Howard Kurtz: Media Drumbeating War Again, Not Asking Skeptical Questions About Libya

Howard Kurtz on Sunday scolded the media for drumbeating war "again" and not asking any skeptical questions about America's goals in Libya.

On CNN's "Reliable Sources," Kurtz repeated his previously made assertion that this is what happened before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 (video follows with transcript and commentary):

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: This is a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES tracking the coverage of two major international stories unfolding at this hour, the American-led bombing of Libya and the nuclear crisis in Japan.

One major question about the assault on Libya, what happened to the media's skepticism?

U.S. warplanes hitting targets in Libya for a second day today. And I have to say this at the outset -- the media get excited by war, the journalistic adrenaline starts pumping as we talk about warships and warplanes and cruise missiles, and we put up the maps and we have the retired generals on. And sometimes something is lost in that initial excitement.

It reminds me of eight years ago this very weekend, when Shock and Awe was rained down upon Baghdad and the media utterly failed to ask skeptical questions. So, I looked at my "New York Times" this morning, went through all the sections, I looked at my "Washington Post" this morning and looked through all the sections. Didn't see any skeptical articles, columns, editorials about this no-fly position. Two fine newspapers, don't see the skeptical questions.

What if there's a long-term stalemate here? What is this goes on and on? What if there are American casualties? Do you stop this operation with Gadhafi still in power?

These are the questions I think we need to be asking.

And to help us answer them this morning, here in Washington, Rome Hartman, executive producer of BBC "World News America," and a former executive producer of "The CBS Evening News"; Fred Francis, former Pentagon correspondent for NBC News, now consults with clients dealing with the media in times of crisis; and Jamie McIntyre, founder of the "Line of Departure" blog and a former Pentagon correspondent for CNN.

Let's start with you, Rome. Where are the skeptical questions?

I certainly agree this is what we've seen from the Obama-loving press in recent weeks, but is this what happened in 2002 and 2003 before we invaded Iraq?

That's what the Left and their media minions claim, but numerous Media Research Center studies totally refute this assertion. Here's what we reported on October 14, 2002:

In votes held Thursday afternoon and early Friday morning, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate gave President Bush the legal authority to use military force if Iraq continues defying the United Nations. Congressional support was overwhelming — Bush won by 296 to 133 in the House and by 77 to 23 in the Senate.

Yet during the four weeks leading up to the congressional votes, the three network evening newscasts exaggerated the congressional opposition by disproportionately stressing the views of Bush’s anti-war opponents in Congress. MRC researchers reviewed all 81 soundbites from members of Congress in Iraq stories following the President’s September 12 speech to the United Nations through the final day of debate on October 10. Thirty soundbites were neutral comments, but 51 offered clear support or opposition to the President’s tough stance. Nearly three in five of these quotes (59%) opposed the use of force, or roughly double the percentage of Senators and Representatives who actually held such views (29%).

Here's what we reported on May 15, 2007:

Despite the claim that the media never "asked tough questions," an MRC study of all Iraq stories on ABC’s World News Tonight during September 2002 discovered that ABC reporters were nearly four times more likely to voice doubt about the truthfulness of statements by U.S. officials than Iraqi claims.

"Today, the administration made a brand new accusation," ABC anchor Peter Jennings announced on the September 26, 2002 broadcast. Reporter Martha Radditz quickly scoffed: "A senior intelligence official tells ABC News there is no smoking gun. There’s not even a smoking unfired weapon linking al Qaeda to Iraq."

"The war policy is a crock," Newsweek international news editor Michael Hirsh announced at a Yale forum on November 6, 2002. "This is a hugely risky operation for potential gains that probably won’t justify the risk."

Columnist Helen Thomas declared Bush’s policy "immoral," and used her role at White House press conferences to bring her anti-war message to a wide audience. "You are leaving the impression that Iraqi lives, the human cost doesn’t mean anything," Thomas scolded the President at his November 7, 2002 press conference.

"Ari, you said that the President deplored the taking of innocent lives," Thomas argued at a January 6, 2003 press briefing. "Why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?"

In September 2002, then-MSNBC anchor Brian Williams suggested the U.S. was an arrogant power. "The situation hasn’t been this lopsided in terms of one breakout superpower on the planet in quite some time," Williams told Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria, who agreed: "It hasn’t been like this since the Roman Empire two millennia ago."

"I was going to say we’d have to go back to the days of the Empire, and that gives the U.S. obvious military swagger," Williams continued, referring to his own country in the third-person: "Does it give them any kind of moral courage above anyone else and anyone’s world, and isn’t that world view part of what got the United States in trouble September 11th?"

Sound like the media were cheerleading the Iraq invasion to you?

Yet this was by no means the first time Kurtz made this allegation.

As NewsBusters reported on May 14, 2007, he said on the previous day's "Reliable Sources," "Now, it is certainly true that everybody at every news organization I've talked to said that the media were not aggressive enough during the run-up to war."

