Red, White, and Partisan

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

The Glory, and Then Invisibility, of Dissent

While a strong majority of the American people favored war in Iraq in early 2003, the networks were promoting war opponents. A major protest on January 18, 2003 drew 26 segments on ABC, CBS, and NBC, 14 of them before the rally began. (By contrast, a major rally against abortion four days later was ignored.) Anti-war protesters were portrayed as diverse and patriotic and religious.

2003-01-18-ABC-WNT-Sylveste“Braving frigid temperatures,” ABC’s Lisa Sylvester proclaimed on World News Tonight, “they traveled across the country – black and white, Democrat and Republican, young and old.” In a second January 18 story, ABC reporter Geoff Morrell followed the trip to DC by a doctor and his “honor student” daughter: “So they rode a bus all night from Asheville, North Carolina. On board were businessmen, soccer moms and military veterans –- all members of the same church.”

Terry Moran intoned from the anchor desk:”The scene was similar on the West Coast where anti-war protesters marched in San Francisco. Tens of thousands of people packed the city’s streets and, as in Washington, they called for the U.S. to resolve the crisis in Iraq peacefully. And there were anti-war demonstrations in dozens of cities around the world as well. Thousands of demonstrators blocked traffic as they marched in Syria’s capital, Damascus. In Tokyo, the scene was similar.” However, an AP story at the time pointed out it wasn’t all similar: “Not all protesters were pushing for peace: In the Syrian capital, Damascus, some people shouted, ‘Our beloved Saddam, strike Tel Aviv,’ a refrain from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.” But the “anti-war” crowds were presented as peaceful and newsworthy even when they favored Saddam Hussein.

The 9/11 Family Tilt. In 2004, the commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks wrapped up a high-profile series of public hearings in Washington. Throughout these hearings, the TV networks gave a forum to relatives of those who died that day, asking them to judge the hearings and the conduct of the participants.

An MRC review of interview segments on ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’s The Early Show and NBC’s Today from March 23 through April 15, 2004 found a slant against Bush. Nine guests, with a total of 20 appearances, were critics of the President, compared with only three interviews with two Bush supporters. (None of the relatives were neutral or ambiguous in their comments about the Bush administration’s supposed negligence.)

Neither ABC nor CBS featured any morning interviews with pro-Bush relatives, while NBC squeezed in two Bush backers: Jim Boyle, the father of a New York firefighter killed on 9/11, appeared twice on the Today show, while Deborah Burlingame, the sister of one of the pilots on American Airlines Flight 77, appeared once. But they were hardly alone in their views; Boyle was one of 40 9/11 relatives who signed a public letter praising Condoleezza Rice and rejecting the charge the President ignored obvious signs that the horrible terrorist attacks were coming.

But such views were minimized on the networks in favor of relatives who blamed the Bush administration for not thwarting the attacks. NBC’s Today hosted Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband died in the World Trade Center, four times in those three weeks. In the fall, she appeared with Democratic nominee John Kerry on the campaign trail.

Six other anti-Bush relatives appeared a total of seven times on Today during the same time period. ABC’s Good Morning America featured six interviews with relatives, all of whom were Bush critics, while CBS’s Early Show showcased three anti-Bush relatives who each appeared once.

Cindy Sheehan’s Evil-Bush Access. On their Saturday evening newscasts on August 6, 2005, ABC and CBS touted a tiny Cindy Sheehan protest outside Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch with just “a few dozen people,” allowing her to say Bush is enjoying his vacation while “I’m never going to be able to enjoy another vacation because he killed my son.” The networks saw no need for civility in dissent. On her website, Sheehan wildly proclaimed “overwhelming” evidence that Bush was a traitor: “George [Bush] and his indecent bandits traitorously had intelligence fabricated to fit their goal of invading Iraq.” She was not a radical with a very cynical view of government policy. The networks described her as a “Peace Mom” on a “peace vigil.”

Meanwhile, Sheehan was telling fellow leftists “Thank God for the Internet, or we wouldn’t know anything, and we would already be a fascist state.” She stated President Bush is an “evil maniac” who should “sign up his two little party-animal girls” for the war. Bush was the “biggest terrorist,” and was promoting the “cancer of Pax Americana” and “imperialism in the Middle East” with the help of other “war criminals.”

The networks piled on this story for weeks, while Bush stayed in Crawford on his vacation, skipping over the more wild-eyed, uncivil insults. Those might drained what they called her “moral authority.” After the weekend, ABC morning host Charles Gibson promoted this segment: “Standing her ground. She lost her son in Iraq, she opposes the war, now she’s camped out at President Bush’s ranch and says she won’t leave until he meets with her. An exclusive interview on Good Morning America.” CBS anchor Bob Schieffer wondered, “We had this mother of a soldier who was killed in Iraq sort of camping out there down in Crawford....I wonder why the President doesn’t meet with her?”

The networks even touted their own hype. ABC’s Geoff Morrell marked a week of stories by adding another story: “Over the last seven days, this one-woman protest has gone from being a roadside distraction to a potential political problem for the President. In the 11 days Mr. Bush has been on vacation, at least 37 troops have been killed in Iraq. And as the bloodshed continues, his approval ratings are falling.” On August 17, CBS reporter Bill Plante oozed: “Out of nowhere, Cindy Sheehan has suddenly become the red-hot symbol of opposition to the war....By camping out on the road to President Bush’s ranch, Sheehan, in just ten days, has become a magnet for the anti-war movement.” By August 22, ABC was asking on screen: “Can Anti-War Moms Stop Bush?”


But in 1998, a few weeks after Clinton admitted sex with Monica Lewinsky, he went to his first partisan pep rally in Worcester, Massachusetts. ABC and CBS did full stories, and the streets outside the hall were filled with protesters demanding Clinton resign, but ABC and CBS failed to interview them.

Even Cindy Sheehan, when she showed up at Martha’s Vineyard to protest President Obama in 2009, could not find any publicity from ABC, CBS, or NBC. Only Bret Baier of Fox News noted on September 10, 2010 that Sheehan was in Manhattan proclaiming “I am a 9/11 truther. We just don’t know – I don’t know has far inside it went. But, you know, I’m sure Dick Cheney had something to do with it.” Baier added Sheehan claimed Obama was doing everything he can to “protect the criminals of the Bush regime.” The other networks seemed to forget her “moral authority.”

ABC anchor Charles Gibson clearly had a change of heart, telling Don Wade of WLS Radio in Chicago that Sheehan should pack it in: “Anybody who has given a son to this country has made an enormous sacrifice, and you have to be sympathetic. But enough already.”

Apparently, a “peace” protest isn’t patriotic when the President’s not a Republican.