Following Bush's lead, conservatives mounted offensive against "biased" Iraq war coverage

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN & JULIE MILLICAN

President Bush and senior aides have claimed that Americans are increasingly disillusioned about the Iraq war because the mainstream media report only the violent and tragic events occurring there -- an accusation that has simultaneously been advanced by an array of conservative media figures.

As part of the White House's current public relations blitz, President Bush and senior aides have claimed that Americans are increasingly disillusioned about the Iraq war because the mainstream media report only the violent and tragic events occurring there. Bush has said that the negative coverage provoked him to explain directly to the public why he remains optimistic about the U.S. mission in Iraq. This accusation -- that the purportedly biased media coverage is undermining support for the war -- has been leveled at news outlets this week not only by the White House; it has simultaneously been advanced by an array of conservative media figures.

The following are examples from recent days of Bush and administration officials directing blame at the media's coverage of Iraq:

  • On March 19, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on CBS' Face the Nation and answered a question about the sagging support for the Iraq war by noting that "there's a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad."
  • During a March 20 press gaggle, White House press secretary Scott McClellan discussed the speech Bush would give later that day in Cleveland. McClellan said that the "dramatic images that people see on the TV screens ... are much easier to put into a news clip" and told reporters that the president would address the "real progress being made toward a democratic future."
  • In his speech to the City Club of Cleveland, Bush said he understood "how some Americans have had their confidence shaken." He continued: "Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens, and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq." Bush then talked about the town of Tal Afar, which he described as a "concrete example of progress in Iraq that most Americans do not see every day in their newspapers and on their television screens."
  • Later in the speech, Bush said: "The kind of progress that we and the Iraqi people are making in places like Tal Afar is not easy to capture in a short clip on the evening news. Footage of children playing, or shops opening, and people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an IED explosion, or the destruction of a mosque, or soldiers and civilians being killed or injured."
  • During a March 21 press conference, Bush said that "for every act of violence, there is encouraging progress in Iraq that's hard to capture on the evening news."
  • Later in the press conference, Bush claimed that he had presented "a realistic assessment of the enemy's capability to affect the debate. ... They're capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show. And, therefore, it affects the woman in Cleveland you were talking to. And I can understand how Americans are worried about whether or not we can win. "

As the White House mounted its offensive in recent days, the Bush administration's argument that news outlets have consistently ignored the good news in Iraq in favor of reports on bombings, kidnappings, and other atrocities has echoed throughout the media. For instance, as MSNBC host Keith Olbermann noted on the March 22 edition of Countdown, radio talk show host Laura Ingraham appeared on NBC's Today on March 21 and complained that the network's Iraq correspondents only "report[] from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs [improvised explosive devices] going off." Later that day, in an appearance on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Ingraham claimed that there are many in the media "who are invested in America's defeat." O'Reilly, in turn, expressed his belief that "there is a segment of the media trying to undermine the policy in Iraq for their own ideological purposes," as Media Matters for America noted.

Beyond O'Reilly, many other Fox News hosts, analysts, and guests similarly attacked the media's coverage of the war:

