TV's Bad News Brigade

ABC, CBS and NBC’s Defeatist Coverage of the War in Iraq

Tallying the Dead

The networks also provided heavy coverage of another discouraging topic: American soldiers killed or wounded in Iraq. Nearly three out of every 10 Iraq stories (400, or 29%) discussed U.S. casualties suffered in Iraq; in nearly one out of 10 stories (126), the American losses were the main focus of the story.

Some of these were positive stories reporting on tributes to those who died. On March 24, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported on a Washington, D.C. exhibit, “Faces of the Fallen.” Mitchell explained: “At first, they are a blur of faces, men and women, young and not so young. Then they come into focus, 1,327 individual portraits, created by 200 volunteer artists. A memorial to military heroes of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.” She showed the father of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2003: “It’s really nice to know that these boys and girls aren’t forgotten. You know, people remember them.”

Counting-Casualties101405More often, the number of dead or wounded was reported as a dry statistic, a morbid scorecard of what America had lost. On June 12, ABC weekend anchor Terry Moran presented numbers with few details: “The U.S. military announced the death of four more soldiers today. That raises the total American death toll to more than 1,700.” On August 18, CBS’s John Roberts noted the deaths of four Americans killed by roadside bombs, then did the requisite math: “That pushes the total number of U.S. military dead in Iraq to at least 1,860.”

It’s one thing to note the passing of an individual soldier, or tell viewers about an incident that claims American lives. But the networks’ fixation to provide an accumulated roll call of the dead suggested that the numbers themselves had more meaning than the individuals, or the cause for which they were fighting. Some reporters suggested that the casualty count was politically significant, that the number of those lost will some day reach a point where the public will demand an end to the war. “Rising U.S. casualties have fed an increasingly vocal campaign against the war here at home,” CBS’s Roberts declared as he introduced an August 17 story about Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war protests.On the Bright Side: CBS News Honored “Fallen Heroes”

As they did throughout much of last year, nearly every CBS Evening News weekday newscast in 2005 dedicated a few moments to positive reminiscences of American men and women who died while serving their country overseas. Most of these soldiers died in Iraq, although some served in Afghanistan or elsewhere. While not considered part of CBS’s daily Iraq coverage, these segments merit praise for the kindness with which they recalled America’s fallen soldiers.

Anchors Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer and John Roberts narrated the brief 20-second spots that gave viewers a glimpse into what made each soldier unique, often illustrated by personal photos. Abraham Simpson “went from Eagle Scout to Marine overnight, and hoped one day to join the LAPD.” Jason Poindexter “was a happy man who smiled a lot, which did not please his Marine drill sergeants.” Michelle Witmer “loved kids and animals. She volunteered in an Iraqi orphanage and got her family to adopt an Iraqi puppy.” Army Reservist Paul Kimbrough was “known for his kindness, he loved preaching the Bible. His favorite passage says, ‘Be kind to strangers.’ He always was.”

CBS showcased courage: Alex Vaughn “was a big bouncing light who made you happy whenever he entered a room....Hit by shrapnel, he went on a mission to rescue a wounded comrade and was killed by small arms fire.” Luke Wullenwaber “often volunteered for missions alongside or in place of his men. It was on such a mission that he was killed by a suicide car bomber.”

About a quarter of these short profiles made it clear that the fallen heroes themselves supported the mission. Rob Sweeney “once said he was out to prove his generation are not slackers by fighting for democracy in Iraq.” Aaron Holleyman was a special forces medic who saved “countless lives. When a roadside bomb damaged his hearing, he still insisted on staying in Iraq.” And “in his last call from Iraq,” Marine Sergeant Jayton Patterson said, “We’re doing some good things for the people here.”

But the number of dead and wounded in Iraq, while painful, does not come anywhere close to rivaling the number lost in previous wars. More than 35,000 Americans died in Korea, nearly 60,000 in Vietnam. More than 400,000 Americans died in World War II, a ghastly total that never provoked the public into insisting that the fighting end before victory was achieved.