Red, White, and Partisan

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

Averse to Nationalism as a Pro-Bush Platform

The media are averse to nationalism. They associate it with a surrender of their journalistic independence. This is why you can easily notice reporters skipping the Pledge of Allegiance at official events.

Shortly after the 9/11 horror faded, the media elite reverted to being transnational, willing to emphasize (and overemphasize, and then caricature) the dark motives and actions of the United States. Someone inside the Reuters wire service sent the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz an internal memo from Stephen Jukes, their global head of news: “We all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and that Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist...To be frank, it adds little to call the attack on the World Trade Center a terrorist attack.”

Kurtz asked Jukes: Why this neutrality between murderers and victims? “We’re trying to treat everyone on a level playing field, however tragic it’s been and however awful and cataclysmic for the American people and people around the world,” Jukes replied. “We’re there to tell the story. We’re not there to evaluate the moral case.”

That sounded like complete neutrality, to the point of refusing to acknowledge the attacks were intended to terrify the American people. But Reuters wasn’t really abandoning moral judgment. On September 3, 2002, came this photo caption: “Recovery and debris removal work continues at the site of the World Trade Center known as ‘ground zero’ in New York, March 25, 2002. Human rights around the world have been a casualty of the U.S. ‘war on terror’ since September 11.” It was distributed with a story “Rights the first victim of ‘war on terror.’”

NPR foreign editor Loren Jenkins told the Chicago Tribune that his “marching orders” from his taxpayer-subsidized network were to find where American troops are and “smoke ‘em out.” When asked if he would reveal the location of a U.S. commando unit in Pakistan, he declared “You report it. I don’t represent the government. I represent history, information, what happened.” He then slammed the military because ‘in one form or another, they never tell you the truth. They’ve been proven wrong too many times.’”

News executives tried so energetically to be “independent” that they suggested perhaps the Pentagon was a legitimate terrorist target. The MRC caught ABC News President David Westin’s remarks at an October 23, 2001 event which C-SPAN played on October 27:


“The Pentagon as a legitimate target? I actually don’t have an opinion on that and it’s important I not have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now. The way I conceive my job running a news organization, and the way I would like all the journalists at ABC News to perceive it, is there is a big difference between a normative position and a positive position. Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be and when we get into the job of what ought to be I think we’re not doing a service to the American people. I can say the Pentagon got hit, I can say this is what their position is, this is what our position is, but for me to take a position this was right or wrong, I mean, that’s perhaps for me in my private life, perhaps it’s for me dealing with my loved ones, perhaps it’s for my minister at church. But as a journalist I feel strongly that’s something that I should not be taking a position on. I’m supposed to figure out what is and what is not, not what ought to be.” Westin later backed away and apologized for that statement.

Media executives were defensive about the accusation that they’re unpatriotic. “Any misstep and you can get into trouble with these guys and have the Patriotism Police hunt you down. These are hard jobs,” lamented MSNBC president Erik Sorenson in a New York Times story on November 7, 2001. “Just getting the facts straight is monumentally difficult. We don’t want to have to wonder if we are saluting properly. Was I supposed to use the three-fingered salute today?”

If reporters were truly attentive to just getting facts straight, this lament would be more credible. Instead, reporters in the Bush years had a bad habit of siding against American policy, even when the goals were utterly humanitarian.

Food Aid Is Propaganda? One day after bombing began in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, American networks picked up “internationalist” complaints that U.S. food aid drops were harmful exercises in propaganda. “One other item about these food and medicine drops,” ABC’s Peter Jennings stated on World News Tonight. “They’re not popular with everyone. The international relief group, Doctors Without Borders, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for relief work, described it today as military propaganda to justify the bombing.” By the next night, ABC had sent reporter Dan Harris to follow up on the charge. “Some humanitarian aid workers were saying this effort is little more than propaganda.”

On October 10, NBC’s Matt Lauer questioned the Air Force general in charge of the air drops, D. L. Johnson: “But you can’t deny the fact that when you drop these into impoverished areas you’re, in effect, sending U.S. propaganda into those areas, you’re saying, ‘Taliban bad. Here’s a gift from the U.S.’” Johnson bluntly replied that “We’re saying this is a gift of food and nourishment to people who are starving.” It somehow didn’t occur to Lauer that these acts of kindness would project what liberal reporters would insist Bush didn’t project: that it wasn’t a war on all Muslims or all Afghanis, but on the terrorists.

On October 12, ABC’s Michele Norris even questioned the Bushes asking school children to donate a dollar for aid to Afghanistan as using the kids as propaganda pawns. “Behind the scenes there are quiet grumblings about this dollar drive. There are concerns that American children are being used in a propaganda campaign. But school officials said they wouldn’t dare air those concerns publicly, not when America appears to be swept up by symbolism.”

