Grading TV's War News

Fox News Channel and Embedded Reporters Excelled, While Peter Jennings and Peter Arnett Flunked


CNN’s biggest black eye came after the war concluded, as top news executive Eason Jordan disclosed on the April 10 NewsNight that the network had, over the years, concealed stories of Saddam’s brutality out of fear the Iraqis would imprison or kill those who worked at CNN’s Baghdad bureau. In an April 11 op-ed in the New York Times, Jordan said CNN did not report that an Iraqi cameraman who worked for CNN had been kidnaped, beaten and subjected to electric shocks; that Iraqi officials had attempted to kill CNN’s reporters in northern Iraq; and that “several Iraqi officials” had told him privately that Saddam “was a maniac who had to be removed.”

cnntbAll of those stories came to CNN’s attention long before the war. The question of how much or how little CNN could report from its Baghdad bureau was made moot on Friday, March 21, when Iraqi authorities expelled reporter Nic Robertson and his staff. Earlier that day, at 6:10am ET, Robertson reported on a press conference by Iraq’s Information Minister, who would later become infamous for rejecting the idea that U.S. forces were in Baghdad when the assembled journalists could see American tanks maneuvering on the other side of the Tigris River. On this, the second day of the war, the Information Minister was trying to dismiss pictures that CNN viewers had been watching for hours, narrated by CNN reporters embedded with coalition forces:

“Swift reaction from Iraqi officials this morning to those images people have seen of Iraqi soldiers surrendering and pictures of armored columns of coalition forces inside Iraq,” Robertson told anchor Anderson Cooper. “Information Minister Mohammad al-Sahaf saying that none of these soldiers that were seen there surrendering were Iraqi soldiers. Indeed, he implied that it was some kind of play. ‘Who are these people?’ he said, and ‘where were they?’ There will be some sort of investigation into that, and we would know more about it in the future, he said. He also talked about the armored columns and said, ‘Well, where is this desert? Which desert are they in?’ An indication they’re trying to portray the fact that these columns are perhaps not in Iraq, that they might be somewhere else.” Despite the neutral tone of Robertson’s presentation, his report made it clear that the Iraqi propagandist’s explanations for CNN’s images of invasion and surrender were absolutely ludicrous.

The next morning, however, as Robertson and the rest of his staff reached Amman, Jordan, CNN Baghdad producer Ingrid Formanek suggested to Paula Zahn that the Iraqis who expelled them were only acting like the Americans: “Well, obviously the situation had grown more tense in Iraq in recent days due to the bombing, and the [Iraqi] officials were feeling the pressure. It’s been a great propaganda campaign. I mean, all sides want to control the media as much as possible, and that goes for the Iraqis as well as the Americans. And their concern was that they weren’t getting their message out. They were increasingly tense as the bombing went on, and they just got very much more difficult to work with in the days during the bombing.”

Later that day, March 22, CNN chose to give extensive coverage of marches and demonstrations against the war in Iraq. From just before noon until midnight that night, CNN ran 38 reports on protests in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But despite the volume of coverage, and the fact that CNN had a reporter, Maria Hinojosa, dedicated to covering the anti-war protests, CNN’s coverage failed to scratch the surface. Not once did CNN tip viewers to the radical agenda of the events’ sponsor, a group called International ANSWER, which is an outgrowth of the communist Workers World Party. Nor did CNN show any of the extreme rhetoric of protest speakers. Only once in 38 stories did CNN balance their stories about street demonstrations by mentioning that polls showed such anti-war sentiments were shared by only a small minority of Americans.

Instead, CNN’s sanitized coverage put a positive spin on the protests. Reporting from New York City that Saturday afternoon, Hinojosa championed the diversity and size of an anti-war, anti-Bush march. Hinojosa detected “a very diverse group of people” with “a lot of family members,” “a children’s contingent” and a “religious contingent.” Though the number of protesters was much smaller, Hinojosa passed along protest hype as she relayed how “I have heard a lot of people coming up and saying that they have heard a million” attended.

Nearly two weeks later, however, a CNN anchor finally probed the reasoning of those who saw the U.S. as a greater evil than Saddam Hussein. At about 1:35pm ET on April 3, Wolf Blitzer, in Kuwait City, interviewed a U.S. citizen, Tom Cahill, who was in Amman, Jordan. Cahill was a human shield for five weeks at a Baghdad water treatment plant which the coalition never bombed.

Blitzer asked whether he still had the same sympathy for the Iraqi people that he had when he arrived in Baghdad. Cahill responded: “Yes, and even more anger at the United States government. I’ve been an activist all my adult life. I’m 66. I’ve been an activist more than 40 years, and the rage in me has been growing all these years. And the anger is another one of the reasons I went to Iraq.”

Blitzer challenged him: “But you saw firsthand what life was like under a regime, like Saddam Hussein, a regime that’s been documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, international human rights organizations, as a cruel regime, one that endorses torture and other human rights abuses. Did you emerge at all sympathetic to Saddam Hussein?”

Cahill rejected the idea: “No! No! I know little about Saddam Hussein, only what I hear from Amnesty International, but the people of Iraq, the people I saw, seemed okay. I mean, I didn’t see much evidence of a dictatorship there except a lot of soldiers and an awful lot of pictures of Saddam Hussein. I think he spends most of his waking hours posing for sculptors and artists and photographers.”

Blitzer gave him one last chance to redeem himself: “One final question, Mr. Cahill. Would you agree that the Iraqi people will be better off without Saddam Hussein and his regime in power?” Cahill wouldn’t have it: “No, I don’t agree!”

Blitzer, who anchored from the Persian Gulf during the afternoon and early evenings (Eastern Time), was a solid and fair questioner. Aaron Brown, who began at either 8pm or 10pm ET, broadcasting until 2am ET, was more equivocal and self-conscious, but he offered little of the liberal commentary that marked his pre-war coverage.

Echoing his former ABC colleagues, Brown began his March 26 NewsNight by highlighting the second-guessers: “There is some suggestion coming out of the Pentagon today and this evening that this war will take longer than many anticipated — months to fight. That’s the Washington Post reporting on the story, and that will be one of the story lines we’ll be looking at today.”

In general, CNN was the cable network most preoccupied with ensuring that the relatively few and increasingly inconsequential anti-war protesters were represented in their coverage, even as events disproved the protesters’ premises and predictions. Even after the resistance in Baghdad had collapsed, Iraqis had showered kisses and flowers on troops, and polls showed nearly 80 percent support for the war, some at CNN persisted in describing an America “split” between “pro-war” and anti-war camps. During CNN’s “At This Hour” news update at 1:13am on April 11, CNN’s Heidi Collins balanced a large rally in support of U.S. troops and a small number of hooligans: “Americans remain split over the war. A pro-war rally was held in New York Thursday at Ground Zero while in California, vandals spray-painted anti-war slogans on more than 50 SUVs and trucks apparently targeted for their gas mileage.” That’s balanced coverage — at least according to CNN.