If Kurtz's unnecessarily guilty conscience is making him question the lack of media scrutiny concerning Obama's Libyan incursion, maybe that's a good thing, for he sure was pressing this issue with his guests Sunday:

ROME HARTMAN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "WORLD NEWS AMERICA": Well, I think that it's natural, as you suggested, that at the very outset of something, the operational questions do take precedence. I think that it's not our job to make policy or, frankly, to comment on policy.

KURTZ: But it is our job to question.

HARTMAN: Policy, about that.

KURTZ: And this was -- everybody in the media said this wouldn't happen again. We screwed up on Iraq, we got rushed to war. And I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad decision. Gadhafi is an odious fellow. But I think we need to be doing more challenging.

FRED FRANCIS, FMR. NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: The key issue I think is -- I think the media is exhausted, frankly, in the last three, four, five weeks with what happened starting in Cairo, over to Japan, now back to Libya. I think there's an exhaustion going on and not enough questions have been asked.

KURTZ: But not too exhausted to be on the air 24 hours a day.

FRANCIS: Well, but shallow coverage. In fact, shallow coverage.

You know, we didn't pay enough attention to John Brennan, the president's terrorism chief this week, when he said -- and he was reluctant to advise the president to go to war here. Brennan said this week, we don't know who these rebels are, we don't know what we're getting.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, "LINE OF DEPARTURE" BLOG: Come on, Fred. This is not heavy lifting.

You know, Howie, I think you're exactly right. I mean, there's this tendency in the initial stages to debate whether it's 110 or 112 cruise missiles, but the real question that were sort of absent from a lot of the coverage was, what is this no-fly zone expected to accomplish? Is it too little, too late? How do you have a no-fly zone when you really have to protect rebels on the ground?

You heard -- the Pentagon has been very reluctant about this all along from Secretary Gates to Admiral Mullen, and you've heard them talk about how limited this action is. The military is loath to commit to a goal that can't be accomplished by military means, and clearly they believe that there's a goal here that can't be accomplished through military means.

KURTZ: And the question that hangs over all of this is, is the United States, with very little debate, except about the tactics of this no-fly zone, being sucked into a third war?

Very little debate? How about none?

This Libyan situation began on February 15. Only 32 days later, we're lobbing in missiles.

By contrast, Americans and their elected officials debated the reasons to invade Iraq for eighteen months following 9/11.

You would think there'd be far more media handwringing concerning this rush to war than what followed the first attack on this nation's homeland in 60 years:

HARTMAN: But there's another dimension to it, too. It's not just not just whether it will work in Libya, or whether it's the right thing to do in Libya. But you look at Yemen and you look at Bahrain, and it's a very natural and sensible and necessary question to say, OK, so why there and not there? What are the dimensions that make this different from that?

So there's operational questions that have to be asked. But there are also questions of parity and why intervention in one place where civilians are being killed is OK and not in another where civilians are being killed? As recently as Friday, in Yemen, I mean, there was a massacre there.

FRANCIS: Sure.

I think it's interesting that in this administration -- and this was from remarkable reporting I think by "The New York Times" this week -- that it was three women who pressed the president to go ahead -- Hillary Clinton, who was reluctant at start -- Hillary Clinton, Samantha Powers from the National Security Council, and Susan Rice, the United Nations ambassador, going against the advice of the secretary of defense, Gates, Brennan, the counterterrorism chief, and -- so three women pressed the president to change his mind. But why did they do that?

And I say they did it because Hillary Clinton went to France and realized that the French were going to take the lead and the United States was just going to take the lead politically and policy-wise.

KURTZ: Since you raised that, it's interesting the way these stories get written about reconstructing an important decision. And a lot of news organizations tackle, this but "The New York Times" from yesterday have the headline here, "Shift by Clinton Help Persuade President to Take a Harder Line." "Within hours, Mrs. Clinton and the aides had convinced Mr. Obama that the United States had to act."

When one person -- in this case, Secretary Gates -- gets so much more credit in one news account, I wonder whether or not a certain amount of leaking and spinning was going on.

MCINTYRE: Well, you know, one really interesting thing about journalism, it's very hard to know what's going on at the time it's going on.

I was just talking to Doug Feith the other day from the administration, and we were talking about all these memoirs -- I mean, from the Bush administration. I'm sorry. We were talking about all these memoirs are written after the fact -- Donald Rumsfeld's, everybody's memoir.

And one interesting thing he said was he was reading a lot of these memoirs and he didn't know what some of the people who are actually involved in the decision-making were thinking at the time until he read some of their books. So when you go back in real time and try to reconstruct exactly the dynamics of behind-the-scenes decision-making, it's very difficult to do.

