MRC Study: TV News Protects Obama from His ISIS Failures

In May, as ISIS terrorists captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra, and with the FBI warning of hundreds of radicalized sympathizers here in the U.S., the ABC, CBS and NBC broadcast evening newscasts devoted a combined 84.5 minutes to ISIS, compared to just under 40 minutes in April.

Yet even though the coverage doubled, evening news viewers last month heard virtually no criticism of President Obama’s handling of ISIS — just 43 seconds in a pair of NBC Nightly News stories, or less than one percent of the coverage.

The networks aired a combined 48 news stories on ISIS, but none brought up the President’s vow, made in a televised White House address last September 10, that the U.S. would “lead a broad coalition” whose objective was to to “destroy” ISIS “through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”

While some evening news stories second-guessed the U.S. strategy as ineffective, none attached President Obama personally to the failing policies. The only criticism of the President came for his “Baghdad Bob”-esque
claim that the war against ISIS was going well.

On the May 21 Nightly News, NBC’s Richard Engel told anchor Lester Holt: “In an interview published today, the President said he does not think the U.S. is losing the war on ISIS and described the recent loss in Ramadi as, quote, ‘a tactical setback.’ But, frankly, Lester, military analysts I’ve been speaking to, and military officials, say the current U.S. strategy just isn’t working.”

Three days later, NBC White House correspondent Chris Jansing told viewers that “even Democrats” disputed Obama’s rosy assertion: “Just last week, the President said ‘I don’t think we’re losing,’ and called Ramadi ‘a tactical setback.’ It’s an assessment, though, even Democrats disputed today.”

Neither ABC nor CBS found time to tell their evening news viewers about Obama’s optimistic claim. And, for the most part, the networks suggested criticism lay with the military itself, not the Commander-in-Chief who established the overall policy.

For example, a May 26 report by CBS News correspondent David Martin explained how the air campaign against ISIS was hurt by not having U.S. forces on the front lines to help with the targeting: “Pentagon officials acknowledge strikes flown with controllers would be more efficient, but they are not willing to put Americans on the frontlines of a battle the Iraqis have to win for themselves.”

Martin’s report skipped over the fact that it was the President who in his September 10 speech insisted that the military advisors he was sending to Iraq “will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”

As the New York Post pointed out in a May 23 editorial, Obama’s policies have failed to blunt ISIS:

The week that was brought fresh evidence that President Obama has no actual strategy to defeat ISIS — just talking points, platitudes and gestures.
ISIS takes Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria — each a city of great strategic, economic and symbolic value. The US response: Send Iraq 1,000 anti-tank missiles, downplay the victories and have the president intone, “I don’t think we’re losing.”
Reality check: In the nine months since Obama announced his anti-ISIS coalition, ISIS territory has grown 20 percent. Most of the coalition’s 50 “members” have done nothing in the fight.
Even US forces have done far less than they might, flying far fewer bombing sorties than they could — and almost never bombing ISIS’s capital or command facilities in Raqqa, Syria.

The broadcast networks certainly aren’t hiding this dire news, but they’re helpfully insulating President Obama from the consequences of his policy choices.

[Note: The statistics in this report reflect coverage from May 1 to May 31. In their June 8 broadcasts, ABC and CBS offered a skeptical take on President Obama’s “amazing” and “startling” admission that the U.S. still had no “complete strategy” to confront ISIS. ABC’s Terry Moran was the toughest: “It was an amazing admission from President Obama. He said the same thing last August, we have no strategy and now, it’s been ten months since he sent American forces back into action in Iraq and today, he says the same thing: There is no strategy to win.”]

— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.