Thursday's NBC Nightly News led, yes led, with how, as anchor Brian Williams put it, President Bush had that morning conducted “a staged event" via satellite with ten U.S. soldiers and one Iraqi soldier in Iraq. “Today's encounter was billed as spontaneous,” Williams intoned. “Instead, it appeared to follow a script.” Andrea Mitchell warned that “the troops were coached on how to answer the Commander-in-Chief” and, indeed, not until two minutes into her three-minute story -- after showing clips of how a DOD official had told the soldiers the questions Bush would ask -- did Mitchell note how “the White House and at least one of the soldiers says the troops weren't told what to say, just what the President would ask." So, the answers were not staged. The soldiers, naturally nervous about appearing on live TV with the President of the United States, were simply told who should answer which question and to “take a breath” before answering. Scandalous! Over video of Bush on the aircraft carrier, Mitchell went on to remind viewers of how “this isn't the first time this administration used troops to help sell the Iraq war.” But she also admitted a media double-standard: “Many administrations, Democrat and Republican, stage-manage events and often the news media ignore the choreography.”
ABC's World News Tonight also devoted a full story, though not the lead, to the media-generated controversy. Terry Moran contended that “the fact that this was so carefully choreographed...shows just how urgently the White House wants not just a success on the ground in Iraq, but a PR success at home for this embattled President." Over on the CBS Evening News, anchor Bob Schieffer opined that “unfortunately for the President, after satellite cameras caught administration aides rehearsing the soldiers beforehand, Democrats dismissed the whole thing and said the troops deserved a lot better.” Lara Logan managed to cover other material in her story and uniquely showcased a soldier who told CBS: "The truth is that everything that was said was meant to be said, though it may have sounded scripted in some places. Nerves kick in, for one. Two, everyone puts their thoughts together. You put it down, you go over and over it a hundred times."
MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann also led Thursday with the “staged” event and the AP distributed a story breathlessly headlined, “Bush Teleconference With Soldiers Staged.” But on FNC's Special Report with Brit Hume, Hume noted complaints the event was "not entirely spontaneous" before Carl Cameron pointed out that Bush posed an unplanned question to the Iraqi soldier. In the panel segment, Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon recalled how when “back in December” a soldier asked Rumsfeld about armor, a question that “had been planted by a reporter, I didn't hear any outcry from the press.” (UPDATE with CNN coverage and transcripts follow.)
NBC's Williams devoted nearly his entire “Daily Nightly” blog entry, titled “Dress Rehearsal” to the “staged” event.
All three cable news channels carried the event live around 10am EDT.
[UPDATE, 12:05am EDT Friday, on CNN coverage:
In the 4pm EDT hour of The Situation Room, Suzanne Malveaux checked in from the White House: “There's a lot of discussion over the video-conference that took place because of a rehearsal that took place before that. For many of us who cover these White House events, that is nothing new. These are hand-picked audiences when he goes before to speak to people, the format is highly rehearsed, they're not spontaneous events.
“But Tom [Foreman, fill-in host], what makes today's so unusual is that you, me, and many of our viewers get a chance to see a rehearsal actually taking place. You're looking at a satellite feed. And it really pulls back the curtain, if you will. You see U.S. troops actually being fielded questions that are expected by the President, practicing the responses. There are ten American soldiers as well, an Iraqi official in Tikrit that are running through this kind of dress rehearsal of the video conference, if you will. And what you're hearing is a senior Pentagon official, Allison Barber, who is prompting their responses. Let's take a quick listen.”
Allison Barber to soldiers: “The President will open up with some remarks. He's going to kind of shape this discussion today by highlighting the importance of what you're doing, by letting you know how much the American people appreciate your hard work, and how important this vote on Saturday is to the process in Iraq. And so you'll hear him shape those comments today.”
Wow. That kind of hardly unusual pre-event preparation is certainly newsworthy, not.
About half way through CNN's 7pm EDT Anderson Cooper 360 on Thursday, the announcer plugged an upcoming story: “And the President tele-commutes to Tikrit. Mr. Bush's video-conference with soldiers in Iraq seems to have gone just fine, exactly as scripted and rehearsed. So much for reality TV.” But the story never aired, apparently because of “breaking news” a few minutes later: more video of the New Orleans police beating incident. At the top of CNN's 10pm EDT NewsNight, co-anchor Cooper also plugged the controversy, but the coverage didn't go beyond the “Headline News” updates as the show ridiculously devoted 45 minutes of its first hour, and the first 15 minutes of its second hour, to the police beating video. They spent the entire 11:30pm EDT half hour on Syria.]
Transcripts from October 13, as compiled by the MRC Brad Wilmouth (who did the long ones while I handled the shorter CBS and FNC material):
> NBC Nightly News:
Brian Williams in opening teaser for his lead story: "Tonight, command performance. The White House called it a chance for the President to hear candid comments from U.S. soldiers in Iraq. But as you'll see, the cameras were rolling on what appeared to be a staged event."
