A follow-up, with Friday morning coverage, to the Thursday night NewsBusters posting, “Shocked, Just Shocked Network Reporters Hype 'Staged’ Bush Event with Troops,” which detailed how the NBC Nightly News LED with the supposed scandal and how the other networks devoted full stories to it. The network obsession, with the ordinary preparation for a presidential event involving nervous participants, continued on Friday morning. Plugging upcoming stories at the top of Good Morning America, ABC’s Charles Gibson referred to “an embarrassing, staged photo-op.” Diane Sawyer soon cited the event as a “new embarrassment” for the administration and reporter Claire Shipman asserted that “an embarrassing White House blunder lifted the veil on the Bush administration's meticulously managed photo-ops." With “WAS TALK WITH TROOPS SCRIPTED?” plastered on-screen, NBC’s Today made the incident its story of the day as Katie Couric announced: "On Close-Up this morning, is the Bush administration using staged events to sell the war in Iraq?”
Over on CNN’s American Morning, co-host Miles O’Brien insisted to Major General Rick Lynch in Iraq that the participating soldiers were “coached.” Though Lynch repeatedly denied the soldiers were told what to say, O’Brien stuck to his claim they were “coached,” citing how the Pentagon official told them, “here's what he's going to say, here's what you might want to say in response, right?" Lynch maintained that “those soldiers yesterday were giving their opinion." To which an oblivious O’Brien replied: “Well, I guess it's too bad, if that's true, that people would have another impression this morning, because of the way they were coached." But the best O’Brien could come up with was how the Pentagon’s Allison Barber suggested how to segue to another soldier for an answer and that “a few smiles wouldn't hurt back here on the TV.” When news reader Carol Costello wondered: "Is anything spontaneous in politics, really? I don't think so," O'Brien heralded a left-winger: "Jeez. Dennis Kucinich, maybe?" O'Brien also had the gall to contend that “truth be told, if they were not coached, they would have said things that the administration would have liked to hear, I'm convinced. Because they are, you know, these troops are gung ho about their mission. And so it's a shame that they have cast this cloud." Wow, that’s chutzpah given it was O’Brien and the media which cast the “cloud.” (Full transcripts follow.)
This weekend’s Inside Washington, a weekly political talk show featuring national media figures produced by Washington, DC’s ABC affiliate and carried on Friday night on DC’s PBS station, WETA-TV, led with the teleconference. Host Gordon Peterson charged: “The President's teleconference with American troops in Iraq, for example, designed to highlight this weekend's vote on a new Iraqi constitution has now backfired into a public relations nightmare.”
Transcripts of the above-quoted October 14 coverage:
# ABC’s Good Morning America, as provided by the MRC’s Brian Boyd:
Charles Gibson just after 7am: "We're going to start this morning, though, with very low poll ratings for President Bush. President Bush in trouble and the record numbers, record low numbers in those polls; an embarrassing, staged photo-op, also, with troops in Iraq; and his top advisor in legal hot water. So, can the White House turn it around? We're going to get into that this morning."
Diane Sawyer set up the subsequent story: "We're going to turn now to the White House and President Bush's plans to try to turn the tide on his sinking approval rating, now at an all-time low. And this morning, the new embarrassment. The White House scrambling after a photo-opportunity with troops in Iraq didn't go quite as planned. ABC's senior national correspondent Claire Shipman is in Washington with all of this, Claire."
Claire Shipman checked in from DC: "Diane, good morning. The President's woes are all the buzz in Washington and it's a big day today. His chief strategist and deputy chief of staff Karl Rove is expected to testify for the fourth time before a grand jury in that criminal leak investigation over a CIA agent's identity. That scandal and a lot of other problems are giving the White House a major case of the nerves, including yesterday's slip-up, staging a photo-op with U.S. troops and letting our cameras see it all. It was meant to look like an informal talk with some troops in Iraq."
President Bush to the troops in Iraq: "It is the exact opposite of what America stands for. We stand for-"
Shipman: "But an embarrassing White House blunder lifted the veil on the Bush administration's meticulously managed photo-ops."
