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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)

Couric, in particular, appeared to openly yearn for a pullout. One night she spoke of "opposition to the war in Iraq growing and no end in sight." And at times she came close to describing the situation as hopeless: "The day everyone is hoping for, the day American forces can finally come home from Iraq, seems more and more elusive."

The anchors looked for ways to dramatize the grim statistics. Williams, noting "the bloodshed that has become an all-too-common fact of life there for so many people," highlighted a report on how Baghdad coffinmakers could not keep up with demand. Gibson, reporting a United Nations finding on Iraqi casualties in July and August, tried to bring the impact home: "And just to put the 6,600 Iraqi deaths over the past two months in perspective -- if the U.S. lost an equivalent percentage of its population, that would represent 75,000 American dead."

War Over Words

As the carnage in Iraq continued to mount, Brian Williams was more than ready to declare civil war.

For months, Williams and the reporters and analysts on "NBC Nightly News" had been talking about whether Iraq was sliding toward all-out ethnic violence. Robert Wright had become frustrated with all the on-air hedging. The network president decided to circulate an e-mail to the news division, asking whether the time had come to use the term that everyone had been dancing around.

For Steve Capus, the NBC News chief, the final straw came on Thanksgiving Day 2006, when more than 200 Shiites in the slums of Sadr City were killed in a coordinated wave of car bombings, missiles and mortar attacks. The phrase "sectarian violence" no longer seemed to capture the magnitude of the warfare. Capus asked that the question be put to a range of experts.

Jeff Zucker, who ran NBC's television operations, had been following the debate. He sent a note to Alex Wallace, Capus's deputy: Whatever happened to that discussion about civil war? Are you guys going to do it?

Williams agreed that the network had to decide whether it was time to drop the qualifiers. The day after Thanksgiving, he asked Wallace: "When will we call this thing what it is?"

Williams suggested a list of experts for their consultations: Barry McCaffrey, the retired general and NBC analyst, who was already using the terminology, and another retired general and NBC consultant, Wayne Downing. Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Richard Norton Smith. Richard Engel, who argued that the Arab media had regarded the conflict as a civil war for some time. There were calls back and forth over the weekend.

On Sunday, Wallace sent Capus an e-mail outlining the consensus that they should change their on-air language. Capus cautioned that they had to explain their decision to the viewers. They did not have editor's notes, as newspapers did, and couldn't start using the term out of the blue. Under the plan, Matt Lauer would be the first to weigh in on "Today."

Dan Bartlett's BlackBerry began to ping on Sunday night with requests for comment from NBC. The White House counselor decided there was no percentage in picking a fight over terminology.

On Monday morning, Lauer made the announcement in rather portentous fashion. "For months now, the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war," and NBC had "hesitated" to challenge that assertion. "But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted."

This stirred up quite a fuss -- among White House correspondents, on talk radio, on the blogs -- and MSNBC spent much of the day ginning up a debate over its use of the term.

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