Networks Which Hyped Haditha as 'Massacre' Show Little Interest in Marine's Version

The networks have been eager over the last few weeks to highlight every new charge or claim related to the alleged massacre by U.S. Marines of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq last November (a new study from the MRC counted 99 stories or interviews about it over just three weeks on the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening shows), but when a front page Washington Post article on Sunday recounted Marine Sergeant Frank Wuterich's contention that he and his squad followed the rules of engagement and were justified in their actions, the networks lost interest. NBC gave it a few seconds on Sunday's Today and a fuller story on Sunday's Nightly News, but ABC and CBS ignored it on their Sunday morning shows (GMA and Sunday Morning) while ABC's World News Tonight gave it a mere 20 seconds before a full story on suicides at Guantanamo and the CBS Evening News skipped it completely. On Monday, despite interview segments and stories on Iraq, the broadcast network morning shows ignored Wuterich's version, though ABC and NBC made time for full Guantanamo pieces. Amazingly, ABC's Charles Gibson didn't raise it with Congressman John Murtha, the lead accuser who appeared on GMA. The Monday evening shows also avoided the topic. (Detailed rundown and contrasts follow.)

CNN, in contrast, has given Wuterich's version, delivered through his attorney Neal Puckett, significant attention. CNN's American Morning on Monday ran a story from Pentagon reporter Jamie McIntyre as well as an interview with Puckett conducted by Soledad O'Brien. Near the end of the 7pm EDT hour of The Situation Room, Wolf Blitzer brought McIntyre aboard to explain Wuterich's version of events and fill-in anchor John Roberts dedicated an 11pm EDT hour segment of Anderson Cooper 360 to Wuterich's take. FNC's Bill O'Reilly interviewed Puckett Monday night.

In an MRC study released on Monday, “Touting Military Misdeeds, Hiding Heroes: ABC, CBS and NBC Broadcast Hours of Charges Against U.S. Marines,” the MRC's Rich Noyes reported:

The investigation isn't over, but on May 17 NBC Nightly News opted to put the story back in the headlines after comments from anti-war Congressman John Murtha. From that date through June 7, the networks have aired 99 stories or segments suggesting U.S. military misconduct -- three and a half hours of coverage in three weeks. ABC has hit the story the hardest, with 85 1/2 minutes of coverage on Good Morning America, World News Tonight, This Week and Nightline. NBC aired 67 minutes on Today, Nightly News and Meet the Press, while CBS broadcast 58 minutes on The Early Show, CBS Evening News and Face the Nation.

Much of the coverage has been repetitive, reviewing the allegations and the still unfinished investigation. At the same time, the networks have presumed a guilty verdict and a blow to the overall American military's reputation. "Will Haditha be the My Lai of the Middle East?" asked Nightline co-host Terry Moran on May 25, referring to the killing of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians back in 1968. Filling in as anchor of the May 31 CBS Evening News, Russ Mitchell pronounced that "if the allegations prove true, they'd be a huge new blow to the American military's standing with Iraq's government and its people." On the June 7 Today, NBC's Andrea Mitchell similarly labeled Haditha a "black eye for American policy"...

If the Haditha allegations are true, it is certainly a major story deserving widespread attention. But so much coverage -- so far in advance of any authoritative account of what happened -- makes journalists seem eager to spread a story that portrays the U.S. military as bad guys. The networks' heavy coverage of Haditha stands in contrast to their pattern of overlooking the stories of most of America's top military heroes in the war on terror....

An excerpt from the June 11 top of the front page Washington Post article, “Marine Says Rules Were Followed: Sergeant Describes Hunt for Insurgents in Haditha, Denies Coverup,” by Josh White:

A sergeant who led a squad of Marines during the incident in Haditha, Iraq, that left as many as 24 civilians dead said his unit did not intentionally target any civilians, followed military rules of engagement and never tried to cover up the shootings, his attorney said.

Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, told his attorney that several civilians were killed Nov. 19 when his squad went after insurgents who were firing at them from inside a house. The Marine said there was no vengeful massacre, but he described a house-to-house hunt that went tragically awry in the middle of a chaotic battlefield.

"It will forever be his position that everything they did that day was following their rules of engagement and to protect the lives of Marines," said Neal A. Puckett, who represents Wuterich in the ongoing investigations into the incident. "He's really upset that people believe that he and his Marines are even capable of intentionally killing innocent civilians."

Wuterich's detailed version of what happened in the Haditha neighborhood is the first public account from a Marine who was on the ground when the shootings occurred. As the leader of 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Wuterich was in the convoy of Humvees that was hit by a roadside bomb. He entered the house from which the Marines believed enemy fire was originating and made the initial radio reports to his company headquarters about what was going on, Puckett said.