  • Radio host G. Gordon Liddy said that "those in the news media ... would rather the United States lose a war than have history write that George W. Bush was a successful president." [Hannity & Colmes, 3/20/06]
  • Radio host Tammy Bruce said, "[T]he president has a big order to contradict what the mainstream media is doing." She expressed support for his efforts to "give an overall picture that the mainstream media is not providing the average American." [Fox News Live, 3/20]
  • Host Jon Scott prefaced a question to Sen. George Allen [R-VA] by saying, "We heard the president talk about how things are going better in cities like Tal Afar than the media would have you believe and, lo and behold, out comes a front page story from The Washington Post about how things really aren't that good in Tal Afar." [Fox News Live, 3/21]
  • Syndicated columnist and Fox News political analyst Robert D. Novak said that "the intensity of the hatred ... toward George W. Bush by Democrats and by some of the people in the media is just so intense, and it begins to have a kind of an effect that affects people who don't hate him." [Hannity & Colmes, 3/22/06]
  • Radio host Mark Williams described the "daily drum beat of the mainstream media telling us the we are losing a war that we are winning." [Fox News Live, 3/22/06]
  • Host Sean Hannity said on his syndicated radio show that "the media is intent on undermining the president in this battle" and claimed there "has been a total and almost complete focus on all the negative aspects of the war." He later boasted that Bush had "stuck it in their face. They [the media] are fat, they are lazy, they have a pack mentality, they are partisan, and they are not doing their job, and they are not doing a service for the American people, and they are failing in their mission, and they purposely fail in their mission, and they get away with it each and every day." [ABC Radio Networks' The Sean Hannity Show, 3/22/06]

Other conservative media outlets have voiced similar sentiments in recent days:

  • Radio host Hugh Hewitt claimed that "a great deal of American mainstream media is invested in the idea that this [the Iraq war] is a disaster." He further said, "There's quite a lot not being covered because to cover it and to cover it extensively, will not only support the Bush administration decision to go to war here, but make it appear as though it's one of the wisest he has made." [CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, 3/21/06]
  • Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens described a "herd mentality" among the media covering Iraq: "[I]t's been there since before the war, and it's placed a bet on quagmire at best ... and defeat at worst. And in some ways, it doesn't want its prediction to be falsified." [Salem Radio Network's The Hugh Hewitt Show, 3/22/06]
  • A March 22 Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that the Iraq war had been marked by "a relentless stream of media and political pessimism that is unwarranted by the facts and threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophesy if it goes unchallenged."
  • On the March 23 edition of Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto interviewed Gayle Taylor, who in the question-and-answer portion of a March 22 town hall meeting in Wheeling, West Virginia, complained to Bush that "it seems that our major media networks don't want to portray the good." Raucous applause followed her comments. During the entire interview, the onscreen text read "AMERICA WANTS TO SEE THE GOOD NEWS FROM IRAQ TOO!" Later in the show, during an interview with Fox News host Eric Burns, the onscreen text read "IS THE MEDIA HOPELESSLY BIASED AGAINST PRES BUSH?"

The barrage of criticism has led news outlets to devote significant airtime to the issue. CNN has devoted numerous segments to the issue in recent days (see here, here, here, here and here). On the March 23 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, Washington Post media critic and CNN host Howard Kurtz went so far as to endorse the idea that journalists are consciously framing their stories on Iraq negatively. "I think it's not unconnected to the public opinion polls," Kurtz said. "I think journalists are finding it easier to ask aggressive questions of President Bush, to frame the stories more negatively, in terms of the American presence there, because they know a majority of the country now questions or disagrees with that war effort." But while Kurtz attributed the negative coverage to public opinion, CNN anchor Jack Cafferty -- immediately following Kurtz's appearance -- attributed it to the fact that the "news isn't good in Iraq":

CAFFERTY: They don't like the coverage, maybe, because we were sold a different ending to this story three years ago. We were told we'd be embraced as conquering heroes, flower petals strewn in the soldiers' paths, unity government would be formed, everything would be rosy. This, three years after the fact, the troops would be home. Well, it's not turning out that way. And if somebody came into New York City and blew up St. Patrick's Cathedral and in the resulting days they were finding 50 and 60 dead bodies on the streets in New York, do you suppose the news media would cover it? You're damn right they would. This is nonsense: "It's the media's fault the news isn't good in Iraq." The news isn't good in Iraq. There's violence in Iraq. People are found dead every day in the streets of Baghdad. This didn't turn out the way the politicians told us it would. And it's our fault? I beg to differ.

