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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Iraq, The Morning After

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2005; 9:27 AM

Condi Rice got out in front on this one. "Better than expected" was her verdict.

President Bush went before the cameras hours later to praise the Iraqi elections.

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Who won, and how many Sunnis voted, and what the outcome means for the American military presence there, are questions for another day. The spinning of the elections was under way.

I'll say one thing: You had to admire those Iraqis who, in the face of terrorist threats, were not only brave enough to vote, but to explain why they had voted in front of American television cameras. A purple finger (from election ink) became a digit of honor.

At the same time, television got carried away at times. Anchors kept repeating an Iraqi official's estimate of a 72 percent turnout, though anyone with half a brain -- including some skeptical correspondents -- could see that was overly optimistic. (Shades of American exit polls!) But there it was in the "lower thirds" of every cable channel.

In the marathon of yesterday's coverage, there were no pictures of the attacks on the 45 Iraqis who were killed, or the British C-130 that crashed. So the emphasis was on the upbeat.

What does the great American media establishment make of the proceedings this morning?

The New York Times is exultant from Baghdad:

"Nobody among the hundreds of voters thronging one Baghdad polling station on Sunday could remember anything remotely like it, not even those old enough to have taken part in Iraq's last partly free elections more than 50 years ago, before the assassination of King Faisal II began a spiraling descent into tyranny.

"The scene was suffused with the sense of civic spirit that has seemed, so often in America's 22 months here, like a missing link in the plan to build democracy in Iraq. Gone, for this day at least, was the suspicion that 24 years of bludgeoning under Saddam Hussein had bred a disabling passivity among the country's 28 million people, an unwillingness, among many, to become committed partners in fashioning their own freedoms."

The Los Angeles Times looks ahead:

"Today Iraqis are summoning their courage and casting their ballots in a bold act of suffrage. But it remains unclear whether their bravery will put Iraq on the road to democracy, much less whether the election heralds a new era of participatory government in the Middle East as promised by the Bush administration.

"Iraqis and international observers alike are divided in their expectations of today's balloting. Some see the election as a superficial event that cannot bring the things that citizens want even more than a vote: security, water, electricity and economic improvement.

"Others view the election as illegitimate because U.S. troops remain on Iraqi soil and thus the vote, they say, is being held at the point of an American gun.

"Still others believe that it is the beginning of a grand march that will lead to a fully democratic society. Indeed, there are real signs of the beginnings of a society in which opposing views are tolerated in a way that is rare in the region and was unheard of under Saddam Hussein."

Every newspaper I looked at has a lead like this one in the Boston Globe, which shows the value of getting the commander-in-chief out there early:

"President Bush congratulated Iraqis yesterday on what he called the 'resounding success' of their election, and signaled that he saw the vote as a victory for his larger vision of bringing democracy to the Arab world. . . .

"After a week of downplaying expectations, senior Bush administration officials reveled in the barrage of glowing news reports of Iraqis turning out in large numbers, despite death threats and hastily prepared polling stations, and news of relatively few violent attacks across the country."

The pattern is that the stories that focus on what happened yesterday are extremely upbeat; those that examine the challenges ahead, like this USA Today analysis, are more sober:

"A lot about Sunday's vote was predictable: Insurgents launched a wave of attacks; turnout in Sunni Muslim areas was light; Shiite Muslims and Kurds came out in force.

"But what's harder to foresee now is how a new government, even one with enthusiastic voter support, can tackle a daunting agenda that must be carried out before Iraq can be stable, self-sufficient and secure.

"The new government must:

"

• Bridge the dangerous ethnic and religious divides feeding the bloody, Sunni-led insurgency.

"

• Get more U.S.-trained police, national guardsmen and army troops into position to battle insurgents and relieve U.S. forces of responsibility for security.

"

• Boost momentum for the slow, U.S.-funded reconstruction effort by restoring electricity service, running water and oil deliveries. Iraq is still struggling with power, fuel and water shortages, as well as insufficient output from its rich oil reserves, due in large part to insurgent sabotage."

Slate's Fred Kaplan is, as they say, cautiously optimistic:

"Few sights are more stirring than the televised images of Iraqi citizens risking their lives to vote in their country's first election in a half-century, kissing the ballot boxes, dancing in the streets, and declaring their hopes for a new day of democracy.

"And yet, the challenges and uncertainties that seemed so daunting last week -- about Iraq's security, society, and governance -- are unlikely to turn less daunting next week, next month, or the month after.

"Yes, as President Bush said in his address, the Iraqi people showed the world they want freedom. But this has never been in doubt. The real questions of democracy are what people want to do with that freedom, whether their contesting desires and interests can be mediated by a political order, and whether they view that political order as legitimate. Voting for leaders is a vital but very early step in this process."

