TV's Bad News Brigade

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

More Stories of Wrongdoing than Tales of Bravery and Generosity

Besides depicting American soldiers as victims of terrorist violence, 79 stories focused primarily about allegations of wrongdoing against Americans in Iraq, including numerous follow-up stories about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, new charges of U.S. abuse of prisoners, claims that the American military had killed civilians in mistaken attacks, and even charges that a U.S. Marine murdered two Iraqi prisoners.

The networks offered heavy coverage of the accidental shooting in March of an Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, who had been kidnapped by terrorists and who had been released into the custody of a top Italian secret service officer, Nicola Calipari. When Calipari and Sgrena were being driven at high speed to the airport, American soldiers at a military checkpoint signaled for them to stop, then opened fire. Sgrena was wounded, Calipari killed.

Recuperating from her wound in Italy, Sgrena charged that the soldiers had intended to kill her. “I can't exclude that I was the real target of the shooting,” Sgrena said on Italian state television just days after the shooting, a charge picked up by NBC. CBS’s Allen Pizzey relayed that her partner, Pierre Scolari, “accused the Americans of ambushing the car because, he claimed, she knew things they did not want published.”

Angela Pascucci, a colleague of Sgrena’s at her newspaper, Il Manifesto, told ABC’s Mike Lee that the American soldiers were lying about the incident: “No, their car wasn’t going fast. And she couldn’t hear anything.”

Lee asked, “No warnings?”

chart5-101405“No warning,” came the reply. Only NBC Nightly News, in a story reported by Keith Miller on March 6, told viewers that Sgrena’s Il Manifesto was a communist newspaper, and he could have added that long before the shooting, she was a vociferous critic of U.S. policy in Iraq. A surveillance satellite actually recorded the incident, and found that contrary to Sgrena’s story, her car had to be going at least 60 miles per hour. The U.S. military cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing.

If wrongdoing by soldiers merited such attention, what about the heroism or good deeds? All three networks did produce such optimistic stories, but very few — just eight that focused on episodes of valor and heroism, and nine that featured acts of kindness and generosity from American soldiers.

textbox1-101405CBS, for example, told the story of Wisconsin Army National Guard Captain Scott Southworth, who bonded with an Iraqi orphan with cerebral palsy, and after six months of fighting red tape, was able to adopt the boy. ABC saluted the 115th engineering group from Draper, Utah, who discovered a five-year old Iraqi girl who needed a heart operation to survive. The girl and her father made it to Portland, Maine in February, where doctors told ABC that her prognosis was excellent.

And all of the networks covered the April 4 ceremony where the young son of Sergeant Paul Smith accepted the Medal of Honor on his late father’s behalf. As NBC’s Andrea Mitchell explained, “The 33-year-old sergeant and his platoon were trying to secure the airport when they were attacked....In the firefight, a company of at least 100 Iraqis hit an armored personnel carrier, wounding the three soldiers inside and leaving their .50-caliber machine gun unmanned. Braving a hail of Iraqi bullets, Sergeant Smith jumped onto the gunner's position and fired back, exposed from the waist up.”

“He could have fallen back. Instead, Smith used three boxes of ammunition to kill as many as 50 Iraqi soldiers before being fatally struck in the head,” Mitchell continued. “One soldier, choosing to stand alone in the line of fire in order to save his men.”

In a war where American soldiers are too often presented as casualty statistics or tainted by charges of misconduct, these positive stories of heroism and generosity were essential for balance. It’s unfortunate that news audiences saw so few of them.