Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz's new book excerpt on the network anchors led with some news in Monday's Post:
Charlie Gibson is a product of the Vietnam War era. When he was a television reporter in Lynchburg, Va., he had driven to Washington on weekends to march in antiwar demonstrations. And he had lost friends in that jungle war.
Now Gibson had friends whose sons were dying in Iraq. His thoughts kept returning to one central question: When you commit kids to war, what are they fighting for? What was the mission in Iraq? How could a family say that the war was worth little Johnny's well-being?
The ABC anchor was obsessed with this point. If you were president, and you decided to go to war, was there a calculus in your mind, that the goal was worth so many American lives? After all, your generals would tell you that X number were likely to die. What was the acceptable trade-off? Gibson's threshold would be one: Was the war worth one life?
So it's a good thing that Gibson was an anchorman instead of a president or senator or general. Then there was Katie Couric, who seemed to have plenty liberal to say, but not between quotation marks:
Katie Couric had always felt uncomfortable with the war, and that sometimes showed in the way she framed the story. When Bush had been marshaling support for the invasion, she felt, the country seemed to be swept up in a patriotic furor and a palpable sense of fear. There was a rush to war, no question about it. The CBS anchor could never quite figure out how Iraq had become Public Enemy No. 1, how the United States had wound up making many of the same mistakes as in Vietnam. She was happy, like most people, when the war initially seemed to be going well. Nobody wanted to see all these young kids getting killed. But the frenzied march to war had been bolstered by a reluctance to question the administration after 9/11.
She had firsthand experience with what she considered the chilling effect on the media. Two months before the 2004 election, when she was still at NBC's "Today" show, Couric had asked Condoleezza Rice whether she agreed with Vice President Cheney's declaration that the country would be at greater risk for terrorist attacks if John Kerry won the White House. Rice sidestepped the question, saying that any president had to fight aggressively against terrorism.
Couric interrupted and asked the question again. Would a Kerry victory put America at greater risk? Rice ducked again, saying that the issue should not be personalized.
Soon afterward, Couric got an e-mail from Robert Wright, the NBC president. He was forwarding a note from an Atlanta woman who complained that Couric had been too confrontational with Rice.
What was the message here? Couric felt that Wright must be telling her to back off. She wrote him a note, saying that she tried to be persistent and elicit good answers in all her interviews, regardless of the political views of her guests. If Wright had a problem with that, she would like to discuss it with him personally. Wright wrote back that such protest letters usually came in batches, but that he had passed along this one because it seemed different.
Couric felt there was a subtle, insidious pressure to toe the party line, and you bucked that at your peril. She wanted to believe that her NBC colleagues were partners in the search for truth, and no longer felt that was the case. She knew that the corporate management viewed her as an out-and-out liberal. When she ran into Jack Welch, the General Electric chairman, he would sometimes say that they had never seen eye to eye politically. If you weren't rah rah rah for the Bush administration, and the war, you were considered unpatriotic, even treasonous.
Couric believed that many viewers were now suffering from Iraq fatigue. She tried not to lead with the conflict every night, unless there were significant developments. And when the day's Iraq events were too big to ignore, Couric made clear -- in starker terms than the other anchors -- her disgust with the whole enterprise. One night she led her CBS newscast, "With each death, with every passing day, so many of us ask, 'Is there any way out of this nightmare?'"
But Couric’s image of the uber-patriotic NBC brass didn’t last through Kurtz’s section on NBC deciding to use quite showly the term ‘civil war’ in Iraq:
For months, Williams and the reporters and analysts on "NBC Nightly News" had been talking about whether Iraq was sliding toward all-out ethnic violence. Robert Wright had become frustrated with all the on-air hedging. The network president decided to circulate an e-mail to the news division, asking whether the time had come to use the term that everyone had been dancing around.
The Gibson-peacenik news isn't entirely surprising, as we found this nugget four years ago:
"I grew up in the Vietnam era, which is probably one of the signal events of my life and I think affected everybody of my generation. And we used to have a little framed sign hanging in our bedroom, my wife and I, that said, ‘War is not good for children and other living things,’ and I believe that. So I don’t like covering war and I hate to see them occur." — Gibson during an appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live, July 2, 2003.