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As War Dragged On, Coverage Tone Weighed Heavily on Anchors

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.

Williams had his own private intelligence channel on the war. He had an e-mail relationship with a number of military men -- some still in the war zone, some who had returned from the region -- and they were candid about the conflict in a way that top generals were not. These informants alerted him to a wide range of problems with IEDs, armor and morale. But they never spoke on the phone, which would be too dangerous, since they were barred from talking to journalists. Private e-mail was the only safe form of communication.

Under Pressure

Katie Couric had always felt uncomfortable with the war, and that sometimes showed in the way she framed the story. When Bush had been marshaling support for the invasion, she felt, the country seemed to be swept up in a patriotic furor and a palpable sense of fear. There was a rush to war, no question about it. The CBS anchor could never quite figure out how Iraq had become Public Enemy No. 1, how the United States had wound up making many of the same mistakes as in Vietnam. She was happy, like most people, when the war initially seemed to be going well. Nobody wanted to see all these young kids getting killed. But the frenzied march to war had been bolstered by a reluctance to question the administration after 9/11.

She had firsthand experience with what she considered the chilling effect on the media. Two months before the 2004 election, when she was still at NBC's "Today" show, Couric had asked Condoleezza Rice whether she agreed with Vice President Cheney's declaration that the country would be at greater risk for terrorist attacks if John Kerry won the White House. Rice sidestepped the question, saying that any president had to fight aggressively against terrorism.

Couric interrupted and asked the question again. Would a Kerry victory put America at greater risk? Rice ducked again, saying that the issue should not be personalized.

Soon afterward, Couric got an e-mail from Robert Wright, the NBC president. He was forwarding a note from an Atlanta woman who complained that Couric had been too confrontational with Rice.

What was the message here? Couric felt that Wright must be telling her to back off. She wrote him a note, saying that she tried to be persistent and elicit good answers in all her interviews, regardless of the political views of her guests. If Wright had a problem with that, she would like to discuss it with him personally. Wright wrote back that such protest letters usually came in batches, but that he had passed along this one because it seemed different.

Couric felt there was a subtle, insidious pressure to toe the party line, and you bucked that at your peril. She wanted to believe that her NBC colleagues were partners in the search for truth, and no longer felt that was the case. She knew that the corporate management viewed her as an out-and-out liberal. When she ran into Jack Welch, the General Electric chairman, he would sometimes say that they had never seen eye to eye politically. If you weren't rah rah rah for the Bush administration, and the war, you were considered unpatriotic, even treasonous.

Couric believed that many viewers were now suffering from Iraq fatigue. She tried not to lead with the conflict every night, unless there were significant developments. And when the day's Iraq events were too big to ignore, Couric made clear -- in starker terms than the other anchors -- her disgust with the whole enterprise. One night she led her CBS newscast, "With each death, with every passing day, so many of us ask, 'Is there any way out of this nightmare?' "

Getting Graphic

By the fall of 2006, an urgent tone began creeping into the anchors' coverage of Iraq. No longer were they describing the war as a difficult battle whose outcome was in doubt, or depicting the military struggle as part of a larger effort to rebuild the battered country. Now it was all about the violence, and they were framing the situation as an unmitigated mess. The anchors were giving real weight to what had once seemed unmentionable, the possibility that the United States might have to pull out.

They were, to be sure, reflecting the rapid erosion of support for the war, and a level of killing and chaos that seemed to grow worse by the day. But given their huge platform, they were also shaping public sentiment, reinforcing the notion that nearly four years after the invasion, the situation was all but lost.

"In plain English," Brian Williams said, "this has been a tough week to be hopeful about the prospects for victory in Iraq."

Charlie Gibson spoke of a "killing spree," a "horrific surge in religious violence, Iraqis killing Iraqis in unprecedented numbers." After correspondent Terry McCarthy reported that 50 to 60 bodies were turning up each day, Gibson could not remain silent. "Sobering to see people simply driving by a body in the streets," he said. "But such is life in Baghdad today."

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.

It seemed a self-conscious attempt to replicate the moment in 1968 when Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam and pronounced the war a stalemate. But that verdict from America's most trusted man, in an era when a television anchor could hold that designation, was based on firsthand reporting, while NBC's maneuver was simply a linguistic confirmation of what most Americans already believed to be the case.

Williams felt that the news division should not have treated it as a major policy pronouncement. They often made changes to the network stylebook -- and had long ago stopped using phrases like "homosexual lifestyle" and "pro-life" -- without any fanfare. By trumpeting the move, Williams believed, they had made themselves the center of attention and invited the criticism that followed.

Fateful Decision

Williams spent the next few months wrestling with a personal question: Should he return to Iraq for the first time since the invasion, when a sandstorm had grounded his helicopter for three days? He was acutely conscious of the risks involved, and yet felt guilty about staying away. Iraq was the story of our time, it led the newscast night after night, and Williams felt a responsibility to touch it and feel it and not just observe from a safe distance.

There had been long conversations with his wife, Jane, in the den of their Connecticut home. For one year after their friend Bob Woodruff, the ABC anchor, had been injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, Jane Williams could not imagine her husband returning there. Yes, the story was crucial to the national dialogue, but was any job, any assignment worth the destruction of a human life?

Jane reacted, on one level, like the television producer she had once been. She could not live her life paralyzed by fear. "I think you need to go to Iraq sooner rather than later," she said. But Jane also leveled with her husband about her emotional reaction. This is insane, she said; look at what happened to Bob Woodruff.

"I reserve the right to be sad that you're walking out the door," Jane said.

The anchor's toughest sales job was with his two teenagers. "I'm going to be heavily guarded, I'm not going to do anything stupid, and I will be back," he assured them.

When Williams was in Iraq, the picture he got was as muddled as ever. Williams told friends that if they wanted to find good news in Iraq, he could show them plenty of examples. And if they wanted proof that Iraq was a lost cause, he could provide considerable evidence of that as well. Still, when he looked at the big picture, he wondered how the war effort was ever going to succeed.

Katie Couric, too, came back with a mixed verdict. As the single mother of two daughters, she had thought long and hard about whether it was responsible for her to make the trip. She talked it over with her teenagers and with her parents, but decided that she felt comfortable with CBS's security arrangements. Couric saw many signs of the frustrating stalemate in a war in which she felt the administration had made so many mistakes, but also concluded that, in some areas of Iraq, the situation was improving.

Charlie Gibson had not been to Iraq in three years and felt that he should go back, to get a better feel for the situation. Some generals had invited him to make the trip and promised that the military would keep him safe. He brought it up at a lunch with ABC News President David Westin.

"Not on my life are you going," Westin said. "Not with my track record." After what happened to Woodruff, Westin felt that he couldn't take the risk of losing another anchor.

Gibson wished that he could just sneak off to Iraq on his own. The problem, even if Westin were to acquiesce, was that the press would make the mere fact of his trip a bigger story than any reporting he was able to carry out. And Gibson had no desire to go to Baghdad as a PR stunt, not to wander into a dangerous a war whose mission, at least to him, was still not clear.

This article is adapted from "Reality Show," which is based on two years of research that included extensive interviews with journalists and executives at all levels of ABC, NBC and CBS. The interviews were conducted on condition that they be used for the book.

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