Instead of pounding President Bush with the usual media focus on failures in Iraq, ABC anchor Charles Gibson, in his Tuesday interview at Camp David with President and Mrs. Bush, actually pointed out how many doubted the surge strategy and wondered if he wanted to “crow?” Gibson inquired in an excerpt aired on World News: “You took a lot of doubting and rather skeptical questions about the surge. I'll give you a chance to crow. Do you want to say I told you so?” Bush demurred from the opportunity. Indeed, a January MRC report documented the media hostility toward Bush's plan: “TV's Pre-Emptive War Against Iraq 'Surge'; Before Iraq Plan Unveiled, Reporters Said It Was Unpopular, Wouldn't Work & War Was 'Lost Cause.'”(See text below)
Prompted by Bush's satisfaction that Iraqis are “beginning to see enough security so that reconciliation is taking place, as well as the economy's beginning to move,” Gibson pressed the President on problems with “reconciliation.” Leading to a correction from Bush, Gibson had earlier referred to “a lot of bellicose rhetoric that has been aimed at Iran” and cited how “you yourself at a news conference recently raised the specter of World War III.” Bush clarified: “I said if you want to avoid World War III.”
The full question, as listed in a transcript of the interview posted on ABCNews.com: “There's been a lot of bellicose rhetoric that has been aimed at Iran, and you yourself, at a news conference recently, raised the specter of, of World War III if there was a nuclear armed Iran. Just my curiosity, why not turn the rhetoric around and smother them with kindness, call their bluff and say, look, if you're seriously interested in nuclear power, we'll build the nuclear power plants for you?”
The full text of the exchange about crowing over the success of the surge:
CHARLES GIBSON: You took a lot of doubting and rather skeptical questions about the surge. I'll give you a chance to crow. Do you want to say, I told you so?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: [LAUGHS] No, I don't, because the decision, while it was a tough decision was really studied, and uh, and it was based upon the recommendations of wise military commanders.
CHARLES GIBSON: Don't you take some satisfaction, though, in the fact that the, that the levels of violence have come down so far?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Absolutely, primarily because I, you know, I hurt when America loses a soldier anywhere, and it breaks my heart to think about loved ones who will miss a child, or a husband. And having said that, I'm thrilled for the Iraqis that they're beginning to see enough security so that reconciliation is taking place as well as in, as the economy is beginning to move.
ABC has been far ahead of the other networks in recognizing improvements in Iraq, my November 14 NewsBusters posting, “NBC Catches Up With ABC to Highlight Safer, Better Life in Iraq,” pointed out. Until the November 14 NBC Nightly News piece, ABC's World News had been the only broadcast network evening newscast airing reports from Iraq on improving conditions:
October 22: “ABC Airs Upbeat Iraq Story on Fallujah's 'Remarkable Turnaround.'”
October 30: “ABC: Iraqis Adapt to 'New Normal' as 'Violence on Downward Trend.'”
November 2, on the November 1 World News: “Only ABC Reports Military's Stats on Violence Plunging in Iraq.”
The MRC's Brad Wilmouth provided a transcript of what the November 20 World News aired of the discussion, taped at Camp David in Maryland, about being too “bellicose” toward Iran and the situation in Iraq:
CHARLES GIBSON: There has been a lot of bellicose rhetoric that has been aimed at Iran. And you yourself at a news conference recently raised the specter of World War III.
GEORGE W. BUSH: If I might, I might want to comment on what I said about World War III. I said if you want to avoid World War III. And the reason I said that is because I take the words of their leader very seriously when, for example, he says he wants to destroy Israel. And, you know, an attack on Israel, as far as I'm concerned, would draw the United States into a very serious conflagration in the Middle East.
GIBSON: Let me turn to Iraq.
BUSH: Yes, sir.
GIBSON: You took a lot of doubting and rather skeptical questions about the surge. I'll give you a chance to crow. Do you want to say I told you so?
BUSH: No, I don't because the decision, while it was a tough decision, it was really studied. And it was based upon the recommendations of wise military commanders. And having said that, I'm thrilled for the Iraqis that they're beginning to see enough security so that reconciliation is taking place, as well as the economy's beginning to move.
GIBSON: Well, that's the flip side, and that's the reconciliation issue. You said the design of this is to give the Iraqi government breathing space.
