As War Dragged On, Coverage Tone Weighed Heavily on Anchors

When NBC's Brian Williams was in Iraq, the picture he got was as muddled as ever. Still, he wondered how the war effort was ever going to succeed.
When NBC's Brian Williams was in Iraq, the picture he got was as muddled as ever. Still, he wondered how the war effort was ever going to succeed. (Nbc)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2007

This article is adapted from the book "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War" by Howard Kurtz, Free Press, New York, ©2007.

Charlie Gibson is a product of the Vietnam War era. When he was a television reporter in Lynchburg, Va., he had driven to Washington on weekends to march in antiwar demonstrations. And he had lost friends in that jungle war.

Now Gibson had friends whose sons were dying in Iraq. His thoughts kept returning to one central question: When you commit kids to war, what are they fighting for? What was the mission in Iraq? How could a family say that the war was worth little Johnny's well-being?

The ABC anchor was obsessed with this point. If you were president, and you decided to go to war, was there a calculus in your mind, that the goal was worth so many American lives? After all, your generals would tell you that X number were likely to die. What was the acceptable trade-off? Gibson's threshold would be one: Was the war worth one life?

As the U.S. occupation of Iraq stretched into its fourth bloody year, the media coverage was turning increasingly negative, and the three evening news anchors constantly agonized over how to deal with the conflict.

Their newscasts had become a nightly tableau of death and destruction, and whether that was an accurate picture of Iraq had become a matter of fierce political debate. Certainly the constant plague of suicide bombs, explosive devices, sniper fire and, occasionally, the massacre of large numbers of civilians played into television's need for dramatic events and arresting visuals. Certainly, by 2006 it was easier for the anchors and correspondents to offer a skeptical vision of the war, now that a majority of the country disapproved of the conflict, than in the heady days after the toppling of Saddam Hussein seemed to strike a blow for democracy in the Middle East. By training their powerful spotlight on the chaos gripping Iraq, the anchors were arguably contributing to the political downfall of a president who had seemed to be riding high when he won his second term.

Through the routine decisions of daily journalism -- how prominently to play a story, what pictures to use, what voices to include -- the newscasts were sending an unmistakable message. And the message was that George W. Bush's war was a debacle. Administration officials regularly complained about the coverage as unduly negative, but to little avail. Other news organizations chronicled the deteriorating situation as well, but with a combined 25 million viewers, the evening newscasts had the biggest megaphone.

Painful Images

When Brian Williams thought about Iraq, he thought about his visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He was tortured by these trips to comfort the veterans being treated there. It was hard to look at their wounds. He remembered one soldier who had five titanium pins sticking out of his toes. His heart ached for these brave men and women who had been to Iraq, on orders from their commander in chief.

For Williams, it all went back to Sept. 11, 2001. As a citizen, he thought on that fateful day, thank God that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell were on the team. How together we all seemed. There was something about the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that, in the eyes of the White House press corps, gave Bush a stature that could not be violated. And that was no accident. The administration's deft use of 9/11 against its critics had created an impenetrable shield. It was political magic.

Some people, the NBC anchor knew, believed that the administration was jonesing for a fight, exploiting Sept. 11 as an opportunity to launch a war in Iraq. Whatever the truth, he had to admire, in a clinical sort of way, the political management of the press during what came to be known as the war on terror. It was truly remarkable.

Williams did not enjoy looking back on the run-up to war, knowing what he knew now about the media's flawed performance. He did not want to look back on this period with the same sense of regret. He recognized how deeply the war had divided the country.

Every day, Williams asked the question: Did Baghdad correspondent Richard Engel have any news other than another 20 Iraqi civilians killed when an IED detonated, leaving the same smoking carcasses and pathetic scenes of loved ones crying? That, Williams felt, was the problem: The horrible had become utterly commonplace. To most Americans, he believed, the war could not be more ephemeral. It was half a world away, and it required no sacrifice by those who did not have a family member in the armed forces.

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