NBC Nightly News Spikes News About Fewest Troop Deaths of War

As lead-ins to short reports on the posthumous presentation of a Medal of Honor, ABC and CBS on Monday night managed to squeeze in -- more than 20 minutes into their evening newscasts -- brief mentions of how in May the fewest number U.S. servicemen were killed in Iraq in any month since the war began five years ago. But not NBC Nightly News. (And Sunday's Today and Nightly News, as well as Monday's Today, also skipped the good news.) NBC anchor Brian Williams on Monday led with worries that “because it's been underfunded for decades, mass transit may not be ready for all the Americans leaving their cars behind,” and ran his short update, on the Medal of Honor going to Army Private First Class Ross McGinnis, without anything about the decline in troops killed.

Fill-in ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos set up his report on the White House ceremony presenting the honor to the parents of McGinnis by dampening the positive news with the total death number:
The Pentagon reported 19 American troops were killed in May. That's the lowest monthly toll since the war began. The total number of Americans killed in the war is now approaching 4,100.
On the CBS Evening News, anchor Katie Couric also noted the total, but CBS didn't display it on screen, as she painted the fewest killed as “perhaps” a sign violence is going down:
In Iraq, a sign perhaps that violence is decreasing. In the lowest monthly death U.S. toll since the war began, 19 Americans were killed in May. The total U.S. toll for the war is now 4,086.
Yes, she said “monthly death U.S. toll.”

Unlike Couric, Stephanopoulos also pointed out the much-lower civilian death level: “Just over 500 Iraqi civilians were killed in war-related violence last month. That's half the number from the month before.”

ABC, but not CBS or NBC, aired a clip of President Bush praising McGinnis:
In an instant the grenade dropped through the gunner's hatch. He dropped inside, put himself against the grenade and absorbed the blast with his own body. With that split-second decision, Private McGinnis lost his own life and he saved his comrades.
(The lowest-ever U.S. troop death level in May earned a little broadcast network attention on Sunday with a brief mention in an introduction to a story on ABC's Good Morning America and during the news summary on CBS's Sunday Morning, but zilch on NBC's Today or Nightly News. Also nothing on Sunday's CBS Evening News or ABC's World News, nor on Today, GMA or The Early Show on Monday.)

NBC's lack of interest in highlighting the good news echoes the findings of a February 28 Media Reality Check by the MRC's Rich Noyes, “Fewer U.S. Dead = Less TV Coverage of Iraq: Networks Minimize Good News From Iraq, Don't Press Democrats on 'Wrong-Headed' Predictions.”

Some examples of how NBC Nightly News has emphasized the negative or avoided good news from Iraq:

An April 8 NewsBusters item, “NBC Stacks Deck Against Petraeus, and Takes a Shot at McCain Too,” recounted:
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams led Tuesday's newscast by listing the burden of the Iraq war in years, troops, deaths and cost before Jim Miklaszewski, unlike reporters on ABC and CBS, found it newsworthy to show a man, in the Senate hearing for General David Petraeus, shouting "bring them home!" In the next story, Andrea Mitchell decided to highlight, again unlike ABC or CBS, how John McCain "stumbled...by again describing al Qaeda as Shiite" and Williams turned to Richard Engel, NBC's Iraq reporter, who described Petraeus' decision to end troop withdrawals in July as "frustrating and disheartening in that the rules of the game have changed." Williams opened: "The war's now five years old. That's longer than U.S. involvement in World War II. There are currently 162,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq. Death toll is now over 4,000. And the price tag of this war for military operations alone: nearly half a trillion dollars so far."

