Grading TV's War News
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While it only lasted about three weeks, the second Gulf War was an unqualified success. But what about TV coverage of the war? While the media covered many aspects of the war fairly well — reports from embedded journalists were refreshingly factual and were mostly devoid of commentary — television’s war news was plagued by the same problems detected during previous conflicts: too little skepticism of enemy propaganda, too much mindless negativism about America’s military prospects, and a reluctance on the part of most networks to challenge the premises of the anti-war movement or expose its radical agenda.
Media Research Center analysts watched the war on ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN and the Fox News Channel. Here are their grades for each network’s performance, followed by ratings for the best and worst network anchors, Baghdad reporters and embedded correspondents:
• Grading the Networks: Fox News Channel (B) and CBS News (B-) received the best grades for war coverage that correctly portrayed the U.S. military effort as successful. FNC aided viewers by rejecting the standard liberal idea that objective war news requires an indifference to whether America succeeds or fails. Day after day, CBS’s Pentagon reporter David Martin gave the most accurate overview of the war’s progress, although others at CBS, such as Lesley Stahl, exhibited a tendency for unwarranted second-guessing. FNC’s final grade suffered after Geraldo Rivera disclosed the location and mission of the 101st Airborne with whom he’d been traveling.
In contrast, ABC received a near-failing grade (D-) for knee-jerk negativism that played up Iraqi claims of civilian suffering, hyped American military difficulties and indulged anti-war protesters with free air time. One ABC reporter (Chris Cuomo) even promoted anti-war leftists as “prescient indicators of the national mood,” even though polls showed most Americans supported the war.
Many of the same correspondents appeared on both NBC and MSNBC, so the networks were graded as a team (C+). Both generally offered solid, factual coverage, especially from their strong embedded reporters, but their anchors weren’t as strong as those on FNC and CBS, and both were marred by their use of Peter Arnett as a Baghdad reporter. Like ABC, CNN’s coverage (C+) was tainted by unwarranted negativity and inordinate amount of coverage of anti-war groups, although these weaknesses were offset by a stronger pool of embedded reporters and more skeptical coverage of the Iraqi regime.
• Grading the Anchors: All of the network anchors received high grades except for the highly tendentious Peter Jennings, who played up any defeatist angle he could find. Five days before Baghdad fell, Pentagon reporter John McWethy warned, “This could be, Peter, a long war.” Jennings felt vindication: “As many people had anticipated.”
Dan Rather’s impressions of a successful U.S. drive to Baghdad were more accurate than Jennings’s pessimism, while NBC’s Tom Brokaw, ever the steady hand, usually struck a middle ground between the two. On cable, CNN’s daytime anchor Wolf Blitzer was solid and fair; nighttime anchor Aaron Brown was more equivocal and self-conscious. On the war’s third day, MSNBC’s Brian Williams unfortunately compared our precision bombing with the citywide destruction wrought by the Allied bombing of Dresden in World War II, but he rejected the same analogy in a later report. Fox’s Brit Hume provided an excellent one-hour summary of the war each night, while Shepard Smith kept the spotlight on the battlefield and Fox’s embedded correspondents.
• Embedded Reporters: These reporters excelled when they acted as the viewers’ eyes and ears in Iraq. NBC’s David Bloom, in his innovative Bloommobile, was the star of the group, offering hours of riveting live coverage of the Third Infantry’s historic drive toward Baghdad, including a powerful sandstorm that turned day into night. CNN’s Walter Rodgers narrated hour upon hour of armored troop movements, often under enemy fire, without straying from his “just the facts” style, while FNC’s Greg Kelly provided gripping footage of the U.S. Army’s devastating first thrust into Baghdad.
On the other hand, ABC’s Ted Koppel spent his time pontificating as if he — not the vast military force that surrounded him — was the real star. “Forget the easy victories of the last twenty years; this war is more like the ones we knew before,” he announced at the end of Nightline on March 24. “Telling you if and when things are going badly for U.S. troops, enabling you to bear witness to the high cost of war, is the hard part of our job,” he promised viewers, “We’ll do our very best to give you the truth in the hope and the belief that you can handle it.”
• Baghdad Reporters: Until the Iraqi dictatorship ran away April 9, Baghdad-based reporters were controlled by the Ministry of Information. Given the impediments to accurate reporting, networks should have used such reporters sparingly. Instead, ABC gave a great deal of time to the uncorroborated stories of civilian suffering which freelancer Richard Engel reported. While he was still under the watchful eye of Iraqi minders, on the April 2 World News Tonight, Engel highlighted the claim that the U.S. had bombed a “maternity hospital.”
National Geographic Explorer’s Peter Arnett, who was heavily used by MSNBC and NBC before he was fired, was the most outrageously biased Baghdad reporter. On March 26, days before he went on Iraqi TV to bolster Saddam’s spin, Arnett twice told those watching NBC’s Today of Iraqi claims that the U.S. had used “cluster bombs” to kill dozens at a Baghdad marketplace, a claim later rebutted by NBC’s Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski. Arnett’s servile approach to the Iraqis was in stark contrast to the New York Times’s John Burns, who phoned in several reports to CBS. Burns did his best to expose the Iraqi propaganda.