Williams began: "Good evening. It was billed as a chance for the President to hear directly from the troops in Iraq. The White House called it a 'back and forth,' a 'give and take.' And so, reporters who cover the White House were summoned this morning to witness a live video link between the Commander-in-Chief and the U.S. soldiers in the field as the elections approach in Iraq. The problem was, before the event was broadcast live on cable TV, the satellite picture from Iraq was being beamed back to television news rooms here in the U.S. It showed a full-blown rehearsal of the President's questions in advance, along with the soldiers' answers and coaching from the administration. While we should quickly point out this was hardly the first staged political event we have covered -- and we've seen a lot of them in the past -- today's encounter was billed as spontaneous. Instead, it appeared to follow a script. Our report tonight from NBC's Andrea Mitchell."
Andrea Mitchell: "The White House says the idea was to highlight an important milestone in Iraq, Saturday's referendum on the proposed constitution, and thank the troops for their sacrifice."
George W. Bush: "Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to allow me to visit with you a little bit."
Mitchell: "Speaking to soldiers in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, the President used the video conference to repeat his arguments for staying in Iraq."
Bush: "We're never going to back down. We're never going to give in. We'll never accept anything less than total victory."
Mitchell: "The White House had said the exchange would be spontaneous, but there was something they did not expect you to see. The troops were coached on how to answer the Commander-in-Chief. This is Allison Barber. She works for the Pentagon."
Allison Barber, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense: "But if he gives us a question that's not something that we've scripted, Captain Kennedy, you're going to have that mike, and that's your chance to impress us all. Master Sergeant Lombardo, when you're talking about the President coming to see you in New York, take a little breath before that so you can actually be talking directly to him. You've got a real message there, okay?"
Mitchell: "During today's rehearsal, Barber played the role of the President. Here's one of Mr. Bush's questions in the practice session."
Barber: "I'm interested in how your pre-election operations are going."
Mitchell: "And here's how it was repeated when the cameras were rolling with the President in place."
George W. Bush: "-confident? I mean, how do you feel like the operations are going?"
Mitchell: "Here, from the rehearsal, is a soldier practicing his answer."
Unidentified soldier: "We're working in northern Iraq right now with an operation we call Operation Saratoga."
Mitchell: "And here's how it appeared on the broadcast."
Unidentified soldier: "We're surging in an operation called Operation Saratoga."
Mitchell: "But the White House claimed only hours earlier that it would be unscripted. Later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told NBC News he didn't know the extent of the coaching and didn't see the rehearsal. Still, the White House and at least one of the soldiers says the troops weren't told what to say, just what the President would ask. This isn't the first time this administration used troops to help sell the Iraq war [video of Bush on aircraft carrier]. In fact, the Bush White House has choreographed everything from town hall meetings on Social Security to campaign events with planted questions. Many administrations, Democrat and Republican, stage-manage events [video of Clinton behind sandbags with soldiers and of Reagan at Korea's DMZ]. And often the news media ignore the choreography. David Gergen worked for four presidents, including three Republicans."
David Gergen, former presidential advisor: "I've rarely seen the news staged with the military in quite as blatant a way, but it has been done before, so it does belong to a long and somewhat unhappy tradition."
Mitchell: "But only two weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office criticized the Education Department for violating a law banning government-funded propaganda."
Barber: "Okay, let's run through this one more time."
Michael Beschloss, NBC News presidential historian: "Here is a White House working very hard to script an unscripted moment, and when the public learns that that's happened, it undermines what they're trying to do."
Mitchell: "A rare look behind the curtain of a White House trying to sell an increasingly unpopular war. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington."
> ABC World News Tonight:
Anchor Bob Woodruff: "We turn now to the war in Iraq. President Bush met with the troops today by satellite. The Commander-in-Chief wanted to hear how things were going in the lead-up to Saturday's vote on the new Iraqi constitution. They answered him, but what has attracted a great deal of attention today is how they were prepared. ABC's White House correspondent, Terry Moran, joins us now. Terry?"
Terry Moran: "Well, Bob, as you know, this is a White House that has prided itself on expert stage managing and polished presentations of Mr. Bush's public appearances. Today, we got a glimpse behind the scenes. It was billed as a simple, straightforward back-and-forth conversation, a video tele-conference, between the President and a group of soldiers serving in Iraq."
George W. Bush: "And I've got some questions for you here in a minute, but I do want to share some thoughts with you."
Moran: "But those questions, it turns out, came as no surprise to the soldiers."
Allison Barber, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, at podium Bush would later use: "Are we ready for one more run-through? Jimmy, you ready?"
Moran: "Before the President appeared, Allison Barber, a senior Pentagon official, prepped the troops thoroughly, and, in a rare White House slip-up, was caught on camera."
Barber: "Master Sergeant Lombardo, when you're talking about the President coming to see you in New York, take a little breath before that so you can actually be talking directly to him."
Moran: "Nothing, it seemed, was left to chance."
