Broadcast Nets, Which Led With Murtha, Ignore Lieberman

Twelve days ago when Democratic Congressman John Murtha, who had long been critical of the Bush administration’s running of the war, advocated withdrawing troops from Iraq, the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts all emphasized his importance and influence as they led with his press conference. CBS showcased Murtha’s attack on Vice President Dick Cheney’s lack of military service and ABC ran a 90-second excerpt of Murtha. But on Tuesday night, after the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed (“Our Troops Must Stay”) from the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate, Senator Joe Lieberman, in which he cited “real progress” in Iraq and argued against withdrawing troops, ABC and CBS didn’t utter a syllable about his assessment. The NBC Nightly News, at least, squeezed in a soundbite from Lieberman, though David Gregory also highlighted a puny protest as he relayed how “opposition to the war followed the President today to a Denver fundraiser, as more than a hundred angry critics met Mr. Bush's motorcade.” In his op-ed, Lieberman had bemoaned: “What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory.”

ABC’s World News Tonight, which led with multiple stories from New Orleans on the three-month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, held its coverage of Iraq to a brief item on “peace activists” taken hostage and anchor Elizabeth Vargas provided a 20-second preview of Bush’s Wednesday speech on his Iraq policy.

Snowstorms topped the CBS Evening News before David Martin provided a story on how Secretary of Defense “Rumsfeld rattled off signs of progress,” which Martin ran through. “For all the progress cited by administration officials,” Martin then ominously concluded, “one key factor shows no sign of improving: For the past two months, an average of three Americans has been killed each day in Iraq, and that's the highest since January." Anchor Bob Schieffer then turned to Lara Logan in Baghdad who said one of Rumsfeld’s assertions “simply isn't true” and undermined a couple of others. (Full transcripts of the CBS and NBC stories follow, as well as more on Murtha coverage.)

Admittedly, Murtha versus Lieberman does not make a perfect contrast, but after hyperventilating over Murtha, the network newscasts owed it to their viewers to inform them when a leading member of the same party, following a trip to Iraq, returns with an opposite assessment of the situation laid out in a lengthy op-ed.

An excerpt from the top of my November 17 NewsBusters item, “Nets Lead With Murtha, Highlight His Ridicule of Cheney's Lack of Military Service.”

Though more than a year ago Democratic Congressman John Murtha denounced the Iraq war, asserting that “we cannot prevail in this war at the policy that's going today,'' on Thursday night ABC, CBS and NBC all led by championing Murtha's call for the immediate withdrawal of troops and showcased his ridicule of Vice President Cheney's lack of military service. “On military matters, no Democrat in Congress is more influential,” CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer asserted in bucking up Murtha's credentials at the top of his newscast, insisting therefore “all of Washington listened” to him. The media certainly did. With the text on screen, Schieffer soon highlighted how Murtha “noted the Vice President had never served in the military and said, and I quote, 'I like guys who got five deferments and had never been there, then send people to war and don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done.'” Schieffer asked John Roberts: “So, in this kind of situation, the White House has got to be worried about, because this is clearly a sign that support for the war is beginning to fade on Capitol Hill."

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams teased: “The war of words over Iraq. Tonight a key Democratic supporter in Congress says it's time to get out, while the White House steps up its attacks on critics.” Williams led by touting: “When one Congressman out of 435 members of Congress speaks out against the war in Iraq, it normally wouldn't be news, but it was today, because of who he is. Congressman John Murtha, a Vietnam veteran....Today, John Murtha said the U.S. must get out of Iraq. It's a debate that has followed President Bush halfway around the world.”

“An influential Democrat who supported the war says American troops should come home now," anchor Bob Woodruff trumpeted at the top of ABC's World News Tonight. Woodruff distorted President Bush's comments in Asia as he insisted Bush “took every chance he could to say that people who question his rationale for going to war in Iraq are not only wrong, but irresponsible and unpatriotic.” ABC's new White House reporter, Martha Raddatz, then claimed that “a visibly perturbed President called Democrats 'irresponsible' for continuing to criticize his administration's use of pre-war intelligence." And Raddatz highlighted how “Murtha ripped into the Vice President, taking aim at his lack of military service." In fact, Bush and Cheney are upset about being charged with “lying” to get the nation into a war, not at general criticism. ABC gave Cheney barely 30 seconds, but devoted more than 90 seconds to a “1st Person” excerpt from Murtha....

The November 29 CBS Evening News led with snowstorms and the forecast for tornadoes next season before getting to Iraq (transcript provided by the MRC’s Brad Wilmouth):

Bob Schieffer: "Two more American soldiers were killed in Iraq today. Their patrol was hit by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad. That news came as President Bush and his top aides are planning to launch a public relations campaign to answer critics of the war. The President will make what the White House calls a major speech tomorrow to lay out his strategy to win the war. And today, both he and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld argued that progress is being made, though it is not always noted. Here's David Martin."

David Martin: "With protesters disrupting the presidential motorcade in Denver today and critical decisions on reducing the number of American troops only weeks away, President Bush says he'll rely solely on the advice of his battlefield commanders."

George W. Bush: "People don't want me making decisions based upon politics. They want me to make decisions based upon the recommendation from our generals on the ground. And that's exactly who I'll be listening to."

