Prime Time For the President

President Bush's speech from Fort Bragg aired on all the major broadcast networks, a bit of a surprise.
President Bush's speech from Fort Bragg aired on all the major broadcast networks, a bit of a surprise. (By Larry Downing -- Reuters)
By Tom Shales
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Although President Bush's speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., was scheduled to last about 30 minutes, CNN anchor Paula Zahn told viewers last night it would "no doubt" run longer because of "interruptions by the supportive crowd" of men and women in uniform.

Well, yes and no. The speech -- a relatively brief status report on the war in Iraq -- may have run a tiny bit longer than was announced, but there was only one interruption from the "supportive crowd." In fact, since the military men and women were technically at attention, noted anchor Brian Williams of NBC News, they didn't even applaud when Bush walked onstage to deliver the address.

The sole supportive interruption followed a sequence in which Bush built to the line, "We will stay in the fight until the fight is won." NBC's Kelly O'Connell, reporting from Fort Bragg, told Williams afterward that the applause appeared to have been "triggered by members of the president's advance team" and that once they began clapping, the soldiers joined in.

Wolf Blitzer, co-anchoring with Zahn on CNN, told viewers there were"no rah-rah hooahs from this group," but no one had said there would be.

Bush's speech aired on all the major broadcast networks, something of a surprise since as of mid-afternoon yesterday, neither NBC nor CBS had plans to cover it. They felt, correctly, that the speech contained nothing new or newsy and that it didn't merit a half-hour or more of prime time. But something changed as the day wore on, and Bush showed up on NBC and CBS as well as on ABC and the various cable news networks that previously had announced they would cover the speech.

In a time when some polls show the popularity of the news media to be even lower than the approval rating for Bush's conduct of the war, the managements of the networks may have feared hostile reaction if they didn't air the speech live. Political conservatives keep up a steady drumbeat of hostility against the media, something the Bush administration does nothing to discourage. Refusing to air the speech probably would have led to unpleasantness -- or at the least given the new subculture of bellicose bloggers another alleged media conspiracy to shriek about.

This was not a major speech by Bush, nor was it particularly well delivered until the end, when he seemed to be straining to hold back his emotions as he spoke of the U.S. troops fighting and dying in Iraq. He referred several times to violent insurgents who stage daily sneak attacks -- calling them "ruthless killers," among other things -- but at the end of the speech said, "They are no match for the men and women of the United States military."

Bush's voice seemed to crack as he spoke those final words. Now the crowd did applaud, but they weren't interrupting the speech, because it was over.

Earlier Bush tried to make it sound as if there were new ideas in the speech. He mentioned three initiatives designed to make the Iraqis more a part of the war, among them "partnering coalition units with Iraqi units" in combat situations. "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush promised, but he rejected setting a deadline for U.S. withdrawal because, he said, it would "send the wrong message" to the Iraqis, to U.S. troops who have fought or are now fighting the war, and to the enemy, who could be expected to just "wait us out" if a date for withdrawal were made public.

The president, wearing one of those baby-blue ties that he favors, made a media reference during the speech, saying the insurgents in Iraq "take innocent lives and create chaos for the cameras" to capture.

Having made the decision to carry the speech, NBC and CBS could hardly then come on the air and say it wasn't important. So, whatever they thought, anchors and reporters treated the speech as a news event. ABC, with Charles Gibson anchoring, and NBC both stayed on the air afterward for discussion. MSNBC, enterprisingly enough, did an impromptu town meeting on the speech from a Baptist church in Nashville, having already scheduled a special edition of the Chris Matthews "Hardball" show from that location to discuss, among other things, politics and religion.

Matthews led a post-speech discussion that included assembled experts, most of whom leaned to the right or far right, and an audience made up largely of military families. Matthews got giggles from the audience when he asked one soldier's wife about "IUDs" being used by terrorists in Iraq. He quickly corrected himself; he meant IEDs, he said -- "improvised explosive devices."

Two soldiers' wives interviewed said they were prepared for the war to last 10 or 12 years, which was more alarming than Matthews's tiny gaffe.

CBS was the first network to rush away from the speech. Its coverage, passively anchored by Bob Schieffer, ended abruptly so the network could return to regular commercial programming: a sitcom rerun. CBS boss Les Moonves is no friend to the news division, so it is not surprising that CBS hotfooted it. There was a time when it would have been able to boast of the most extensive and thorough coverage of such an event. That time is sadly over.

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