The third anniversary of the war for a free Iraq occasioned a wrong turn for the media. On Tuesday, NBC’s Today planned to discuss media coverage of the war–certainly an underexplored angle–with Laura Ingraham and James Carville. NBC’s question: “Is American getting a fair picture of what’s actually happening in Iraq?” Ingraham came out of the blocks with fire, doing something no conservative does who wants to be invited on TV ever again. She went straight at her hosts:
The Today Show spends all this money to send people to the Olympics, which is great, it was great programming. All this money for “Where In The World Is Matt Lauer?” Bring The Today Show to Iraq. Bring The Today Show to Tal Afar. Do the show from the 4th ID at Camp Victory and then when you talk to those soldiers on the ground, when you go out with the Iraqi military, when you talk to the villagers, when you see the children, then I want [challenge] NBC to report on only the IEDs, only the killings, only the reprisals.
Conservatives at home heard the “Hallelujah Chorus” in their heads. One of the TV networks finally allowed someone to say they were unfair, unbalanced, and even lazy. Ingraham lectured:
To do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off.
It was poetic justice, then, that her interviewer was a substitute host, NBC White House correspondent David Gregory. As a caller to her radio show Tuesday morning observed, suddenly Laura Ingraham was Gregory, and Gregory was Scott McClellan, twitching nervously and trying to change the subject: “Okay, hold, hold, Laura, Laura, I get, I get, I get the point. I get the, I get the anti-network point.” He suggested: “Let me redirect this to, to get off the media point.” But wait–wasn’t that the stated topic of the interview? Gregory shifted the interview by asking how his guests would advise President Bush, because the focus is always supposed to be on evaluating the president, and never on evaluating the media. Gregory desperately wanted to cling to the primary talking point of the press: Bush, how flagrantly has he failed?
But the interview caused a wave of reaction. Bill O’Reilly gave Ingraham another chance to push her message. Hugh Hewitt faced off with liberal reporters on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. On NBC Nightly News, Andrea Mitchell did a defensive story.
Are the images Americans are seeing from Iraq due to the level of violence or is it just the messenger? And as the president suggested today, are the media also being used by the insurgents? As opposition to the war rises, it’s a theme amplified by the vice president and conservative talk show hosts: a supposedly passive, even lazy media focusing too much on random violence.
After playing soundbites from Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh, she quickly turned her story over to George Packer and David Gergen to state the usual cynical media response: the White House is lashing out in desperation over its awful war and its awful polls. Left out of the story was any real attempt to analyze if the media coverage is too dependent on violence or too well-tuned to what insurgents want Americans to hear. Self-examination? Humility? There’s no time for that.
Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center laid out the general negative pattern of Iraq coverage in studying the first nine months of evening news coverage in 2005. He found 61 percent of the stories were dominated by a negative focus or pessimistic analysis, compared to only 14 percent that featured achievements or optimistic assessments. Two out of every five stories featured car bombings, assassinations, or other terrorist attacks. Just eight stories recounted episodes of heroism by U.S. troops, and another nine featured soldiers helping the Iraqi people. But 79 stories focused on allegations of combat mistakes or egregious misconduct by U.S. military personnel. These are facts the media self-defense teams ignore.
NBC–the network where this all started–was especially defensive on the morning after Ingraham’s critique. Unlike any other type of major corporation, when they’re attacked the TV networks can use their valuable air time to do shallow infomercials for themselves. Can viewers call the NBC News ombudsman to complain? Sorry, they don’t have one.
NBC’s Richard Engel did a story discounting the “myths and misperceptions” that he only files stories from the balcony on insurgent successes and underlining all the daily dangers to journalists in Baghdad. This in no way addressed whether Engel’s reporting as a whole is fair, balanced, and accurate. David Gregory then appeared with a corporate-shill softball question about as tough as what McClellan might ask Bush: “Richard, bottom line. What’s your gut check? Do we miss the overall story about what’s going on in Iraq? Or does security remain the overall story?” Engel proclaimed, “I think the security problem is the overall story,” and insisted “most Iraqis I speak to…[think] the situation on the ground is actually worse than the images we project on television.”
It might seem unfair to charge reporters with being Balcony Bravehearts, and they were quick to point out that 80 journalists have died in Iraq. But Ingraham was challenging the networks to take up a wider mission: go out and interview American soldiers, interview Iraqi military sources, and relay some details from their activities.
When Richard Engel himself traveled outside Baghdad to Mosul in January of 2005, he was protected by a soldier there. At one point, shooting broke out, and he frankly admitted his reporting was incomplete when he recalled his experience: “[The soldier] actually stepped right in front of me protecting me with his body and started to return fire at the insurgents. And I just remember thinking that this is one of the small acts of heroism, I think you can say, that I so rarely get a chance to see and even less frequently report about.”
Engel’s defensive interview wasn’t the only episode of energetic self-defense. Katie Couric brought on Tim Russert to defend the network against scapegoating: “Does the Bush administration have a legitimate gripe about the media coverage of the war, or do you think the media is being used as a scapegoat as public support for the war continues to erode?” Russert defensively argued: “We capture reality. Sometimes it’s a political strategy to shoot the messenger, but the fact is what is happening on the ground is what you’re seeing on your TVs and reading in the newspapers.”
What arrogance. “We capture reality”? Not even “we try to capture reality”? TV news is a vanishing snippet of reality, a carefully edited (and often loaded) version of reality. Some viewers think the networks have captured reality all right–and are holding it hostage in a basement until the president surrenders. What this narrative omits is that the White House’s so-called war with the “messenger” has two sides–and the “messenger” is holding his own just fine. The networks suggest that they’re just holding the president accountable. Then why can’t the President and his supporters do the same for the media?
–Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.