represent history, information, what happened.â He then slammed the military because âin one form or another, they never tell you the truth. Theyâve been proven wrong too many times.ââ
News executives tried so energetically to be âindependentâ that they suggested perhaps the Pentagon was a legitimate terrorist target. The MRC caught ABC News President David Westinâs remarks at an October 23, 2001 event which C-SPAN played on October 27:
âThe Pentagon as a legitimate target? I actually donât have an opinion on that and itâs important I not have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now. The way I conceive my job running a news organization, and the way I would like all the journalists at ABC News to perceive it, is there is a big difference between a normative position and a positive position. Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be and when we get into the job of what ought to be I think weâre not doing a service to the American people. I can say the Pentagon got hit, I can say this is what their position is, this is what our position is, but for me to take a position this was right or wrong, I mean, thatâs perhaps for me in my private life, perhaps itâs for me dealing with my loved ones, perhaps itâs for my minister at church. But as a journalist I feel strongly thatâs something that I should not be taking a position on. Iâm supposed to figure out what is and what is not, not what ought to be.â Westin later backed away and apologized for that statement.
Media executives were defensive about the accusation that theyâre unpatriotic. âAny misstep and you can get into trouble with these guys and have the Patriotism Police hunt you down. These are hard jobs,â lamented MSNBC president Erik Sorenson in a New York Times story on November 7, 2001. âJust getting the facts straight is monumentally difficult. We donât want to have to wonder if we are saluting properly. Was I supposed to use the three-fingered salute today?â
If reporters were truly attentive to just getting facts straight, this lament would be more credible. Instead, reporters in the Bush years had a bad habit of siding against American policy, even when the goals were utterly humanitarian.
Food Aid Is Propaganda? One day after bombing began in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, American networks picked up âinternationalistâ complaints that U.S. food aid drops were harmful exercises in propaganda. âOne other item about these food and medicine drops,â ABCâs Peter Jennings stated on World News Tonight. âTheyâre not popular with everyone. The international relief group, Doctors Without Borders, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for relief work, described it today as military propaganda to justify the bombing.â By the next night, ABC had sent reporter Dan Harris to follow up on the charge. âSome humanitarian aid workers were saying this effort is little more than propaganda.â
On October 10, NBCâs Matt Lauer questioned the Air Force general in charge of the air drops, D. L. Johnson: âBut you canât deny the fact that when you drop these into impoverished areas youâre, in effect, sending U.S. propaganda into those areas, youâre saying, âTaliban bad. Hereâs a gift from the U.S.ââ Johnson bluntly replied that âWeâre saying this is a gift of food and nourishment to people who are starving.â It somehow didnât occur to Lauer that these acts of kindness would project what liberal reporters would insist Bush didnât project: that it wasnât a war on all Muslims or all Afghanis, but on the terrorists.
On October 12, ABCâs Michele Norris even questioned the Bushes asking school children to donate a dollar for aid to Afghanistan as using the kids as propaganda pawns. âBehind the scenes there are quiet grumblings about this dollar drive. There are concerns that American children are being used in a propaganda campaign. But school officials said they wouldnât dare air those concerns publicly, not when America appears to be swept up by symbolism.â
Axis of Malice? The media elite never liked Ronald Reaganâs âevil empireâ speech about the Soviet Union under communism. The same disdain emerged when George W. Bush identified an âaxis of evilâ in his first State of the Union address after 9/11. When President Bush declared his opposition to an âaxis of evilâ in his 2002 State of the Union address, the networks dismissed the notion as oafish, and even dangerous.
MRC analysts reviewed all 37 evening news stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC discussing the âaxis of evilâ from January 30, 2002 (the day after the speech) through coverage of Bushâs trip to Asia on February 19. Only five of those stories (or 14 percent) focused on the identified countries â Iran, Iraq, and North Korea â while 73 percent of stories were dominated by negative reaction to Bushâs concept.
