Red, White, and Partisan

How the Media Furor Over Bush's War on Terror Vanished Under Obama


Executive Summary

2001-09-11-NBC-TodayThe premeditated murder of thousands of Americans on September 11, 2001 unified the United States, in grief over the attacks and in resolve to never let it happenagain. Just as Members of Congress stood together as one on the Capitol steps to sing “God Bless America,” the American major media united with the people in their collective shock and outrage.

But that feeling did not last. Within a month, America went to war in Afghanistan, and the media returned to its traditional pose of being above “nationalistic fervor.” Instead, the media coverage grew dark and foreboding, presenting America as a malignant force many Americans didn’t recognize.

When Barack Obama was elected, the pessimism faded, and so did the skepticism. Even Obama’s continuation of certain Bush anti-terror policies didn’t outrage the media. To review how the broadcast television networks portrayed the War on Terror in the decade since 9/11, the Media Research Center has identified major trends that stand out from ten years of media analysis. The Bush policy was often reviled, and the Obama policy was often ignored or praised:

  • Under Bush, anchors and reporters painted the War on Terror as a dark era in American history where our civil liberties were vanishing. Terrorist suspects were often treated as morally superior to their U.S. military captors.

  • Under Obama, the picture of unjustly detained terror suspects faded from view, and Guantanamo faded as an international outrage.

  • Under Bush, the networks eagerly promoted partisan talking points that cast the administration as villainous or inept in its handling of the War on Terror – or, even worse, somehow to blame for the 9/11 attacks themselves.

  • Under Obama, the media’s coverage of Obama’s failures on terrorism (the mass murder at Fort Hood and the near misses above Detroit and in Times Square) diverted the subject from Obama’s performance to other controversies (like America’s alleged “Islamophobia”). When Obama’s performance succeeded – as in his command of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden – the subject wasn’t changed.

  • Under Bush, TV journalists were so averse to nationalism that they found allusions to an “axis of evil” in the world to be grotesque, and obsessed over the unpopularity of Bush’s America in Europe and the Middle East.

  • Under Obama, the media simply assumed that a less nationalistic Obama's outreach to the Muslim world (including his speech in Cairo) would warm global opinion, and ignored surveys that belied that assumption.

  • Under Bush, the networks defended Bush’s partisan critics as patriotic dissenters who should not be impugned, even as those protesters impugned Bush in the vilest terms.

  • Under Obama, Republicans were discouraged from criticizing the President for terror-policy failures and left-wing critics of Obama’s continuation of Bush policies vanished from the airwaves.

MRC’s conclusion: While journalists like ABC News president David Westin insisted that the patriotic thing for journalists to do after 9/11 was “to be independent and objective and present the facts to the American people,” the networks failed to live up that “we report, you decide” standard.