GIBSON: To bring about reconciliation. We've got a reporter right now who's embedded with the First Cav, and I talked to him yesterday. And he said that's all they're talking about. He quoted a captain to me: "We've gone as far militarily as we can go. The coalition cannot make reconciliation." And then they go on with their impatience and their frustration.
BUSH: My advice to him is that you have to be somewhat patient, one, because the grassroots reconciliation is beginning to translate into national, national changes. But also, these are people who are learning what it means to be involved in democracy. They're adjusting. They haven't had the same experiences that we've had.
Now, let's rewind to January for a look back at how the networks covered Bush surge plan, as recounted in a Media Reality Check by the MRC's Rich Noyes released on Thursday, January 11, the day after President Bush's speech announcing his decision:
TV’s Pre-Emptive War Against Iraq “Surge”
Before Iraq Plan Unveiled, Reporters Said It Was Unpopular, Wouldn’t Work & War Was “Lost Cause”
By the time President Bush delivered his Iraq speech Wednesday night, the news media had spent several days engaged in what the military calls "preparing the battlefield." The media’s air war against the plan to try to actually win the Iraq war assured that most of Bush’s audience would have already heard journalists claiming the new mission is wrong-headed and doomed to failure.
# "Like a folly." Last Tuesday on NBC’s Today, anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw argued that the way Saddam Hussein was executed revealed Iraq as "a deeply divided country along tribal lines," and that sending more troops would "seem to most people...like a folly." Brokaw added: "I think a lot of people who are raising their hands to join the armed services are wondering, ‘I’m giving my life for that?’"
# "Wrong Way Corrigan." The next morning on Today, political analyst Chris Matthews declared the President’s plan dead on arrival: "I expect it will be treated the way Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia was reacted to. The American people aren’t gonna like it." Matthews insisted that the voters wanted to end, not mend, Bush’s Iraq policies and "for the President to go Wrong Way Corrigan on this thing and to increase the number of troops, take us deeper into Iraq, would be to reject the opinion of the American people."
# "Absolutely no difference." This week, as more details of the President’s plan were revealed, the anti-surge drum-beat got louder. On CBS’s Early Show, co-host Harry Smith asked Baghdad reporter Lara Logan if extra troops would make a difference. "The best thing we have is to look at what has happened already. When the U.S. brought in 12,000 more troops into Baghdad last summer, it made absolutely no difference," Logan replied. "In fact, security here in Baghdad got even worse."
# "Lost Cause?" On Tuesday’s Today, NBC’s White House reporter David Gregory suggested even White House insiders have lost faith. "As the President prepares to start a new phase of the war in Iraq, the White House is fending off charges that key figures in the administration have concluded the war is lost." NBC’s graphic headline read "Lost Cause? Can U.S. Win the War In Iraq?" Gregory also cited unnamed "critics" to suggest Bush’s motives were psychological: "U.S. commanders who opposed adding troops to Iraq have been replaced, prompting critics to charge the President’s resolve has become stubbornness."
# Roll call of critics. On Wednesday’s Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer confronted White House aide Dan Bartlett: "I just want to run through a partial roll call of the number of people who have either opposed what the President is going to do, or expressed serious reservations." As she read off names such as Colin Powell and Chuck Hagel, their names and faces scrolled over her right shoulder. "I could go on and on," Sawyer told Bartlett. "What don’t they get? What don’t they understand?" Bartlett objected, saying some of the generals she listed as critics "helped devise this plan."
# "Breaking Point." On yesterday’s Today, co-host Meredith Vieira doubted that the U.S. military could meet the challenge: "The cornerstone of his plan is sending around 20,000 additional U.S. troops into the war zone. But is the military stretched to the breaking point already?" Reporter Jim Miklaszewski suggested it was: "The pace of two wars has left two-thirds of the Army’s combat brigades rated ‘Not Ready to Fight.’"
# "The cost has been enormous." Uniquely last night, CBS’s Katie Couric decided to introduce Bush’s speech by repeating the war’s terrible toll: "Four years into the war, the cost has been enormous. More than 3,000 American military killed, more than 22,000 wounded. The dollar cost, close to $400 billion." Emphasizing her point, CBS posted each demoralizing statistic as a full-screen graphic.
The new plan may succeed, or it may fail. But the media’s mantra these past few days has been that failure seems inevitable, so we shouldn’t even try.