Andrew Sullivan is less optimistic:

"I don't want to be excitable, but aren't you feeling euphoric? It's almost a classic tale of good defeating evil. We always needed the Iraqi people to seize freedom for themselves. Given the chance, they have. This is their victory, made possible by those amazing Western troops. This day eclipses -- although, alas, it cannot undo -- any errors we have made. Only freedom can defeat terror. Today, freedom won."

The Wall Street Journal has a nice roundup of Iraqi bloggers.

NBC's new anchor, Brian Williams, is something of a Rush fan, according to an interview with C-SPAN's Brian Williams picked up by Salon:

LAMB: I mean, how do you -- so much the conservative media criticize anchors living in New York City and in Connecticut for being isolated and never paying attention to their thought. How do you -- do you ever listen to the Limbaugh show or any of that stuff?

"WILLIAMS: Oh, often, often, and I'm one of the few in a very select group that Rush has allowed on when I've called in from the car. I do listen to Rush. I listen to it from a radio in my office or depending on my day, if I'm in the car, I will listen to Rush and he will tell you I've been listening for years. I think it's my duty to listen to Rush. I think Rush has actually yet to get the credit he is due because his audience for so many years felt they were in the wilderness of this country. No one was talking to them. They would look at mainstream media and they'd hear sentences like the following: 'Conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich today accused Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. . . . '

"Well, what's wrong with that sentence? My friend Brit Hume -- we covered the White House together, always would call reporters on this. Where's the appellation for Ted Kennedy in that sentence, you members of the perhaps unintentionally liberal media? Why aren't you calling Kennedy something if you're going to label Newt Gingrich a conservative firebrand? That's what Rush did. Rush said to millions of Americans, you have a home. Come with me. For three hours a day you can listen and hear the likeminded calling in from across the country and I'll read to you things perhaps you didn't see that are out there. I think Rush gave birth to the Fox news channel. I think Rush helped to give birth to a movement. I think he played his part in the contract with America. So I hope he gets his due as a broadcaster."

And now, bringing up the rear, today's print column:

When Rick Kaplan was named president of MSNBC a year ago, many analysts expected the towering television executive to start throwing his weight around.

Instead, he has moved incrementally and quietly, so quietly that the normally bombastic Kaplan has turned down virtually all interview requests. While he is putting together a couple of new shows -- including a daytime program with Ron Reagan Jr. and Monica Crowley, a former personal assistant to Richard Nixon hired from Fox -- colleagues say Kaplan's main achievement has been in boosting morale and forging a tighter partnership with NBC News.

"Rick came in and got the stench out," says Phil Griffin, MSNBC's vice president for prime time, referring to the constant turmoil of the past. "Yeah, he's demanding. But there were rumors when he first came over here and everyone Googled him and all these outrageous things that were said about him. I haven't quite seen that guy."

Other staffers, however, say Kaplan has accomplished little beyond tinkering. Some insiders say he stumbled after the South Asian tsunami by going on vacation without an aggressive plan for live coverage, so that days later the network was airing Deborah Norville reruns on obesity, alternative medicine and surrogate mothers. (MSNBC defends the tsunami coverage as adequate.) The third-place cable news network had gone through a dizzying array of personas and personalities (John Hockenberry, Alan Keyes, Phil Donahue, Jesse Ventura, Laura Ingraham, Curtis Sliwa, Michael Savage, "Buchanan & Press," "The News With Brian Williams," and later, John Seigenthaler) by the time Kaplan arrived. Only recently has Kaplan begun making his mark, luring conservative commentator Tucker Carlson from CNN with the goal of having him replace Norville.

The 6-foot-7 Kaplan has ordered each program to write a mission statement and has regularly questioned whether its segments were furthering those goals. He staged MSNBC's convention coverage at outdoor plazas, and when GOP keynoter Zell Miller angrily challenged Chris Matthews to a duel, Kaplan told the "Hardball" host through his earpiece to stay calm and "not give him the duel he may have wanted. . . . I've never seen such passion in a guy," Matthews says of Kaplan.

Before Election Night, Kaplan spent days drilling Matthews with flashcards so he could instantly react when projections had to be made. And he barred any pre-scripted game plan, frustrating correspondents who wanted to know what their role would be. Kaplan has also launched blogs by his anchors and gotten more cable promotion on NBC News shows.

MSNBC, which has a news alliance with The Washington Post, is at a disadvantage because it has few reporters, relying instead on NBC's staff. But Kaplan has persuaded such NBC stars as Andrea Mitchell, Jim Miklaszewski and David Gregory to make more appearances or do expanded versions of their broadcast pieces. On Inauguration Day, Brian Williams and Tim Russert appeared after finishing their NBC coverage, and Williams reported from Bagdad after yesterday's elections.

Kaplan is also moving "Imus in the Morning" next week from its Queens radio studio to the network's Secaucus, N.J., headquarters.