Allison Barber of the Department of Defense: "The President will continue to speak and then he'll go into his questions."
Shipman: "Moments earlier network cameras captured substantial rehearsal of U.S. troops by a top Pentagon official to achieve that spontaneous look."
Barber, reading a Bush question: "Alright, here we go. 'I'm interested in how you're pre-election operations are going.'"
President Bush at actual event: "You know, one of the questions I have is about the pre-election operations."
Shipman: "Added to the growing list of snafus, bad decisions, and just plain bad luck that maybe unraveling, it is certainly unnerving the Bush presidency. A spade of new polls hands President Bush his lowest approval numbers ever, down to 37 percent in one....”
# NBC’s Today:
Katie Couric, at desk with Matt Lauer, just after opening theme music: "Many White House photo-ops are staged events, but did the most recent one go too far? President Bush held a video conference on Thursday with U.S. troops in Iraq. But some eyebrows were raised by what came over the satellite beforehand: A Pentagon aide rehearsing the soldiers' answers. We'll have more on that just ahead."
Couric introduced the subsequent story: "On Close-Up this morning, is the Bush administration using staged events to sell the war in Iraq? President Bush spoke with soldiers in Iraq on Thursday through a video conference, but it's the video from before that meeting ever began that's raising some questions. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell is at the White House with more on the story. Kelly, good morning."
On screen during most of O’Donnell’s report:
SELLING THE WAR
WAS TALK WITH TROOPS SCRIPTED?
O'Donnell began: "Good morning, Katie. Now in advance of tomorrow's referendum vote in Iraq, the White House held this event and described it as a way to highlight that milestone and to thank the troops. Now in addition to the President talking about U.S. policy there, they handed the microphone to soldiers and that's the part that got interesting. A question-and-answer session via satellite."
President Bush to troops at event: "It's good to see you, thanks."
O'Donnell: "Between the President and members of the Army's 42nd infantry division deployed in Tikrit, Iraq. First, Mr. Bush laid out his view that the U.S. must stay and fight."
Bush: "We'll never accept anything less than total victory."
O’Donnell: "Then the President involved the soldiers."
Bush: "How do you feel the operations are going?"
O'Donnell: "The White House had said the soldier's comments were not pre-screened, expressing only their opinions. The larger context of all this, President Bush has found the war's cost an increasingly tough sell at home. Here he called on soldiers to help make the case."
Soldier in Iraq: "The Iraqi people are ready and eager to vote in this referendum."
O'Donnell: "Even an Iraqi soldier participated."
Akeel Shaker Nassir of Iraqi Army: "Good morning, Mr. President, thank you for anything."
O'Donnell: "But before the President entered the room, and senior advisors claim without the President's personal knowledge, an official from the Department of Defense, Alison Barber, prepped the soldiers."
Barber: "But if he gives us a question that's not something that we've scripted. Captain Kennedy, you're going to have that mic and that's your chance to impress us all."
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."
O'Donnell at least noted a very good reason for some rehearsal time: "Was this staged to bolster the administration's stand on Iraq? The White House was asked why any coaching was needed. Officials noted the satellite delay-"
Soldier in audio and in echo a second later: "Mr. President-"
O'Donnell: "-as a reason to let the soldiers know what to expect."
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan: "Are you suggesting that our -- what our troops were saying was not sincere or what they said was not their own thoughts?"
Female soldier in Iraq, presumably Master Sergeant Corine Lombardo: "Together with our coalition forces, we've captured over 50 terrorists."
O'Donnell: "Reached later, Master Sergeant Corine Lombardo said the soldiers had discussed their answers, but knew what they wanted to say, and practiced to appear articulate before the Commander-in-Chief. And a top spokesman for the Department of Defense also put out a statement trying to further clarify what happened. Saying in part [text on screen] 'No one intended to tell them what to think or how to express themselves. Going through likely questions in advance was meant solely to help the troops feel at ease. We certainly regret any perception that they were told what to say. It is not the case.' Still, what has happened with this is it has been a distraction from the message the White House wanted to give, and that was to highlight tomorrow's vote. Katie?"
A media-made “distraction.”
