Thursday's Howard Kurtz profile of NBC Baghdad correspondent Richard Engel in the Washington Post has a real clash of perspectives. First, NBC anchor Brian Williams claimed Engel "is the most agenda-less person I've met in our business." Then Engel declared "I think war should be illegal...I'm basically a pacifist." The story included no critics of Engel's reporting, but praise from Williams and CBS colleague Lara Logan, and Engel's mother.
Williams asserted that Engel's reporting was fearless against annoying media critics: "In an era of instant media criticism, he calls balls and strikes in the middle of a war zone," says NBC anchor Brian Williams. "He is completely unbothered by any Web site that may have problems with his reporting while he's over in Iraq dodging bullets....He is the most agenda-less person I've met in our business, I think, in the past 20 years."
Does it sound a little like Williams is saying Internet media critics should shut up and go fight in Iraq before they can have an authoritative opinion? It's certainly easy for Engel to seem unbothered by critics in a Post story that never asks a media critic of any stripe for an opinion. Here's the context for Engel's declaration of pacifism:
Why does he stay? When NBC made Engel its Middle East bureau chief over the summer, he agreed to a new contract and moved to the relative calm of Beirut. Days later he found himself covering a fierce war between Israel and Hezbollah -- and was suddenly reenergized. This, for better or worse, is what he does. Not that Engel necessarily approves of military conflict.
"I think war should be illegal," he says. "I'm basically a pacifist."
Kurtz washes over that philosophy by stressing how Engel feels the pain of the troops:
He has little patience for the notion that the media are suffering from Iraq fatigue because the story -- day after day of death and destruction -- has gotten so repetitive.
"Whether you agree with the war or not, I have a very soft spot for the guys who are out there. These guys have saved my life on more than one occasion, and they are dying at the rate of two a day, and they deserve to be talked about."
Kurtz also forwarded the claim that Engel doesn't really decide that only the bad news is news:
Not everything he covers involves bombs and bullets. Engel did a piece earlier this year on the plight of children at a Baghdad orphanage, which drew so much public reaction that "NBC Nightly News" aired it a second time.
"I don't look for good-news stories or bad-news stories. I don't have an abacus," he says.
That's not the impression you get from watching NBC. Brent Bozell noticed Engel finding little chance of success in 2005 as they put together an Iraqi constitution:
NBC’s Richard Engel growled online that the new constitution was "a deeply flawed document, peppered with religious slogans, and leaves plenty of room for Shiites and Kurds to govern themselves." Engel says Iraqis disagree on the constitution, but "with the daily pressures of the insurgency, power cuts and lawlessness, there might not be enough time to start over before this country and the people lose hope -- along with many of their lives." Does Engel wear black everywhere he goes?
MRC's Rich Noyes found last year that in studying the first nine months of 2005 coverage of Iraq on the Big Three networks, which were all gloomy in news from Iraq, NBC was the gloomiest, tying for the highest percentage of negative news stories (62 percent) and standing out with the lowest percentage of positive news stories (13 percent).