Red, White, and Partisan

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

Introduction: Shock and Unity

2001-09-11-NBC-TodayOn a sunny, crystal-clear Tuesday – September 11, 2001 – three commercial jet airliners were hijacked and flown into famous buildings: two into the World Trade Center towers in New York, and one into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked-airliner plot was foiled by courageous passengers and crashed in Pennsylvania.

In the shock and horror of these terrorist attacks on America, there was a remarkable reign of unity in the national press. It was the angry, nationalistic headlines on Wednesday morning: “A Day of Infamy” in the Tulsa World, “America Savaged, Forever Changed” in the Detroit News, “Outrage” in the Atlanta Constitution, and the San Francisco Examiner yelling: “Bastards!” It was Time magazine boasting on its cover, “One Nation, Indivisible.” It was Newsweek stating, simply, “God Bless America.”

It was CBS anchorman Dan Rather on the Letterman show twice breaking down in tears asking President Bush where he “wants me to line up.” Rather asked, “Who can sing now, with the same meaning we had before, one stanza of [“America the Beautiful”] that goes, ‘So beautiful, for patriot’s dream, that sees beyond the years/Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears’? We can never say that song again, that way.”

But even in those sorrowful days, a longer-lasting media spin was emerging. Within 24 hours, in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Newsweek Senior Editor Jonathan Alter was telling Brian Williams on MSNBC that “We don’t want this to change America too much...Yes, we must retaliate, but if we go on too much of a war footing, then we’ll get into a cycle that folks in the Middle East have been living with for many, many years and would truly change the nature of what it is to be an American.”

In that little speech were so many seeds of the media spin in the Bush years. The media elite never liked the “war footing” and constantly warned that the War on Terror was ruining America, both in terms of domestic civil liberties and global public opinion.

The titans of network news made it plain that they never signed up for war, and that any symbol of supporting that war or the Republican commander-in-chief would be avoided. ABC News President David Westin banned the wearing of flag pins by ABC reporters. Why? Because “I think our patriotic duty as journalists in the United States is to try to be independent and objective and present the facts to the American people and let them decide all the important things.”

Sadly, the media’s coverage over the last decade was not objective, and it was certainly not independent of liberal partisans, leftist experts and terrorist defense lawyers. To review how the media 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.