One obvious double standard in network coverage of the War on Terror came in stories on Gen. David Petraeus, who was maligned by left-wing activists as “General Betray Us” under Bush. The media didn’t really object to a MoveOn.org full-page ad in The New York Times using that epithet, although they did report President Bush’s objection to it.
On the September 10, 2007 World News, reporter Jonathan Karl related: “War critics inside and outside the hearing room attacked Petraeus, saying he had manipulated statistics – failing, for example, include many killings in his calculation of ethnic violence. The anti-war group MoveOn.org went further, accusing the General of cooking the books for the White House.”
On the September 12, 2007 NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams interviewed Gen. Petraeus, and despite telling viewers he had a Ph.D. from Princeton, the anchorman treated him as someone who couldn’t grasp that the U.S. invasion had created terrorists.
Williams told Petraeus NBC had counted how many he times he mentioned al-Qaeda in his testimony (160), but “all these insurgents, how can you be so sure in a war without uniforms or membership cards, the claim by the critics is it fuzzes it up, it makes it a convenient, unified argument....How are we so sure all of these insurgents can be labeled al-Qaeda?” Williams insisted the general admit that “al-Qaeda in Iraq wasn’t around” on 9/11, and demanded to know “how are we so sure all of these insurgents can be labeled al-Qaeda?”
He also pounced on what liberals found to be a gaffe: Petraeus’ admission that he’s not sure if the war has made Americans safer. Williams said, “Moments after you responded to a question that you weren’t sure that the war in Iraq had made Americans safer, I heard a commentator on television say, ‘Can you imagine Eisenhower saying the same thing?’”
That unnamed commentator: Williams’ MSNBC colleague Chris Matthews, who exclaimed, “This must be a first, an American field commander who can’t say whether the sacrifices he’s asking of his troops every day and night are worth it to their country. Did General Washington not know the answer in the American Revolution? Did General Eisenhower not know the answer in World War II? What are we doing in Iraq if the very man commanding the war doesn’t know if it’s doing us any good in terms of our national security? This is the real news of the so-called Petraeus Report.” Petraeus worked for Bush, so he was a bumbler.
This came at the same time the Democrats in Congress were expressing the notion that Petraeus was out of his depth. Sen. Hillary Clinton, then in full campaign mode, stared across at the general and insisted “Despite what I view is your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief.” Clinton added that “any fair reading of the advantages and disadvantages accruing post-surge, in my view, end up on the downside.”
But fast-forward three years, and when Gen. Petraeus was appointed to oversee Obama’s surge strategy in Afghanistan on June 23, 2010, the journalists were immediately giddy. In live afternoon coverage, NBC Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski declared: “This is nothing less than a stunning development, Brian, and quite frankly, at a quick glance, almost brilliant.” White House correspondent Chuck Todd added: “Politically, in this town, it’s going to be seen as a brilliant choice by the President.”
“Brilliant” was the word of the day. “It sounds like a pretty brilliant decision, really,” said CBS White House reporter Chip Reid. Over on CNN, anchor Wolf Blitzer echoed: “Politically, a very brilliant move to tap General Petraeus.” The next morning, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos added, “That pick really seems to have been the political masterstroke that got President Obama out of the tight box he was in.”