Martin: "General George Casey has a plan to bring the U.S. troop level down from 160,000 to less than 100,000 next year, but he won't make any recommendations on carrying it out until after a new Iraqi government is elected next month. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld believes Iraqi troops are ready to take over at least some of the fight."

Donald Rumsfeld at Pentagon press conference: "By golly, the people who've been denigrating the Iraqi security forces are flat wrong."

Martin, with matching text on screen: "Rumsfeld rattled off signs of progress: 95 Iraqi battalions now conducting combat operations, although almost always with American help; 87 square miles of Baghdad, including once notorious shooting galleries like Haifa Street, now under Iraqi control; 29 operating bases turned over to Iraqi troops, including last week's ceremony in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, where dignitaries scurried for cover at the sound of incoming rounds; and there is an intelligence report that a chief aide to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader responsible for the deadliest suicide bombings, has been arrested in Syria, which he used as a base for funneling foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq. For all the progress cited by administration officials, one key factor shows no sign of improving: For the past two months, an average of three Americans has been killed each day in Iraq, and that's the highest since January. Bob?"

Schieffer: "David Martin. We want to go now to Baghdad where Lara Logan is standing by. Lara, today Mr. Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, made a point of saying that the road between the airport and Baghdad is now under Iraqi control. I know you were just out on that road. What is the situation there?"

Lara Logan, in Baghdad: "Well, Bob, that simply isn't true. American forces are in control of the airport road, not Iraqi forces. And Iraqi police battalions set up checkpoints along airport road in April, and they've been very effective in helping reduce attacks on airport road, but I confirmed tonight with American officials here in Baghdad, and I certainly saw for myself when I spent several weeks on that road in August and September, that American soldiers are in control. It's American humvees patrolling 24 hours a day, and it's American firepower that makes those Iraqi police checkpoints possible on that road."

Schieffer: "And the Secretary of Defense made a point of what he called Haifa road, which is one of the most dangerous areas, Haifa street. He says that's under Iraqi control now. What can you report on that?"

Logan: "Well, American forces conducted very significant operations on Haifa street, but it's widely acknowledged here and has even been reported publicly that a deal was made and that insurgents who were attacking on Haifa street are now using that as a command base and attacking elsewhere in Baghdad, that they made that deal with the Iraqi authorities, and that's why Haifa street now appears to be under the control of the Iraqi police."

Schieffer: "The Secretary of Defense made a point of saying quitting is not an exit strategy, but he also said eventually the Iraqis have to do it for themselves. Lara, how close do you think the Iraqis are to doing it for themselves?"

Logan: "It's quite clear on the ground here that even though the Iraqis are taking more control on a daily basis on the ground, they're nowhere near taking this over. There are huge questions about who the Iraqi police and who the Iraqi army are loyal to. They've been infiltrated by militias. They have no command and control structure that could survive without the Americans. They rely heavily on American armor and American air support, and I think they're a very long way from that, Bob."

Schieffer: "All right, well, thank you very much, Lara. Along with all the other problems in Iraq, there's been a wave of kidnappings that may be aimed at disrupting next month's elections. Among the latest victims are four Christian peace activists -- an American, a Briton and two Canadians. They were abducted by insurgents on Saturday and shown today in a video on an Arabic news channel."

NBC Nightly News, anchored by Brian Williams from inside the Super Dome in New Orleans, led with President Bush’s plan to use a series of speeches to outline his Iraq policy.

David Gregory began over matching video: “The President today touring the U.S.-Mexican border in El Paso, but talking about Iraq, again insisting it would be a terrible mistake to let politics dictate the withdrawal of U.S. troops.”

President Bush: “I want our troops to come home, but I don't want them to come home without having achieved victory. And we've got a strategy for victory.”

Gregory: “White House aides acknowledged the push for an American exit strategy was accelerated when Democratic Congressman John Murtha called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops within six months. But today top administration officials were still fighting back.”

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “Quitting is not an exit strategy. It would be a formula for putting the American people at still greater risk. It would be an invitation for more terrorist violence.”

Gregory: “Opposition to the war followed the President today to a Denver fundraiser, as more than a hundred angry critics met Mr. Bush's motorcade. In a speech tomorrow, White House aides say Mr. Bush will speak in detail about the progress he sees training Iraqi security forces. That progress will determine when and how many U.S. troops can come home. But Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman today warned war critics about pushing for U.S. withdrawal.”

Senator Joe Lieberman: “If we prematurely draw down our forces there before the Iraqis are ready to provide security for their own people and for their self-government, the place could go to chaos.”

Gregory: “Still, outside experts like President Clinton's Defense Secretary, said today the administration must wean the Iraqis of their dependence on the U.S.”

William Cohen: “I think that most military would agree it's time for the Iraqis to assume a much greater share of the responsibility.

Gregory: “Today a top Iraqi official predicted enough Iraqi forces will be ready so that 30,000 U.S. troops could leave the country early next year, as planned. U.S. officials added that if conditions on the ground permit, U.S. Forces could be drawn down to fewer than 100,000 by the end of 2006. David Gregory, NBC News, Denver.”

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