The reports that Marines wantonly shot unarmed civilians in Haditha, including women and children, allege one of the most shocking, and potentially damaging, incidents of the Iraq war. A criminal investigation looking into possible charges of murder against half a dozen Marines is underway. A separate probe is examining whether Marines tried to cover up the shootings, and whether commanders were negligent in failing to investigate the deaths.

Three Marine officers have been relieved of command. In the absence of a public response from Marine Corps officials -- who are declining to comment to preserve the integrity of the investigation -- reports of what happened in the western Iraqi town have been leaking out piecemeal from the Haditha neighborhood and in Washington.

Wuterich's version contradicts that of the Iraqis, who described a massacre of men, women and children after a bomb killed a Marine. Haditha residents have said that innocent civilians were executed, that some begged for their lives before being shot and that children were killed indiscriminately.

Wuterich told his attorney in initial interviews over nearly 12 hours last week that the shootings were the unfortunate result of a methodical sweep for enemies in a firefight. Two attorneys for other Marines involved in the incident said Wuterich's account is consistent with those they had heard from their clients.

Kevin B. McDermott, who is representing Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, the Kilo Company commander, said Wuterich and other Marines informed McConnell on the day of the incident that at least 15 civilians were killed by "a mixture of small-arms fire and shrapnel as a result of grenades" after the Marines responded to an attack from a house....

Contrasts, identified with the assistance of the MRC's Brad Wilmouth:

ABC's World News Tonight:

Back on Sunday, May 28, ABC devoted a full story to Haditha as Dan Harris led World News Tonight: “There is a new eyewitness tonight describing an alleged massacre by Marines in Iraq and now a top Congressman says there is not only killing, but also a cover-up. That’s our top story..." The witness: a 12 year-old Iraqi girl and the Congressman was John Murtha on This Week that morning. Harris added: "Right now the military is investigating what happened in this city of Haditha where 24 civilians died. But one Congressman says it’s already clear that this was a mass murder and that it was covered up."

But on this past Sunday, the day of the Post story, anchor David Muir gave Wuterich barely 20 seconds before a full story on Guantanamo: “And there is news tonight about the incident involving U.S. Marines and the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha. The Washington Post reports Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who led a squad of Marines in Haditha, says the civilians were not executed and that there was no cover-up. Wuterich maintains the civilians were killed in a chaotic firefight after his convoy was attacked.”

Monday night: Zilch on World News Tonight.

ABC's Good Morning America:

On Memorial Day, May 29, Charlie Gibson teased (with "Cover-Up?" on screen): "This morning: Memorial Day. America honors its fallen war heroes, but troubling new information about Marine misconduct in Iraq. A new eyewitness on what could be a mass murder of civilians. Was there a cover-up?"

In a subsequent story on the 12-year-old girl and what she says she saw, with “Cover-Up?
DID MARINES KILL IN COLD BLOOD?" on screen, Jonathan Karl relayed: "Congressman John Murtha says the investigation should have happened a long time ago." Murtha on This Week the day before: "There's no question about what happened. The problem is who covered it up and why did they cover it up? Why did they wait so long?"

Two weeks later, on June 12, Gibson interviewed Murtha live for an entire segment but didn't press Murtha to respond to Wuterich's recounting of events which contradicts Murtha's presumption that murders were committed. (See this NewsBusters item by Tim Graham for the questions Gibson posed.)

Monday's GMA, however, had time for a full story on Guantanamo. News reader Kate Snow introduced the 7am news update story: "More pressure on the U.S. this morning to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That after three suicides of three detainees. ABC's Jonathan Karl joins us from the Pentagon with more. Good morning, Jon...”

CBS Evening News:

Filling in as anchor of the May 31 CBS Evening News, Russ Mitchell pronounced on the day President Bush said that the incident "troubled" him and that if the investigation finds laws were broken then there will be punishment: "If the allegations prove true, they'd be a huge new blow to the American military's standing with Iraq's government and its people." Reporter David Martin then ominously intoned: "The killing of two dozen civilians in Haditha is more than a murder case, more than a shadow over the Marine Corps. Haditha could alter the very course of the war."

But on Sunday and Monday night this week, not a syllable about Haditha on the CBS Evening News which on both nights ran at least two Iraq-related stories.

