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ABC's Crusade Against "Arrogant" American Power

2. Channeling Iraqi Propaganda

While the White House was presented as a bull in a china shop, ABC often presented Saddam Hussein’s regime as... exactly the way Saddam wanted it presented. Reporting from Baghdad on January 21, Jennings told White House reporter Terry Moran, “it looks from here, maybe it looks from everywhere, that Mr. Bush is more and more determined to attack the Iraqis.” Jennings soon decided that “when Saddam Hussein looks out from here, he also sees many of America’s allies saying that President Bush is in too much of a hurry to go to war.”

That evening, the first few seconds of the network news displayed yet another contrast between the Big Three, with ABC coming in softest.

CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather began the show “Tonight’s headlines: Another terror attack on Americans in the Gulf.”

On NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw opened: “Showdown over Iraq: President Bush aims tough words at Saddam Hussein and also at U.S. allies who want more time.”

On ABC, Jennings began with the public-relations benefits for Saddam: “On World News Tonight this Tuesday, President Bush says there are no options left: Saddam Hussein is facing war the administration says it will go it alone if need be....An American killed in Kuwait: Anti-Americanism in the region may be a comfort to Saddam Hussein.” He not only claimed inaccurately that Bush would “go it alone,” the first words out of his mouth did not include “terrorism.” It was just “anti-Americanism” that made Saddam’s day.

But the real eye-opener that night came when the anchorman wrapped up with a celebration of Iraqi arts and letters: “For many years now, the United States and most Americans have looked at Iraq and tended to see only its dictator. But this a country with a very long history of, among other things, arts and letters. This week we were surprised to see several hundred artists and writers walking through the streets of Baghdad to say thank you to Saddam Hussein. He had just increased their monthly financial support. Cynical, you could argue with this particular time, but the state has always supported the arts, and some of the most creative people in the Arab world have always been Iraqis. And whatever they think about Saddam Hussein in the privacy of their homes, on this occasion they were praising his defense of the homeland in the face of American threats.”

Why would Jennings be “surprised” at Iraqi subjects being paraded before his eyes as their monthly checks arrived? And why would he do the Iraqi regime the favor of displaying this cynical parade as he dismissed its human props and “whatever they think...in the privacy of their homes”?

Tomorrow’s Lies Tonight. ABC even went the extra mile of anticipating Iraqi propaganda lines and advancing them before they could be concocted. After live coverage of the State of the Union address and the Democratic response on January 28, Jennings called on reporter Dan Harris in Baghdad who called President Bush’s charge that Iraq is not cooperating with inspectors “low hanging fruit” for them to dismiss:

“When the leadership of this country wakes up in a couple of hours, the sun is just coming up right now, I suspect they will latch on to many of the complaints we’ve heard from President Bush tonight. Most notably I think the low hanging fruit is this idea that they’re still hiding weapons of mass destruction. They’ll point out that the inspectors have been here for more than 60 days and have so far found nothing. I think you’ll also hear a reaction to this idea that President Bush put forward of liberating Iraq. Saddam Hussein was on TV a couple of hours ago saying the Americans want to enslave Iraq.”

This was one of those moments where viewers might wonder: If reporters truthfully despise being “stenographers to power,” how can they stand in Baghdad and not only act as stenographers for tyrants, but go so far as to compose their next set of talking points while they sleep? CBS and NBC coverage also featured reaction pieces from their reporters in Iraq, but CBS’s Elizabeth Palmer and NBC’s Ron Allen refrained from so generously relaying potential enemy propaganda lines. They focused on how Iraqi citizens may or may not hear what Bush said and how Iraq responded to the latest UN report.

“Human Shields.” Another Iraqi propaganda ploy was loosening its migration standards for so-called “human shields,” left-wing activists who pledged to stand in front of civilian targets and risk death to keep the war from happening. On the February 26 World News Tonight, Baghdad-based Dan Harris trumpteted the cause of one such American. “Ryan Clancy, a substitute English teacher from Milwaukee, became so convinced that a war with Iraq would be unjustified and unwise that he sold his stake in a local record store and came to Baghdad where he just moved into a food storage facility to act as a human shield....He says the goal of the human shields is to stop the war, or at the very least, to stop the U.S. from bombing sites vital to Iraqi civilians.” Harris allowed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested that placing innocent civilians around likely bombing targets is a war crime, but he also rebutted: “But human rights lawyers say if the Pentagon bombs places inhabited by human shields, that too would be a war crime.”

Harris toyed around with the obvious point: “The human shields themselves are facing a problem as well: how to avoid being tools of the Iraqi government, which is paying for their transportation and their housing, including stocked refrigerators.” He didn’t find a spokesman to expand on that little “problem,” but simply concluded with stenography for Ryan Clancy: “He says he’s not here to protect Saddam Hussein, just the Iraqi people.”

CBS and NBC both offered more skeptical coverage of these Saddam-assisted publicity stunt specialists. The night before Harris’s report, Dan Rather briefly profiled Ryan Clancy on CBS Evening News, mentioning “he’s left one troubled family behind.” While his mother was scared but proud, Clancy said his father “accused me of siding with the enemy and pretty much called me a terrorist.” The next night, as Harris puffed Clancy on ABC, CBS reporter David Martin suggested “Saddam is bringing in anti-war activists to serve as human shields and placing more and more military equipment near religious and civilian targets” to “complicate American battle plans.”

NBC Nightly News didn’t profile “shields” until March 4, but they also had a more balanced story than ABC. Reporter Kevin Tibbles found: “There are about fifty Americans already in Iraq, representing various groups and religious organizations working to prevent war. But to many other Americans, acting as a human shield is both foolish and unpatriotic.” Tibbles balanced that critical viewpoint from David Riddell, whose brother Sean is a Marine, with rebuttals from his aunt Michele Riddell, who is a “human shield.”

Jovial Saddam, Terrified Kids. On February 28, ABC’s Dan Harris created another Baghdad blast of anti-war hype, underlining how a U.S. invasion will kill children and cause massive miscarriages. He began by emphasizing the regime’s focus on normality. As viewers saw video of a couple getting married and crowded streets with people out shopping, Harris reported over video of Saddam and his soldiers: “Even from Saddam Hussein there’s a measure of public levity...On Iraqi TV recently one of his soldiers told him a joke, something about a married couple. ‘That’s a good one,’ said the President.”

Harris then shifted to growing anxiety: “The government has given people six months worth of food rations. People are digging wells in their backyards, and hospitals, including this maternity hospital, are bracing for war.” A nurse then predicted in English: “For sure there’ll be premature labors and for sure there’ll be high percentage of miscarriages, for sure it will be like that.” Then Harris shifted to “Iraq’s youngest citizens,” as interviewed by Norwegian child psychologist and “peace” activist Magne Raundalen. Dr. Raundalen asked children: “If there was an attack, what would that mean?” Harris concluded the story by relaying one child’s answer: “‘They will attack us by airplanes and missiles and guns,’ he says. His brother says ‘a great number of people, especially children, will die.’”

Even as the time for war drew near in March, ABC kept pressing the Iraqi talking points about their great compliance efforts, as if they came straight from Saddam stooge Tariq Aziz. Jennings set up a March 4 story from Dan Harris in Baghdad: “In Iraq today, while the Iraqis continue to comply with the UN weapons inspectors, the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, was attacking the United States in a public letter to Iraqis.”