From the March 19 edition of CBS' Face the Nation:

SCHIEFFER: Mr. Vice President, all along the government has been very optimistic. You remain optimistic. But I remember when you were saying we'd be greeted as liberators, you played down the insurgency 10 months ago. You said it was in its last throes. Do you believe that these optimistic statements may be one of the reasons that people seem to be more skeptical in this country about whether we ought to be in Iraq?

CHENEY: No. I think it has less to do with the statements we've made, which I think were basically accurate and reflect reality, than it does with the fact that there's a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It's not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq.

From the March 20 White House press gaggle:

McCLELLAN: So Iraqi political leaders are continuing to move forward, and they recognize the importance of doing it as quickly as possible to form a government of national unity. They understand the importance of moving as quickly as they can. So I think you have to look at those aspects of what's taking place on the ground.

There is certainly the dramatic images that people see on the TV screens which are much easier to put into a news clip. But there is also real progress being made toward a democratic future for the Iraqi people and I think the president will touch on this a little bit in his remarks.

From Bush's March 20 address to the City Club of Cleveland:

The situation on the ground remains tense. And in the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken. Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens, and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't. So today I'd like to share a concrete example of progress in Iraq that most Americans do not see every day in their newspapers and on their television screens. I'm going to tell you the story of a northern Iraqi city called Tal Afar, which was once a key base of operations for Al Qaeda and is today a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq.

[...]

The kind of progress that we and the Iraqi people are making in places like Tal Afar is not easy to capture in a short clip on the evening news. Footage of children playing, or shops opening, and people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an IED explosion, or the destruction of a mosque, or soldiers and civilians being killed or injured. The enemy understands this, and it explains their continued acts of violence in Iraq. Yet the progress we and the Iraqi people are making is also real. And those in a position to know best are the Iraqis, themselves.

From Bush's March 21 press conference:

Yesterday I delivered a -- the second in a series of speeches on the situation in Iraq. I spoke about the violence that the Iraqi people had faced since last month's bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. I also said that for every act of violence there is encouraging progress in Iraq that's hard to capture on the evening news.

[...]

Secondly, I am confident -- I believe, I'm optimistic we'll succeed. If not, I'd pull our troops out. If I didn't believe we had a plan for victory I wouldn't leave our people in harm's way. And that's important for the woman to understand.

Thirdly, in spite of the bad news on television -- and there is bad news. You brought it up; you said, how do I react to a bombing that took place yesterday -- is precisely what the enemy understands is possible to do. I'm not suggesting you shouldn't talk about it. I'm certainly not being -- please don't take that as criticism. But it also is a realistic assessment of the enemy's capability to affect the debate, and they know that. They're capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show. And, therefore, it affects the woman in Cleveland you were talking to. And I can understand how Americans are worried about whether or not we can win.

From Bush's March 22 town hall meeting in Wheeling, West Virginia:

AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is my husband, who has returned from a 13-month tour in Tikrit.

BUSH: Oh, yes. Thank you. Welcome back.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: His job while serving was as a broadcast journalist. And he has brought back several DVDs full of wonderful footage of reconstruction, of medical things going on. And I ask you this from the bottom of my heart, for a solution to this, because it seems that our major media networks don't want to portray the good. They just want to focus -- (applause) --

BUSH: Okay, hold on a second.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: They just want to focus on another car bomb, or they just want to focus on some more bloodshed, or they just want to focus on how they don't agree with you and what you're doing, when they don't even probably know how you're doing what you're doing anyway. But what can we do to get that footage on CNN, on Fox, to get it on headline news, to get it on the local news? Because you can send it to the news people -- and I'm sorry, I'm rambling -- like I have --

BUSH: So was I, though, for an hour.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: -- can you use this, and it will just end up in a drawer, because it's good, it portrays the good. And if people could see that, if the American people could see it, there would never be another negative word about this conflict.

BUSH: Well, I appreciate that. No, it -- that's why I come out and speak. I spoke in Cleveland, gave a press conference yesterday -- spoke in Cleveland Monday, press conference, here today. I'm going to continue doing what I'm doing to try to make sure people can hear there's -- why I make decisions, and as best as I can, explain why I'm optimistic we can succeed.