CBS's Early Show:

On Monday, Hannah Storm failed to bring up Wuterich's version during an interview with Richard Myers, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

NBC's Today:

News reader Michelle Kosinski read this short item on Sunday's Today: "This morning we're finally learning what a Marine Sergeant says about the mission he led in Haditha, Iraq, that ended in the deaths of two dozen civilians. He's 26-year-old Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich from Meriden, Connecticut, seen here in a yearbook photo. Wuterich's lawyer tells the Washington Post he and his Marines did not intentionally target civilians, followed the rules of military engagement and never tried to cover up the shootings. It's the first public account of what happened last November, and it contradicts what Iraqis have told investigators."

On Monday, however, Today did not display the zeal for the story they did with highlighting charges of Marine misdeeds. Matt Lauer devoted a session with retired General Barry McCaffrey to pushing him repeatedly about pulling troops out and then about Guantanamo. One of Lauer's questions: “Do you worry about a political side of this, that the administration may pull a substantial number troops out of Iraq just prior to November's mid-term elections simply to sway public opinion?"

At 7, 8 and 9am, the MRC's Geoff Dickens noticed, Ann Curry showcased the Guantanamo suicides. At 7am, she set up a full report: "There are new calls for closing down the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay including one from the European Union following the suicide of three detainees over the weekend. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski is in Washington for us this morning. Jim good morning...."

NBC Nightly News:

Of the broadcast networks, only NBC, on the NBC Nightly News, has given Wuterich and his lawyer any serious consideration. On Sunday, anchor John Seigenthaler relayed:

"Now to those allegations that U.S. Marines opened fire on innocent civilians in Iraq last November in a town named Haditha. For the first time, a sergeant in charge on the ground in Haditha that day is revealing his version of the events. Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich’s attorney, in an interview with the Washington Post, said Marines did follow the rules of engagement and he says the civilian deaths were a result of a house to house hunt that went tragically wrong and not a vengeful massacre. Tonight we reached the attorney Neal Puckett and asked him what his client said happened on the day in question."

Audio of Puckett: "I can tell you the method by which they cleared the houses, the first two houses they went inside, were according to their training, basically the houses had been declared a hostile environment and in a hostile environment you assume that the bad guys are inside and you are allowed to protect yourself by any means necessary. They felt the bad guys were on the other side of the door and they bust the door down throw a grenade inside and go in shooting. And that’s what happened in two rooms, one in each of two houses. Unfortunately it resulted in civilian death."

Seigenthaler: "Sergeant Wuterich’s attorney Neal Puckett also says his client is quote, 'really upset that people believe he and his Marines are even capable of intentionally killing innocent civilians.’"

CNN on Monday ran several segments on Wuterich and his attorney, starting, the MRC's Megan McCormack noticed, with a Jamie McIntyre piece in the 7am EDT half hour of American Morning followed by Soledad O'Brien interviewing attorney Puckett in the 8am EDT half hour. McIntyre returned to CNN, about 50 minutes into the 7pm EDT hour of The Situation Room, with a live set-up of a taped piece similar to what ran about 12 hours earlier.

McIntyre's taped piece, as aired on the June 12 American Morning:

Miles O'Brien: "Well, was it a Marine massacre, or was it standard operating procedure, procedure in Haditha, Iraq? An attorney for the Marine who led the squad that killed two dozen innocent civilians in Haditha last year says the Marines did nothing wrong. CNN's senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre with more."

Jamie McIntyre: "Neal Puckett represents then sergeant, now Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the leader of a four-man team that killed the occupants of two houses that day. He's told his attorney several Marines witnessed hostile fire coming from inside the house."

Neal Puckett, attorney for Sgt. Frank Wuterich: "That door was, was kicked in, a frag grenade was thrown, thrown inside, and immediately following that, the lead man in the stack went in firing his weapon and killed everyone inside."

McIntyre: "Puckett, a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, insists that was the standard procedure for clearing a suspected insurgent hideout, and that the first Marine in, who was not Wuterich, had done it before in Fallujah. It was Sergeant Wuterich's first real combat, says Puckett, and he believed he was in hot pursuit of enemy fighters."

Puckett: "Sergeant Wuterich noticed that the back door's wide open. He presumes that the, the guys who were firing had, had escaped out the back, so they went back out the front door, stealthily went around the house, and the most likely house that they could possibly be in, their fall-back position, was cleared the same way."

McIntyre: "Puckett says Wuterich fired no shots at either house, but he did fire on five men in a car after they refused orders, in Arabic, to lie on the ground, and instead took off running."

Puckett: "Sergeant Wuterich does not believe that he did anything wrong on that day. He followed the rules of engagement as had been instructed to him by professional instructors, by his chain of command, and everything he understood he was supposed to do, he did."

McIntyre: "Puckett says if anything was to blame for the deaths, it was the rules of engagement that didn't provide enough protection for innocent civilians. Jamie McIntyre, CNN, Washington."

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center