Still Liberal, Still Biased

How Big Media Helped the Left and Hurt the Right in 2003


jennings031703Peter Jennings Emphasized Anti-War Voices: Liberal revisionists now insist the news media meekly went along with the Bush administration’s so-called “rush to war,” but in the weeks preceding military action many journalists expressed deep skepticism of the President’s tough stance against Saddam Hussein. Although all of the broadcast networks portrayed protesters from the anti-war Left as respectable and mainstream, ABC’s Peter Jennings was the most supportive of their message, and he routinely tilted his newscasts in favor of their complaints.

On his February 7 World News Tonight, for example, Jennings excitedly reported how “the Iraqis appear to be making some concessions.” He concluded that night with a slanted preview of the upcoming week: “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.”

february_textboxExactly one week later, during live coverage of a debate at the United Nations, Jennings continued to paint the administration as obstinate and destructive. “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,” he remarked to White House correspondent Terry Moran.

 Five days later, Jennings was still at it. “We’re going to begin this evening with the Bush administration and its allies. 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,” he intoned on the February 19 World News Tonight.

Most of the networks offered indulgent coverage of anti-war marches on February 15 and 16 — CNN even gave the protesters their own two-hour special, Voices of Dissent. But only Jennings was still beating the anti-war drums three days later. While the other anchors had moved on to fresh news, Jennings on the February 19 World News Tonight, celebrated that while the “the enormous anti-war demonstrations” have not “changed” President Bush’s “mind about Saddam Hussein,” they “have certainly given Mr. Bush’s opponents some sense that they have momentum.”

On February 26, Jennings tried to make the gimmicky “virtual” march of electric complainers sound impressive: “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.” Protesters did not even have to take the trouble of flying or driving to an actual demonstration to make it onto ABC’s airwaves.

But was the protest movement a political powerhouse? It’s fair to describe a protest of 100,000 strong as “massive,” but at the same time tens of millions of Americans were supporting the idea of a war with Iraq. And ABC doesn’t always go out of its way to celebrate passionate minorities. Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate, received more than 384,000 votes in the 2000 presidential campaign, but it’s fair to say ABC never described that campaign as a political juggernaut.

Dan Rather Panders to Saddam Hussein: While his coverage of the subsequent war with Iraq was far better than that of his ABC colleague, Texan Dan Rather seemed interchangeable with Canadian Peter Jennings on one Wednesday in February.

In retrospect, it’s easy to express relief that Saddam Hussein was deposed in April and captured in December. On both occasions, newscasts briefly underlined how Saddam had been the force behind brutal torture and the filling of mass graves. But on February 26, CBS’s 60 Minutes II devoted an hour to the anchorman's interview with Saddam, a murderous dictator for whom Rather gave more respect than he has offered to some elected American leaders.

Many Americans remember Rather yelling at then-Vice President George H. W. Bush about Iran-Contra on January 25, 1988: “Can you explain how — you were supposed to be the — you are — you’re an anti-terrorist expert. We — Iran was officially a terrorist state....Mr. Vice President, the question is, but you, made us hypocrites in the face of the world!...How could you sign on to such a policy?”

Not only did CBS submit itself to humiliating conditions they would never accept from an American politician — being driven around town for hours on end before the interview, ceding control to Iraqi translators, Iraqi camera operators, and Iraqi minders reviewing the tape afterwards. During the interview, Rather politely referred to the dictator as “Mr. President,” sitting calmly and quietly as Saddam repeated the absurdity that he had received 100 percent of the vote in Iraqi “elections.”

Rather also spent several minutes entertaining Hussein’s gimmick of an international TV debate with President Bush, as if Saddam gained his office with debating skills. He prompted Hussein to expound on his propaganda: “What’s the most important thing you want the American people to understand at this important juncture of history?” He followed up with questions about the logistics and who would moderate.

Rather called it “surprising” and “new,” and CBS plugged it relentlessly. But the tape from August 29, 1990 — Rather’s last exclusive sit-down with the dictator — quickly revealed an identical offer from Saddam Hussein to debate George H. W. Bush or Margaret Thatcher.

Rather dramatically concluded the interview by expressing concern that “given the sober moment and the danger at hand, what are the chances this is the last time you and I will see each other?”

In the end, the interview was a ratings success, with 17 million Americans tuned in. But CBS wasn’t the only happy participant. On Fox & Friends February 28, reporter Greg Palkot relayed: “Last night, Iraqi state television ran in its entirety that interview that CBS News’s Dan Rather conducted with the Iraqi president earlier this week. Our contacts in Baghdad tell us that this is an indication that the regime was very pleased with how the interview went, and they felt that it effectively got across the points the government there wanted to get across.”