ABC Champions 'Straight Talk' from Gates on Iraq that Matches Media View

With “Straight Talk” on screen, ABC's World News led Wednesday night by touting as momentous the news that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a quote cited in the middle of a newspaper column, said “I don't know” when asked whether invading Iraq was a good idea. “Three little words,” a delighted Charles Gibson announced about dissension in the ranks, “three little words that you rarely hear from the Bush administration when it comes to the war in Iraq: 'I don't know.' That's what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said when asked if the Iraq invasion was a good idea. Gates' words are in stark contrast to the surety often expressed by the President.” Reporter Jonathan Karl trumpeted how “Gates' stunningly candid answer came in an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks.” Repeating the “I don't know” reply, Karl urged: “Compare that to the words of President Bush, who has said consistently and forcefully the invasion was the right thing to do.” Viewers then saw three Bush soundbites. Karl concluded with how Gates disagrees with Bush “on what might just be the most important question of the Bush presidency.”

ABC seems to apply the approving “straight talk” label to those expressing the media's consensus liberal view. For instance, back on the April 14, 2006 World News Tonight, anchor Elizabeth Vargas set up a story on fears that John McCain was moving to the right, by recalling how “during his 2000 campaign, McCain gathered support as a straight-talking maverick by attacking some members of his party's base. Now it appears he's on a very different course.” Reporter Dan Harris then reminisced about how in 2000 McCain's “straight talk included taking on powerful Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell, whom he called an 'agent of intolerance.'” (NewsBusters item)

Neither the CBS Evening News nor NBC Nightly News found the Gates quote inside a newspaper column so momentous and didn't utter a word about it Wednesday night.

Karl's quotation of Gates did not match the column he cited. Karl asserted:
Secretary Gates' stunningly candid answer came in an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks. Asked if the invasion of Iraq was worth doing, Gates first rephrased the question: "If I'd known then what I know now, would I have done the same? I think the answer is 'I don't know.'"
On screen, ABC displaced this text next to a picture of Gates:
If I'd known then what I know now, would I have done the same? I think the answer is "I don't know."
But in the September 19 column, “The Education of Robert Gates,” Brooks included (in both online and printed editions) only this shorter quotation of Gates answering his question:
I asked him whether invading Iraq was a good idea, knowing what we know now. He looked at me for a bit and said, “I don’t know.”
Maybe the Times posted audio somewhere, but it's not on the page with the Brooks column.

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video for the September 19 lead story on ABC's World News:
CHARLES GIBSON, IN OPENING TEASER: Welcome to World News. Tonight, the U.S. Secretary of Defense says he doesn't know whether invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Do the White House and the Pentagon disagree?

...

GIBSON: Good evening. Three little words, three little words that you rarely hear from the Bush administration when it comes to the war in Iraq: "I don't know." That's what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said when asked if the Iraq invasion was a good idea. Gates' words are in stark contrast to the surety often expressed by the President, though Gates was quick to add, on the issue of troop levels needed in Iraq, the White House and Pentagon are in total agreement. Jonathan Karl is at the Pentagon tonight. John?

JONATHAN KARL: Charlie, it has been an article of faith for the Bush administration that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Now, the man in charge of running the war says he's not so sure. Secretary Gates' stunningly candid answer came in an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks. Asked if the invasion of Iraq was worth doing, Gates first rephrased the question: "If I'd known then what I know now, would I have done the same? I think the answer is 'I don't know.'" Compare that to the words of President Bush, who has said consistently and forcefully the invasion was the right thing to do.

GEORGE W. BUSH, MAY 25, 2006: I strongly believe we did and are doing the right thing.

BUSH, APRIL 6, 2006: Removing Saddam Hussein was the right thing for world peace and the security of our country.

BUSH, JULY 12, 2007: It is a necessary war to secure our peace.

LEE HAMILTON, IRAQ STUDY GROUP: Well, it's just a stark contrast. You couldn't get a greater contrast.

KARL: Lee Hamilton is the co-author of the Iraq Study Group report.

HAMILTON: It's refreshing to me to see a Secretary of Defense who has an appreciation of military power, but also an appreciation of the limitations of military power.

KARL: Secretary Gates supports the President's strategy on the so-called "surge," but he has a starkly different view on what can be accomplished in Iraq. In another interview today, he told the Wall Street Journal he is focused on bringing, quote, "a long-term stabilizing presence." Absent in the interview, any talk of spreading democracy, once the centerpiece of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

BUSH, from the January 2005 Inauguration: -with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

KARL: Gates, in a speech this week, sought to scale that back.

ROBERT GATES: We must be realists and recognize that the institutions that underpin an enduring and free society can only take root over time.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR: The President's, you know, vow in his second inaugural was to spread democracy around the world. Bob Gates is coming and saying, "Hey, wait a minute. This takes a long time. Let's be patient. We're not on a crusade. Let's do the best we can."

KARL: Asked to clarify Secretary Gates' comments on the war, the Pentagon referred back to his confirmation hearing in December when he said it was, quote, "too early to tell" if invading Iraq was the right decision. So, Charlie, now on two different occasions, the Secretary of Defense has passed up on an opportunity to agree with the Commander-in-Chief on what might just be the most important question of the Bush presidency.
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