One of the things that we've got to value is the fact that we do have a media, free media, that's able to do what they want to do. And I'm not going to -- you're asking me to say something in front of all the cameras here. Help over there, will you?

I just got to keep talking. And one of the -- there's word of mouth, there's blogs, there's Internet, there's all kinds of ways to communicate which is literally changing the way people are getting their information. And so if you're concerned, I would suggest that you reach out to some of the groups that are supporting the troops, that have got Internet sites, and just keep the word -- keep the word moving. And that's one way to deal with an issue without suppressing a free press. We will never do that in America. I mean, the minute we start trying to suppress our press, we look like the Taliban. The minute we start telling people how to worship, we look like the Taliban. And we're not interested in that in America. We're the opposite. We believe in freedom. And we believe in freedom in all its forms. And obviously, I know you're frustrated with what you're seeing, but there are ways in this new kind of age, being able to communicate, that you'll be able to spread the message that you want to spread.

From the March 21 broadcast of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: But here's my problem. And this is a serious problem. We saw it at the top of the show with what's-her-name who was bantering with Bush -- the older woman.

INGRAHAM: [Hearst Newspapers columnist] Helen Thomas.

O'REILLY: Helen Thomas. I believe that there is a segment of the media trying to undermine the policy in Iraq for their own ideological purposes. It's no longer dissent. It's no longer skepticism. It's, "We want to undermine it," and that disturbs me. Do you see that?

INGRAHAM: I see that pretty much every day, that there is a group of people who are invested in America's defeat, in a -- in one of the most important conflicts in our nation's history. And being invested in defeat as an American -- I don't care if you're a reporter, a commentator, or a businessperson. How have we gotten to this point in this country regardless of what people think of Bush?

O'REILLY: Because of hatred. Ideological hatred got us to that point.

From the March 20 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

LIDDY: What concerns me is -- and I do not put you, Alan, in this category -- I actually think that there are some persons, including those in the news media, who would rather the United States lose a war than have history write that George W. Bush was a successful president.

COLMES: Who would that be?

LIDDY: And I think that's pretty bad.

COLMES: Who?

LIDDY: The national -- NBC, NBC, CBS, CNN, that crowd.

From the March 20 edition of Fox News Live:

BRUCE: I love the fact that [Chicago Tribune deputy managing editor] Jim [Warren] is admitting that, in fact, ultimately in the long run, just like with Germany and Japan, that our presence there will pay off -- that it's worth doing. And I think the president has a big order to contradict what the mainstream media is doing. You know, my favorite problem here. But that's the reality. And that's why he needs to have these press conferences. He needs to be very clear -- frankly, not too detailed. But give an overall picture that the mainstream media is not providing the average American.

From the March 21 edition of Fox News Live:

SCOTT: Joining us now from the University of Virginia, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee, Virginia Republican Senator George Allen. Senator, we heard the president yesterday talk about how things are going better in cities like Tal Afar than the media would have you believe and, lo and behold, out comes a front-page story from The Washington Post about how things really aren't that good in Tal Afar. What do you make of that?

From the March 22 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: I don't understand one thing. Why isn't the message of success on the economy, the message of success in Afghanistan and Iraq, why does it not seem to be getting out that much?

NOVAK: Well, there are several reasons. One reason is that the -- the intensity of the hatred, and I use the word "hatred" advisedly, toward George W. Bush by Democrats and by some of the people in the media is just so intense, and it begins to have a kind of an effect that affects people who don't hate him. I think the 2000 election is still in the craw of many Democrats that can't accept this president.

From the March 22 edition of Fox News Live:

WILLIAMS: I think what you see reflected in the polls is the daily drumbeat of the mainstream media telling us that we are losing a war that we are winning. It's as simple as that. Television works, and if you pound a message home enough, it sooner or later will show up in the polls.