Axis of Malice? The media elite never liked Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech about the Soviet Union under communism. The same disdain emerged when George W. Bush identified an “axis of evil” in his first State of the Union address after 9/11. When President Bush declared his opposition to an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, the networks dismissed the notion as oafish, and even dangerous.

MRC analysts reviewed all 37 evening news stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC discussing the “axis of evil” from January 30, 2002 (the day after the speech) through coverage of Bush’s trip to Asia on February 19. Only five of those stories (or 14 percent) focused on the identified countries – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea – while 73 percent of stories were dominated by negative reaction to Bush’s concept.

On January 30, ABC’s Jim Wooten described the Iranians as “genuinely astonished” by the “axis of evil” label. “Thousands of Iranians took part in pro-U.S. demonstrations here after September 11,” he declared, but “whatever goodwill may have been generated, they say, has now evaporated in the heat of the indictment from President Bush.” ABC’s Terry Moran explained “the President and other top officials are trying to calm jittery nerves in Asia and dispel images of Mr. Bush as a dangerous warmonger.”

They clearly wanted this phrase to be unpopular: out of 19 “talking heads” invited by the networks to comment, 89 percent condemned Bush’s statement. To be fair, these numbers exclude summarized views of Iranian, Iraqi, and North Korean officials, as well as administration explanations of “axis of evil” policy. But it also included the “jittery” Bush opponents in foreign countries.

On February 11, all three anchors linked Bush’s remark to government-organized protests in Iran. CBS’s Dan Rather credited the rally as being “the biggest anti-American demonstration there in years.” Peter Jennings called the rally “gigantic,” adding that “millions of people do not like being referred to as evil” – shifting the focus of Bush’s statement from the totalitarian regime to its victims. ABC’s Mark Litke highlighted “angry South Koreans, and not just the usual student demonstrators, also accusing Bush of arrogance for taking the path of confrontation with the North.”

Wallowing in Abu Ghraib. There is a vast difference between sexual humiliation and brutal murder. But the networks displayed much greater outrage for U.S. prisoner abuse than for the enemy’s murders. Viewers received a false picture of moral equivalence, with only American offenses amplified.

To illustrate a fraction of the bias problem, MRC analysts counted the number of prisoner-abuse stories on NBC’s evening and morning news programs (NBC Nightly News and Today) from April 29, 2004, when the Abu Ghraib story emerged, through May 11 (which captured only part of the furor). In those 13 days, there were 58 morning and evening stories. Using the Nexis news-data retrieval system, analysts then counted the number of stories on mass graves found in Iraq from the reign of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and 2004. The number of evening and morning news stories on those grim discoveries over many months? Five.

On the May 6, 2003 Nightly News, Jim Maceda reported a very pointed story, suggesting as many as 300,000 may be buried in groups around Iraq. Today never aired a story in 2003 or 2004 on mass graves in Iraq. But Today used the Abu Ghraib pictures to insist on political damage to the Bush administration. NBC was in a rush to punish. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer asked repeatedly about whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign.

The same strange standard emerged when American aid worker Nicholas Berg had his head sawed off in Iraq by notorious terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. None of the networks could show the grotesque snuff-film footage of Berg’s murder, although CBS came closest, showing Berg as he was pushed to the ground and holding the still frame as they played the audio of his last screams.

With few exceptions, the Berg beheading was at best a two-day TV story, an obstacle to get around. On the very night of the Berg story’s emergence, ABC’s Nightline couldn’t spend more than a few minutes on Berg before Ted Koppel was back to soliciting John McCain to address Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-imposed nightmares.

By the second night, even though NBC was showing the Berg photo in the show’s introduction (sitting in front of his captors), the newscast itself was sticking to prison abuse, prison abuse, prison abuse. Berg’s death was in revenge to the Great Satan. NBC’s Richard Engel explained, “Berg, a 26-year-old from suburban Philadelphia, may not have understood what the militants were saying in Arabic, the reason why they were about to execute him: revenge for what the militants call the Satanic degradation of Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison.”

On May 12, NBC’s Fred Francis reported, “In Amman, Jordan, and most Arab capitals, the stories of the abused prisoners got far more coverage than the horrific slaying of Berg.” The same was true in America.

Two nights before in a story on “Arab street” reaction to Abu Ghraib, Francis really underlined the willingness to sling vile accusations at America under Bush: “In Cairo, anti-U.S. sentiment is so strong many here see no difference here between the actions of Saddam Hussein and George Bush....One Arab businessman [said], ‘That is not Jeffersonian democracy. It’s more like a lesson from Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf.’”