CyberAlert -- 05/02/2001 -- "Controversial" Missile Defense

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"Controversial" Missile Defense; Smaller "Big" Tax Cut; Lauer Pounded at Hughes from Left on Bush's Conservatism

1) Missile defense enjoys overwhelming public support, but CBS's Dan Rather insisted: "The President backs an expensive, controversial plan." Tom Brokaw referred to the "controversial missile defense system." Peter Jennings snidely observed: "Critics often object to the animation in news reports because the animation usually has the systems working."

2) A smaller tax cut remained "big" to Dan Rather and only those trying to reduce the rate of increase in spending, conservatives, are ideologues who earned a label from ABC and NBC.

3) Matt Lauer pounded at Karen Hughes from the left on Monday's Today: "During the campaign he portrayed himself as an environmentally friendly person. And now of course he's, he's either moved back or delayed several initiatives that would help clean up the environment."

The public overwhelmingly supports missile defense, but Tuesday night both CBS's Dan Rather and NBC's Tom Brokaw denigrated President Bush's plan, announced earlier in the day to deploy such a defense, as "controversial." Rather teased at the top of the May 1 CBS Evening News: "The big money missile defense shield. The President backs an expensive, controversial plan. Will it work? Can we afford it?" Over on the NBC Nightly News, Brokaw began: "President Bush was selling hard today on two fronts: His controversial missile defense system and his tax cut."

A CBS News/New York Times poll released on March 13, which CBS did not mention Tuesday night, found 75 percent favor the missile defense concept with 81 percent saying building such a system is either "very important" or "somewhat important." A Los Angeles Times poll released a week earlier discovered that by 59 to 31 percent the public "approves" of building a missile defense system.

ABC's World News Tonight avoided tagging the plan as "controversial," but after a full story on technological problems with the plan which "could easily cost a hundred billion more with no guarantee that it will actually work," anchor Peter Jennings snidely added: "One other note. Critics often object to the animation in news reports because the animation usually has the systems working."

Some more detail on how the three broadcast network evening shows approached missile defense on Tuesday night, May 1:

-- ABC's World News Tonight. Peter Jennings opened the show, as transcribed by MRC analyst Brad Wilmouth: "Good evening, everyone. We're going to begin this evening with the President's view of how to defend the United States against nuclear missiles. It isn't anywhere near that simple, of course, but in another early example of doing what he said he would do during the presidential campaign, Mr. Bush has outlined today what he calls a framework for a national defense missile defense system. The consequences of his new policy are very far-reaching. For one thing, he does not intend to abide by a major treaty made with the Soviet Union to limit the construction of missile defenses. He wants to spend a vast amount of money, and it doesn't matter if the system does not work perfectly."

After Terry Moran outlined Bush's plan and allowed a Democrat to denounce it, ABC turned to John McWethy for look at whether it can work. He focused only on problems and detractors: McWethy started: "Critics call what the President is proposing a 'scarecrow defense,' an effort to put something out in the field in a hurry to scare away a potential enemy, even if the system does not fully work."
Joseph Cirincione, Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project: "What they're trying to do is pretend that missile defenses are a deterrent, that it isn't important whether they work or not, just that they appear to work. I'm against deploying 'scarecrows.'"
McWethy: "Sources say the President is considering an additional $8 billion to accelerate research and many Republicans in Congress are all for it."

Following a soundbite of Senator Jon Kyl affirming his support, McWethy listed the problems so far: "The administration will pursue a land-based system, at least one big radar on the remote Alaskan island of Shemya and 100 interceptors. That system would cost $36 billion, is already at least a year behind schedule, and nearly all early tests have failed. The administration will spend billions more on a system based at sea. It is even further behind in development. It would require ships to be just off the enemy's coast as they attempted to intercept missiles soon after launch. Still more money will be poured into the Air Force's airborne laser. In theory, the laser would hit a missile moments after launch."
Prof. Theodore Postol, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "It's bewildering what he's proposing. When you start building things when the science and technology has not been proven, that is not research."
McWethy concluded: "The U.S. has already spent $100 billion trying to develop a missile defense. The Bush plan could easily cost a hundred billion more with no guarantee that it will actually work."

Jennings then added: "One other note. Critics often object to the animation in news reports because the animation usually has the systems working."

Anyone who ahead of time read the daily e-mail from Peter Jennings previewing that night's show would not have been surprised by ABC's approach. MRC analyst Jessica Anderson passed along to me the text, which began:
"There is a little skepticism in the air here today. Some cynicism, too.
"The government has an idea of how to spend $50 billion of your money. That's BILLION. It will be spent on building a system to safeguard the national security -- but by the government's own assessment it will probably not be foolproof, it will unnerve America's allies, and in the end it may cost considerably MORE than $50 billion. A more critical assessment is that this system can never be made to work, that it will torpedo the basis of all arms control arrangements, and that in any event, any terrorist or "rogue nation" that means to wreak havoc on U.S. soil can do so in ways that this system will not prevent."