Barber: "The President will continue to speak. And then, he'll go into his questions. All right, here we go. I'm interested in how your pre-election operations are going."
Bush: "One of the, you know, questions I have is about the pre-election operations."
Moran: "The soldiers, ten serving with the 42nd Infantry in Tikrit and one Iraqi soldier, are providing security for Saturday's crucial referendum on the new Iraqi constitution."
Captain Steven Pratt, U.S. Army 42nd Infantry Division: "We'll have a very successful and effective referendum vote."
Moran: "The whole event was very carefully choreographed, but just in case Mr. Bush deviated from the plan, there was a backup."
Barber: "All right. But if he gives us a question that's not something that we've scripted, Captain Kennedy, you're going to have that mike, and that's your chance to impress us all."
Captain Kennedy: "Okay."
Moran: "The White House insists that the real story here is what those soldiers are doing in Iraq. And they're right. But the fact that this was so carefully choreographed, Bob, shows just how urgently the White House wants not just a success on the ground in Iraq, but a PR success at home for this embattled President."
Woodruff: "And taking no chances. Terry Moran at the White House, thank you."
> CBS Evening News:
Anchor Bob Schieffer: “President Bush held an unusual conversation by satellite with American soldiers in Iraq today, and they told him exactly what he wanted to hear: Iraqis are eager to vote on a new Constitution. Unfortunately for the President, after satellite cameras caught administration aides rehearsing the soldiers beforehand, Democrats dismissed the whole thing and said the troops deserved a lot better. Here's Lara Logan in Tikrit.”
Lara Logan: “With Iraq poised to vote on a new Constitution, President Bush chose this moment to speak directly to U.S. soldiers on the ground here.”
President Bush before big video screen: “One of the things, Captain, that people in America want to know is, one, do the Iraqis want to fight and are they capable of fighting?”
Captain Stephen Pratt, 42nd Infantry Division: “The Iraqi army and police services, along with coalition support, have conducted many and multiple exercises and rehearsals.”
Logan: “But his message was overshadowed by questions about how much staging went into the event.”
Allison Barber, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (not identified on-screen by CBS News) at podium Bush would later use: “If the question comes up about partnering, how often do we train with the Iraqi military, who does it go to?”
Soldier in Iraq: “That's going to go to Captain Pratt.”
Logan: “The White House responded this live televised interview had to be rehearsed in order to run smoothly, and there was no doubt from the soldiers involved.”
Staff Sergeant David Smith-Barry, 42nd Infantry Division, one-on-one to CBS: “The truth is that everything that was said was meant to be said, though it may have sounded scripted in some places. Nerves kick in, for one. Two, everyone puts their thoughts together. You put it down, you go over and over it a hundred times.”
Logan then moved on to other news from Iraq.
> FNC's Special Report with Brit Hume:
During the panel segment, Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon, responding to a comment from Morton Kondracke: “You mentioned that this press conference was scripted and the administration has taken a huge hit today about, you know, they scripted this press conference. It's funny, but when that reporter back in December asked Rumsfeld about armor and that question had been planted by the reporter -- I'm sorry, the soldier asked Rumsfeld and the question had been planted by a reporter, I didn't hear any outcry from the press, but now that we're rehearsing it from the Pentagon we're hearing all this talk about it.”
Fred Barnes then quipped: ”Scripted? I'm shocked that anything would be scripted like that.”
> “Dress Rehearsal,” posted by Brian Williams at 4:53pm ET on his Daily Nightly blog. An excerpt:
My day, at least editorially, started just after I'd chosen a spot on the couch for the 9:30 a.m. editorial daily planning meeting. I arrived early and was finishing up the newspapers when an e-mail came into my BlackBerry -- it was from a producer in our control room, watching the incoming feed from Iraq. The President was minutes away from what was billed to us as a "give and take...a back and forth" with soldiers on the ground in Iraq. The e-mail said they were rehearsing their answers to the President's questions. It went on to say they were receiving coaching from yet-unnamed government officials on HOW to deliver their lines once the President appeared.
We've all been party to media events and blatant photo ops. Members of the media have known full well when events in the past have been thoroughly scripted to bring about the desired response. While this kind of thing gets reported when germane, it's a given in political campaigns, just as it was a given during the series of town meetings this President held, the guests were invited and questions were at very minimum strongly encouraged by subject manner, if not outwardly planted. It's what the home team gets to do. It's part of politics and both parties have made it something of an art form. In this case, however, the advance billing and final execution were at odds. And what we witnessed -- the comments first rehearsed then repeated verbatim with minor deviations once the President entered the discussion -- was rather stunning to see on television, as viewers will see on our air tonight.
The story developed steam as the day wore on, and as more in the media realized what they'd just witnessed, and the White House briefing reflected it. Press Secretary Scott McClellan has since admitted to our own Kelly O'Donnell that he did NOT know the extent of the situation and how it played on television when he answered reporters' questions about it today from the podium. Beyond that, I'll let the reporting of Andrea Mitchell speak for itself on tonight's broadcast....