Before and after audio of a man yelling "bring them home!", Miklaszewski helpfully suggested: "A protestor voiced what some Americans are demanding for U.S. troops." In a piece by Mitchell on how the three presidential candidates approached Petraeus, she pointed how that "the Republican Senator also stumbled, briefly, by again describing al Qaeda as Shiite." She countered: "Al Qaeda is Sunni, not Shiite. McCain immediately corrected himself." So, if he immediately corrected himself, why highlight it?
My November 2 NewsBusters post, “Only ABC Reports Military's Stats on Violence Plunging in Iraq,” reported:
Lt. General Raymond Ordierno on Thursday reported significant progress in reduced violence in Iraq, but of the broadcast network evening newscasts only ABC's World News bothered to cover the positive trend as anchor Charles Gibson introduced a full story on how "military officials gave one of the most upbeat assessments of the security situation in Iraq that we have heard since the opening months of the war." The CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly skipped the positive trend, but CBS had time for a story on the investigation of the September shooting of civilians by Blackwater and NBC aired a piece on Hillary Clinton "playing the gender card." The Washington Post and New York Times on Friday also made very different news judgments on the importance of the positive direction as the Post put the news on its front page while the Times hid it in a story, on an inside page, about Iran's role in Iraq.
The July 30, 2007 NewsBusters item, “NBC Skips More Upbeat Iraq Judgment ABC and CBS Find Newsworthy,” revealed:
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 as "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."...

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."...
Transcripts of the Iraq coverage on the Monday, June 2 broadcast network evening newscasts:

ABC's World News:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Now to Iraq, where we learned today that just over 500 Iraqi civilians were killed in war-related violence last month. That's half the number from the month before. Also the Pentagon reported 19 American troops were killed in May. That's the lowest monthly toll since the war began. The total number of Americans killed in the war is now approaching 4,100.

One of those fallen service members received America's highest military honor today. At an emotional White House ceremony, President Bush awarded the Medal of Honor to a 19-year-old Army Private First Class. In 2006, he sacrificed his life to save his comrades as they patrolled Baghdad in a Humvee. The family of Ross McGinnis was there today and so were the four men he saved.

PRESIDENT BUSH: In an instant the grenade dropped through the gunner's hatch. He dropped inside, put himself against the grenade and absorbed the blast with his own body. With that split-second decision, Private McGinnis lost his own life and he saved his comrades.

STAFF SERGEANT IAN NEWLAND: He wanted to ensure that we made it out of it. Actually we train for the opposite. We train to get away from the grenade. He lived to fight another day and that's not the decision he made. Why didn't it go differently, why did he do that? Why did my soldier die in my arms instead of me?

THOMAS McGINNIS, FATHER OF PFC ROSS McGINNIS: I guess the only thing you're going to remember about my son is that he did the right thing at the right time.

STEPHANOPOULOS: A teenage soldier's sacrifice and a country's enduring gratitude.

CBS Evening News:
KATIE COURIC: In Iraq, a sign perhaps that violence is decreasing. In the lowest monthly death U.S. toll since the war began, 19 Americans were killed in May. The total U.S. toll for the war is now 4,086.

That number, by the way, includes a soldier who today was awarded the nation's highest military honor for sacrificing his own life to save his comrades. From the time he was in kindergarten, Ross McGinnis wanted to be an Army man. And in December, 2006, the 19-year-old Pennsylvania native was in the gunner's hatch of a Humvee patrolling Baghdad when a grenade was thrown into the vehicle. Private McGinnis could have jumped out and saved himself, but instead he jumped on top of the grenade and saved his four comrades who couldn't get out.

SERGEANT LYLE BUEHLER: I still ponder everyday how you can make a decision that quick.

TOM McGINNIS, FATHER: He did the right thing at the right time.

COURIC: Today, President Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Private Ross McGinnis' parents.

ROMAYNE McGINNIS, MOTHER: Ross did what he did for his buddies.

SPECIALIST SEAN LAWSON: If it wasn't for him, I would be dead. I wouldn't be married right now. I wouldn't have a life of my own.

NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: For the fourth time since the start of the war in Iraq President Bush today awarded the Medal of Honor, this nation's highest military decoration, but for the fourth time the recipient is not alive to accept it. Specialist Ross McGinnis, then a private, was killed in the line of duty back in 2006. He was on patrol when a grenade landed in his Humvee. He threw his body over it and saved the lives of four men. All four men were on hand at the White House today for the ceremony. Friends say they remember McGinnis drawing pictures of soldiers in kindergarten. He wanted to be one. Ross McGinnis, recipient of the Medal of Honor, was 19.
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