# CNN’s American Morning, as provided by the MRC’s Megan McCormack.
At about 8:19am EDT, during interview with Army Major General Rick Lynch, in Iraq, about the Iraq constitution referendum:
Miles O’Brien: "I’ve got to ask you about this teleconference with the President yesterday, if you don’t mind. As we know now, before the President ever had this discussion, whatever you want to call it, with the troops via teleconference, they were coached, at the very least, by members of the public affairs in the administration. I’m curious, though, what is the concern, what concern do you have, as a public affairs officer, as to what those troops might say if they weren’t coached?"
Major General Rick Lynch, via satellite from Iraq: "We have absolutely no concern. I’ve got to tell you, yesterday was blown out of proportion. There are technical details that we battle every day here in Iraq. And all we were trying to do yesterday is work through the technical issues of young service members talking to their Commander-in-Chief. None of those service members were coached as to what to say."
O’Brien, talking over Lynch: "No, no, no, there was, but there was–"
Lynch: "None of those service members were coached as to what to say."
O’Brien: "–there was, there was more than technical. There was more than technical. There was editorial content in all of that. It wasn’t just, you know, can you hear me, I can hear you kind of stuff. It was actually, here’s what he’s going to say, here’s what you might want to say in response, right?"
Lynch: "Again, that’s blown out of proportion. Those young men and women were expressing their opinion. If you come over and talk to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines we have on the ground her in Iraq today, they are very proud of what they're doing. They're protecting freedom and our way of life and they're proud of that fact and they will express their opinion when asked. Every visitor that comes over that talks to our soldiers leaves with a positive assessment. And those soldiers yesterday were giving their opinion."
O’Brien: "Well, I guess it’s too bad, if that’s true, that people would have another impression this morning, because of the way they were coached."
Lynch: "It is indeed disappointing..."
Coming back from an ad break ten minutes later, just past 8:30am EDT:
Miles O’Brien: "You know, a lot of people don’t know it, but we get here at four in the morning and do the entire show in rehearsal just to get it right, right?"
Soledad O’Brien: "Just a run-through. It’s not really rehearsing."
Miles O’Brien: "Just a run, no, it’s a coaching–"
Soledad O’Brien: "Coaching, or is it staging?"
Miles O’Brien: "I am being a little tongue-in-cheek."
Soledad O’Brien: "You’re mocking the President’s–"
Miles O’Brien: "I am mocking. Yes."
Soledad O’Brien: "-back and forth, Q and A with the troops, U.S. troops in Tikrit yesterday, because of course, no one’s really talking about what came out of that Q and A. They’re talking about the stagecraft that went into the Q and A."
Miles O’Brien: "These things happen. Of course, you know, no one’s surprised there’s stagecraft when it comes to, you know, President. I mean, think of Ronald Reagan. He sort of brought it to high art. And this is, I guess, what happens as it continues on."
Carol Costello: "Is anything spontaneous in politics, really? I don’t think so."
Miles O’Brien: "Jeez. Dennis Kucinich, maybe? I don’t know."
Soledad O’Brien: "I think that’s what they’re trying to avoid, spontaneity. But I think when you look specifically at what was coached, you know, when you look for the word to describe it, you can see it."
Miles O’Brien touted his less than convincing evidence: "Yeah. Allison Barber, Deputy Assistant Secretary, said, here’s the part that I like. 'Okay, so let’s work on that answer a little bit, Captain Kennedy. Why don’t you work on, 'we’re working with the Iraqi soldiers, and to my right is Master Sergeant.' And then a little later, 'she says, you know, a few smiles wouldn’t hurt back here on the TV. A few smiles.' So-"
Costello: "Well, the funny part was, is they were all smiling as the President spoke to them."
Miles O’Brien: "They received their orders, they snapped their heels, and they did as they were told, didn’t they? But here’s the thing, though. The truth be told, if they were not coached, they would have said things that the administration would have liked to hear, I’m convinced. Because they are, you know, these troops are gung ho about their mission. And so it’s a shame that they have cast this cloud, I think."
Soledad O’Brien: "It’s all stagecraft. That’s what I think."