On January 30, ABCâs Jim Wooten described the Iranians as âgenuinely astonishedâ by the âaxis of evilâ label. âThousands of Iranians took part in pro-U.S. demonstrations here after September 11,â he declared, but âwhatever goodwill may have been generated, they say, has now evaporated in the heat of the indictment from President Bush.â ABCâs Terry Moran explained âthe President and other top officials are trying to calm jittery nerves in Asia and dispel images of Mr. Bush as a dangerous warmonger.â
They clearly wanted this phrase to be unpopular: out of 19 âtalking headsâ invited by the networks to comment, 89 percent condemned Bushâs statement. To be fair, these numbers exclude summarized views of Iranian, Iraqi, and North Korean officials, as well as administration explanations of âaxis of evilâ policy. But it also included the âjitteryâ Bush opponents in foreign countries.
On February 11, all three anchors linked Bushâs remark to government-organized protests in Iran. CBSâs Dan Rather credited the rally as being âthe biggest anti-American demonstration there in years.â Peter Jennings called the rally âgigantic,â adding that âmillions of people do not like being referred to as evilâ â shifting the focus of Bushâs statement from the totalitarian regime to its victims. ABCâs Mark Litke highlighted âangry South Koreans, and not just the usual student demonstrators, also accusing Bush of arrogance for taking the path of confrontation with the North.â
Wallowing in Abu Ghraib. There is a vast difference between sexual humiliation and brutal murder. But the networks displayed much greater outrage for U.S. prisoner abuse than for the enemyâs murders. Viewers received a false picture of moral equivalence, with only American offenses amplified.
To illustrate a fraction of the bias problem, MRC analysts counted the number of prisoner-abuse stories on NBCâs evening and morning news programs (NBC Nightly News and Today) from April 29, 2004, when the Abu Ghraib story emerged, through May 11 (which captured only part of the furor). In those 13 days, there were 58 morning and evening stories. Using the Nexis news-data retrieval system, analysts then counted the number of stories on mass graves found in Iraq from the reign of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and 2004. The number of evening and morning news stories on those grim discoveries over many months? Five.
On the May 6, 2003 Nightly News, Jim Maceda reported a very pointed story, suggesting as many as 300,000 may be buried in groups around Iraq. Today never aired a story in 2003 or 2004 on mass graves in Iraq. But Today used the Abu Ghraib pictures to insist on political damage to the Bush administration. NBC was in a rush to punish. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer asked repeatedly about whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign.
The same strange standard emerged when American aid worker Nicholas Berg had his head sawed off in Iraq by notorious terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. None of the networks could show the grotesque snuff-film footage of Bergâs murder, although CBS came closest, showing Berg as he was pushed to the ground and holding the still frame as they played the audio of his last screams.
With few exceptions, the Berg beheading was at best a two-day TV story, an obstacle to get around. On the very night of the Berg storyâs emergence, ABCâs Nightline couldnât spend more than a few minutes on Berg before Ted Koppel was back to soliciting John McCain to address Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-imposed nightmares.
By the second night, even though NBC was showing the Berg photo in the showâs introduction (sitting in front of his captors), the newscast itself was sticking to prison abuse, prison abuse, prison abuse. Bergâs death was in revenge to the Great Satan. NBCâs Richard Engel explained, âBerg, a 26-year-old from suburban Philadelphia, may not have understood what the militants were saying in Arabic, the reason why they were about to execute him: revenge for what the militants call the Satanic degradation of Iraqi prisoners at Baghdadâs Abu Ghraib prison.â
On May 12, NBCâs Fred Francis reported, âIn Amman, Jordan, and most Arab capitals, the stories of the abused prisoners got far more coverage than the horrific slaying of Berg.â The same was true in America.
Two nights before in a story on âArab streetâ reaction to Abu Ghraib, Francis really underlined the willingness to sling vile accusations at America under Bush: âIn Cairo, anti-U.S. sentiment is so strong many here see no difference here between the actions of Saddam Hussein and George Bush....One Arab businessman [said], âThat is not Jeffersonian democracy. Itâs more like a lesson from Hitlerâs book, Mein Kampf.ââ