NBC Skips Brookings's More Upbeat Iraq Judgment That ABC, CBS Find Newsworthy

NBC Nightly News on Monday ignored a development both ABC and CBS found newsworthy, that after eight days in Iraq, two Brookings Institution scholars who describe themselves has “harshly” critical of Bush's Iraq policy, determined the situation in Iraq is better than they assumed and so the “surge” should continue into next year. Instead of reporting the fresh assessment from Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, NBC anchor Brian Williams, citing “a draft U.S. report,” aired a full story on how “there are disturbing new details about corruption at the very top of the Iraqi government.” But the NBC Nightly News has hardly been reticent before about running soundbites from O'Hanlon with dire warnings about Iraq.

ABC anchor Charles Gibson declared “the column was the talk of Washington today.” From Iraq, Terry McCarthy related that “the report tracks fairly closely with what we're seeing both in our visits to U.S. bases in and around Baghdad involved with the surge, and also our trips out to Baghdad neighborhoods talking to Iraqi population. Clearly, security is improving as the U.S. military footprint expands so the violence goes down, the sectarian killings go down.” Indeed, on CBS, David Martin noted how “with one day left in the month, American casualties in July are the lowest since the troop surge began in February. And civilian casualties are down a third.” Martin aired soundbites from Pollack and O'Hanlon as he described “just enough progress so that a critic like Michael O'Hanlon, who used to think the surge was too little too late, now believes it should be continued.”

Both ABC and CBS also highlighted a downbeat report on Iraq, an Oxfam report on the “humanitarian crisis.”

In the Monday New York Times op-ed, “A War We Just Might Win,” O'Hanlon and Pollack reported that they found that “morale is high” amongst “the soldiers and marines” who “told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results.” They duo detailed progress they saw, before concluding “the surge cannot go on forever. But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.”

An excerpt from their July 30 op-ed:
VIEWED from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel, the political debate in Washington is surreal. The Bush administration has over four years lost essentially all credibility. Yet now the administration’s critics, in part as a result, seem unaware of the significant changes taking place.

Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

After the furnace-like heat, the first thing you notice when you land in Baghdad is the morale of our troops. In previous trips to Iraq we often found American troops angry and frustrated — many sensed they had the wrong strategy, were using the wrong tactics and were risking their lives in pursuit of an approach that could not work.

Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services -- electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation -- to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began -- though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done....

In Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street....

Another surprise was how well the coalition’s new Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams are working. Wherever we found a fully staffed team, we also found local Iraqi leaders and businessmen cooperating with it to revive the local economy and build new political structures. Although much more needs to be done to create jobs, a new emphasis on microloans and small-scale projects was having some success where the previous aid programs often built white elephants....
As noted above, the NBC Nightly News hasn't hesitated to feature O'Hanlon's previous dire forecasts. On April 28, the newscast featured O'Hanlon's warning: “We're going to have to see some pretty striking results from the surge pretty soon to continue to justify the strain and the sacrifice it's exacting on our forces.” A week earlier, on April 20, O'Hanlon predicted: “If al-Sadr's people really fight us hard, we are in very bad trouble. If the car bombings continue like they did on Wednesday, we are not going to prevail.” And back on February 3, NBC brought O'Hanlon on to comment on a government report about the situation in Iraq: “This report definitely leaves open the distinct possibility of utter chaos, outright civil war and complete mission failure. There is no doubt that Iraq could simply collapse.”

Monday's NBC Nightly News ran a story by David Gregory on British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's meeting with President Bush, which Williams set up by asking “will the Brits, under Brown, change course” on Iraq? Then, after a plug for his Tuesday interview with Brown, Williams set up the corruption story from Lisa Myers:
“Tonight there are disturbing new details about corruption at the very top of the Iraqi government. A new draft U.S. report, obtained by NBC News, says corruption has hurt delivery of services, threatens vital public support for the government there and there are new indications that Iraq's new rulers have virtual immunity from prosecution. Or senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers, has our exclusive story tonight.”
The MRC's Brad Wilmouth transcribed some of the July 30 coverage on ABC and al of it on te CBS Evening News:

ABC's World News:
CHARLES GIBSON: A bit of a surprise today on Iraq. Two long and persistent critics of the Bush administration's handling of the war today wrote a column in the New York Times saying that after a recent eight-day visit to Iraq, they find significant changes taking place. Military analysts Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack wrote, "We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms." They added, "We were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily victory but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.” The column was the talk of Washington today. So we are joined by Terry McCarthy in Baghdad, Martha Raddatz at the White House and Jake Tapper on Capitol Hill for reaction. Let's start with Terry. So, Terry McCarthy, let me start with you. Is what they say they saw in Baghdad a fair reflection of what's going on?

TERRY MCCARTHY: Charlie, the report tracks fairly closely with what we're seeing both in our visits to U.S. bases in and around Baghdad involved with the surge, and also our trips out to Baghdad neighborhoods talking to Iraqi population. Clearly, security is improving as the U.S. military footprint expands so the violence goes down, the sectarian killings go down. Now, what we're not seeing is political progress. The Iraqi parliament hasn't passed a single bill that the U.S. has been pushing for. And, in fact, today they went off on vacation. They're not due back until September 4.
CBS Evening News:
DAVID MARTIN: With one day left in the month, American casualties in July are the lowest since the troop surge began in February. And civilian casualties are down a third. U.S. officials attribute that to the dismantling of networks which make roadside bombs, and to American soldiers protecting the local population. It would only take a few spectacular attacks to reverse those trends, but even critics of the war strategy are encouraged.

KEN POLLACK, Saban Center at Brookings Institution: The moment that we got to Baghdad, everything felt very different from previous trips to Iraq.

MARTIN: Former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, who earlier this year published an article about Iraq titled "Things Fall Apart," now sees a sudden change in American fortunes.

POLLACK: This is the first time I have gone to Iraq and actually felt that the United States knew what it was doing and was actually creating some degree of progress.

MARTIN: Retired Marine General Jim Jones, who is conducting a congressionally ordered study of the Iraqi security forces, also came back from Iraq saying privately it was better than he expected. By any measure, Iraq is still a deadly mess, and no one is claiming to see light at the end of the tunnel.

POLLACK: We have not won this war, and we didn't see something that looked like victory over in Iraq. All we saw was progress.

MARTIN: Just enough progress so that a critic like Michael O'Hanlon, who used to think the surge was too little too late, now believes it should be continued.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, Brookings Institution: For me, gut instinct, just piecing all the information together subjectively, I thought we should give it a few more months into 2008.

MARTIN: Which is exactly what the American commander, General David Petraeus, wants: Continue the surge into next spring, then start a gradual withdrawal back to the pre-surge troop level of 130,000 by the end of 2008. David Martin, CBS News, the Pentagon.
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