-- CBS Evening News. After a piece in which Bob Schieffer concluded that details are "still up in the air" for a tax cut plan, Rather asserted: "Not up in the air is President Bush's commitment to building what's called a 'missile defense shield' over the nation. The President said today he's all for it, even if it violates a 1972 treaty. Russia, China, and some NATO allies fear this could generate a new arms race. And then there's the question of whether it would work at any price."

John Roberts offered an overview of Bush's plan before getting to opponents: "President Bush today claimed new technologies show more promise, but the bigger problem may be to convince Russia, China, and nervous allies that missile defense does not represent a new threat of U.S. nuclear supremacy."
Senator Joseph Biden: "It's going to start a new arms race in China, India, Pakistan. We're going to be less rather than more secure."
Roberts: "The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia prohibits development of a missile shield. In a phone call this morning, Mr. Bush urged Russia's president to replace that treaty and leave behind the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction....Defense analysts say while a missile shield may protect against launches from countries like North Korea, Iraq and Iran, it does nothing to address the more urgent threat of, say, a terrorist ship sailing into New York Harbor with a nuclear bomb on board."
Michael O'Hanlon, Brookings Institution: "We need a balanced approach recognizing that missile threats are only one of many types of potential threats to the United States."
Roberts concluded: "President Bush hopes to placate the Russians by offering unilaterally deep cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and he will dispatch his national security team to allied countries next week in hopes of easing their anxieties."

Next, CBS dedicated a whole piece to a concern missile defense would not solve: "One of those anxieties is whether the U.S. is paying enough attention to what may be a more likely form of enemy attack, the type that a missile defense shield would never be able to stop. CBS News National Security correspondent David Martin is tracking that part of the story."

Martin opened his story: "What if the truck bomb which blew up the federal center in Oklahoma City had contained a biological warfare agent like anthrax? It would have killed one to three million people. Many experts believe that is a much more likely threat than a missile."

-- NBC Nightly News. After having stuck to the negative in previewing Bush's plan on Monday night ("This is a concept that's at once feared and reviled, from Beijing to Moscow, from within Washington, D.C. to European capitals"), on Tuesday night Tom Brokaw introduced a full story by Jim Miklaszewski by again stressing the negative: "Now to the missile defense system, an idea that began with the Reagan administration as protection against incoming missiles, especially from the so-called rogue nations, such as North Korea and Iran. Critics call it Star Wars and say it's outrageously an expensive folly."

A smaller tax cut is still "big" to Dan Rather and only those trying to reduce the rate of increase in spending are ideologues who earned a label from ABC and NBC.

-- Still "big." Dan Rather led the May 1 CBS Evening News: "Good evening. President Bush began a major new push today for a new version of his big tax cut plan. It would cost a about quarter trillion dollars less than his original proposal. This compromise plan is now circulating on Capitol Hill and has Republican and Democratic support, but there are many unresolved issues. Among them, how much of a tax cut, how soon, and who will benefit most?"

-- "Conservatives" stand in the way. ABC's Linda Douglass told Peter Jennings a spending deal has yet to be worked out. But after not labeling those who want to spend more than the four percent hike pushed by Bush, Douglass offered an accurate ideological tag: "The White House and the House Republicans, those conservative Republicans in the House, are telling the Senators you've got to find some places to pare down your spending. Conservatives are suggesting such things as subsidies to Amtrak might have to go."

Over on the May 1 NBC Nightly News, Campbell Brown spun Bush as the loser: "After insisting for months he would not budge from his pledge of a $1.6 trillion tax cut, today the President caves to Senate moderates and agrees to less, but declares victory anyway."

Like Douglass, she saw no liberal influence for more spending but was willing to label the other side: "But no final agreement on spending because some conservative Republicans won't go along with a push by Democrats for more money for education and prescription drugs and warn the tax cut deal could fall apart if spending isn't kept in check....Tonight some conservative Republicans say the two sides are now so far apart they were surprised to see the President in the Rose Garden today hailing a deal."

Matt Lauer pounded at White House counselor Karen Hughes from the left on Monday morning's Today on the environment and missile defense, MRC analyst Geoffrey Dickens noticed.

Lauer's questions on the April 30 NBC morning show:

-- "Before we get to the next 100 days I want to talk about a criticism Campbell Brown brought up in her piece that critics of the President say he speaks like a moderate and acts like a conservative. That he does one thing and says another. How do you respond to that?"

-- "What about on the subject of the environment? During the campaign he, he portrayed himself as an environmentally friendly person. And now of course he's, he's either moved back or delayed several initiatives that would help clean up the environment."

-- "In fairness though he said that he will not go along with caps on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. And he's going to delay reductions in arsenic in drinking water."

-- "The President's gonna start talking about a national missile defense system. How is he going to make a case for that Karen when some of the fundamental tests of that system in the past have not come out well."

-- "And real quickly. Is it worth pursuing that at a cost of billions of dollars?"

Last night on NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien Lauer recounted a very strange story about how last weekend in Las Vegas a sexually-aroused lion sprayed him with some sort of "glandular" discharge. I'm not kidding. More in a future CyberAlert. -- Brent Baker

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