FRANCIS: I think another point we have to make here is, this week was the impression that the Obama administration was not really paying attention. I think it was counterproductive of the Obama administration to show the president -- and even though it was a short period of time -- picking out his NCAA basketball brackets at the same time we had a meltdown going on in Japan.

Kurtz's response to this was rather surprising:

KURTZ: Well, I would disagree with that, because the notion that the president can't play golf, can't indulge in a little basketball fun I think is something where the media are jumping on --

FRANCIS: It was the symbolism. It was the symbolism.

MCINTYRE: But this is a very different situation. Normally when we have military action on the scale that we've seen in the last 24 hours, the president is in the Oval Office. He comes out, he gives the case for why he's putting U.S. troops in danger. And here we saw -- there's a very calculated effort to portray the United States as taking a back seat into the point where the president didn't announce the --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Let me come back to the larger question, which is the way the media are covering what is being sold by the administration as a somewhat limited action, a no-fly zone to prevent a massacre by Gadhafi of the rebels in the eastern part of the country, but really looks like the start -- or could look like, in retrospect -- the start of a war.

But it's not surprising the administration would be selling it that way. What is unfortunate is that the media are not only buying it, they're aiding and abetting the sale:

KURTZ: We are having to cover this from a distance. I'm reminded of Iraq, because the first pictures are provided by the Pentagon, by the Navy.

We've got video here. We're taking a look at still shots of those Tomahawk missiles being fired from warships off the coast of Libya. This is journalism that, by necessity, we can't get to the front lines --

(CROSSTALK)

HARTMAN: On the other hand, though, we have -- I mean, just speaking for the BBC -- have correspondents in Tripoli and in Benghazi reporting sort of two fronts there. And Alan Little, our correspondent live from Tripoli, reporting on what he hears. And obviously it's very difficult to cover this kind of a story.

You're going to have competing versions of what has happened. You already have that.

KURTZ: Gadhafi already saying civilians have been killed. Maybe that is true. Maybe that is not true. We have no way to verify it.

HARTMAN: You know, the hospital pictures are already being trotted out of supposedly innocent victims. This is a very tough, cynical circumstance in which to try to cover this story.

KURTZ: And what about the risk to journalists? You have some experience with cruise missiles. You haven't fired any, but you were there.

FRANCIS: The very first cruise missile from the USS Normandy in the Bosnian war. I was on that ship that fired a cruise missile.

Frankly, I had no idea where that cruise missile was going. They fired 16 of them that day.

The most experience I had and show how difficult this is was exactly eight years ago this week. I was inside Iraq waiting for our country to invade us.

It was a good thing that, as a journalist, it was a great story to be inside Iraq, but we were also scared because we didn't want to get hit by our own forces. You know, it's a very dangerous situation today. Since last Tuesday, we have not seen or heard from Anthony Shadid and three others from "The New York Times."

KURTZ: I'm going to come back to that in the next segment. But let me turn to Jamie McIntyre.

You have been in the situation over many years of being up live on CNN hour after hour when a war is going on. Isn't there -- you know, nobody wants to root against United States forces. Is there a certain rah-rah element that takes over that somehow overshadows or submerges the kind of skeptical questions I was talking about at the top?

MCINTYRE: Well, I'm -- when I was covering the Pentagon for CNN, I was generally rooting for the United States. OK? Let's just get that out of the way. But that doesn't mean you're not skeptical about how the policy is being conducted.

For instance, in this operation, the key questions are -- you know, at the Pentagon, they were referred to as mission creep. It clearly can't prevent Gadhafi's forces from prevailing on the ground with just a no-fly zone. There's going to have to be some sort of action on the ground as well. And whether that will be left to other allies or what that will be -- and what you have to keep coming back to as a reporter is, what are the foreign policy objectives, what are the forces that are being employed to achieve those? Is it possible? Are the right objectives?

And those are the kind of questions you're going to be asking. And the mechanics of exactly how many cruise missiles went are somewhat irrelevant here.

HARTMAN: I've been struck by the difference in the tone between 2003 and even '91, at the first Gulf War.

KURTZ: Right.

HARTMAN: I mean, there were weeks of buildup and anticipation. I remember inside newsrooms, just as well as inside the Oval Office or the Pentagon, incredible buildup toward the opening of those assaults.

KURTZ: Everybody is gearing up to cover war.

HARTMAN: This one, when it happened last night, it was kind of like, yes, here we go. It was much more sort of matter of fact, I think.

"It was much more sort of matter of fact, I think."

Indeed it was. The question is why is the coverage of America attacking Libya so much more matter of fact than when we entered Iraq in 1991 and 2003?

This seems especially curious given the breathless reporting of a nuclear crisis on the other side of the globe.

Why are the typically anti-war press so nonchalant this time about Americans risking their lives in a country that hasn't attacked us? Would this be the case if the current White House resident was a Republican?

Yes - that was a rhetorical question.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.