From the March 22 edition of The Sean Hannity Show:

HANNITY: And the bottom line, and the truth here, is that the media is intent on undermining the president in this battle, in this conflict, in this war, and they have been that way from the very beginning. There has been a total and almost complete focus on all the negative aspects of the war. Now, we got a little taste of this during the Vietnam War, we got a little taste when Reagan was president.

[...]

And if it weren't for the alternative media, where would you ever hear any of these things? And what the president did yesterday is he stuck it in their face. They are fat, they are lazy, they have a pack mentality, they are partisan, and they are not doing their job, and they are not doing a service for the American people, and they are failed in their mission, and they purposely fail in their mission, and they get away with it each and every day. And you know, what finally -- it's good the president has decided and his aides have decided, "Let's expose this."

From the March 21 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

HEWITT: That having been said, a great deal of American mainstream media is invested in the idea that this is a disaster, that it will bring down Bush, that it was a mistake at the beginning, and disaster for the Middle East. They are pushing that agenda, quite obviously, over and over again, to the exclusion of important stories like the book by Georges Sada, Saddam's general, like the Philippine -- the documents released today, covered in The Weekly Standard, about the Kuwaiti hostages denied by Iraq having even been there but now revealed today to have been used as human shields by the matazahadr (ph) sons of Saddam.

There's quite a lot not being covered because to cover it and to cover it extensively, will not only support the Bush administration decision to go to war here but make it appear as though one of the wisest he has made. And indeed, investment in the failure of this operation is what is bringing increased contempt for the American media across the land except on the noisy left. And the noisy left doesn't win elections.

From the March 23 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: Howie, is it true -- based on your observation of the news media, as the president and the vice president continue to maintain -- that the negative -- all of our mainstream media reporting has tended to be on the negative?

KURTZ: Well, certainly not all of it, Wolf. And I don't agree with that woman in West Virginia who said that journalists are doing this because they don't agree with the Bush policy. But I've looked very carefully in recent weeks from the time of those mosque bombings through the third-year anniversary stories of the U.S.-led invasion, and the tone of a whole lot of this coverage has been negative, has been downbeat, has been pessimistic. In part, that's because a lot of the news out of Iraq has not been good. But I think we may be reaching kind of a tipping point here that we saw in Vietnam, where the press coverage seems to tilt against this war effort.

BLITZER: So you've seen a change in recent weeks? Is that what you're saying?

KURTZ: Absolutely, compared to, say, a year ago or two years ago. I think it's not unconnected to the public opinion polls. I think journalists are finding it easier to ask aggressive questions of President Bush, to frame the stories more negatively, in terms of the American presence there, because they know a majority of the country now questions or disagrees with that war effort. I do think, however, that a lot of journalists make an effort to talk to ordinary Iraqis and to report on signs of progress. But let's face it: In our business, the car bombing, the suicide attack, the attack on a police station, those tend to be top of the newscast, top-of-the-front-page kinds of stories. The other reconstruction efforts are less dramatic and tend to get pushed back.

[...]

CAFFERTY: You know, I just have a question. I mean, the coverage -- they don't like the coverage, maybe, because we were sold a different ending to this story three years ago. We were told we'd be embraced as conquering heroes, flower petals strewn in the soldiers' paths, unity government would be formed, everything would be rosy. This, three years after the fact, the troops would be home. Well, it's not turning out that way. And if somebody came into New York City and blew up St. Patrick's Cathedral and in the resulting days they were finding 50 and 60 dead bodies on the streets in New York, do you suppose the news media would cover it? You're damn right they would. This is nonsense: "It's the media's fault the news isn't good in Iraq." The news isn't good in Iraq. There's violence in Iraq. People are found dead every day in the streets of Baghdad. This didn't turn out the way the politicians told us it would. And it's our fault? I beg to differ.

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