"Countdown" anchor Keith Olbermann says former MSNBC chief Eric Sorenson "didn't get out of his office a lot. Rick's in the makeup room, the control room, on the set. I saw him more in the first week than I saw Eric in the preceding year."

Olbermann says Kaplan suggested that the taped opening for "Countdown" be shorter and punchier, but changed his mind after a week-long effort. The message, says Olbermann: "You can talk me out of bad ideas."

One much-touted change is to offer four new angles each hour on the day's top story rather than what MSNBC calls "recycled" headlines. Kaplan led classes on the new 15-minute format with groups of staffers. "The idea was not to come in here and revolutionize the place because we know that doesn't work," Griffin says.

Mark Effron, vice president for daytime, says Kaplan restored some jobs that Effron had proposed cutting for budgetary reasons. "There's much less of a feeling of being a stepchild," Effron says.

Others say Kaplan can be a micromanager. He insisted that each program put up corkboards with index cards about planned segments so he could see them as he strolled around and once got angry when a board was moved, staffers say. And he often dominates meetings, they say, sometimes giving off smartest-guy-in-the-room vibes.

Some critics question whether MSNBC is veering to the right by scheduling consecutive hours hosted by Carlson and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough. "They've been so outflanked by Fox, so out-promoted by Fox, they're trying to be like Fox by going with a heavy conservative lineup," liberal radio host Ed Schultz told listeners.

After years of running ABC's "Nightline," "PrimeTime Live" and "World News Tonight," Kaplan is at heart a producer. In the late '90s he was president of CNN, where he sometimes drew flak for being a personal friend of Bill Clinton's and was tarnished by the retracted story alleging American use of nerve gas during the Vietnam War. Kaplan returned to ABC after being ousted in the management shakeup that followed America Online's 2000 takeover of CNN parent Time Warner.

For the 10 months last year after Kaplan took over, MSNBC's ratings were down 23 percent, to an average of 250,000 viewers. But all the cable networks were down from the audiences attracted by the Iraq war and its aftermath -- Fox News Channel by 11 percent, to 937,000, and CNN by 28 percent, to 486,000. MSNBC prefers to highlight a 60 percent jump in prime-time viewers in the last quarter of 2004 (to 470,000), compared with a 15 percent jump for CNN (to 1,041,000) and a 77 percent rise for Fox (to 2.6 million).

Can that change? Kaplan is unveiling two new weekend shows this week -- "MSNBC at the Movies" and "Entertainment Hot List" -- and is said to be high on the Reagan-Crowley program, which will air twice during the afternoon. So why isn't Kaplan talking to the press? Maybe he's waiting until he has more to brag about.

Returning Fire

CBS News executives are furious at former correspondent Tom Fenton over his forthcoming book accusing his longtime employer, and the other networks, of skimping on foreign coverage.

As reported last week, Fenton says in "Bad News" that the "CBS Evening News" cut from his 1997 report from Saudi Arabia any mention of Osama bin Laden on grounds that the story had "too many foreign names."

But, as CBS News Senior Vice President Marcy McGinnis points out, the network did air two Fenton pieces the following month that included the passages on bin Laden. Fenton says that after the evening news killed the material he "snuck it into a Sunday morning piece" that re-aired on the next day's morning show -- and promises to clarify the situation in his book.

Jeff Fager, who then produced the evening news and is now executive producer of "60 Minutes," denies Fenton's charge about "too many foreign names" and is "appalled" by his accusation that "navel-gazing executives" slighted foreign news, McGinnis says. Fager created a segment called "Assignment" for which foreign correspondents could go anywhere. And contrary to the book, McGinnis says, CBS reporters, including Fenton, identified the Kurds as victims of Iraqi attacks.

As for Fenton's charge that the London bureau just "packages" news gathered by others, McGinnis says: "It is insulting to the many CBS reporters, photographers, producers, editors and technicians who travel all over the world reporting, producing, shooting, editing and transmitting stories, at great expense, to our viewers back home. Tom's former colleagues who are currently risking their lives in Iraq, who spend weeks in Indonesia and Sri Lanka reporting on the tsunami . . ., will be amazed and disgusted at Tom's portrayal of their work."

Says Fenton of his book: "It's a polemic, an argument for more news and better news."

Sleeping Where You Eat

Finally, retiring New York Times scribe Bernard Weinraub, who married Sony Pictures chairman Amy Pascal after hitting Hollywood, has some regrets:

"Clearly, I stayed too long on my beat, clinging to a notion that I could sidestep conflicts of interest by avoiding direct coverage of Sony, and learning too late why wiser heads counsel against even the appearance of conflict. But my marriage, and some of the events that tumbled out of it, also taught me something about the ferocity of a culture in which the players can be best friends one day and savage you the next."


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