NBC’s Richard Engel Blames Reporter Kidnapping on Conservative Critics

Did NBC reporter Richard Engel blame conservative Laura Ingraham for a reporter’s abduction in Iraq? Appearing on CNN’s "Reliable Sources" on Sunday, Engel asserted that harsh criticism of media coverage in Iraq resulted in a correspondent’s kidnapping. He elaborated, saying that reporters stung by claims that they offer only bad news are more likely to get themselves in dangerous situations. Although Engel did not state specifically who he meant, it’s likely that he was referencing talk show host Laura Ingraham. In March, she appeared on the "Today" show and attacked NBC’s negative coverage and the practice of "reporting from hotel balconies." Responding to a question from "Reliable Sources" host Howard Kurtz, Engel said this about criticism:

Howard Kurtz: "Richard Engel, top administration officials, as you well know, have repeatedly criticized correspondents like you for painting an unnecessarily negative picture of what's going on in Iraq, staying in the Green Zone, and all of that. Now that this -- even the private doubts and reservations of the White House and the Pentagon are coming out, do you feel vindicated?"

Richard Engel: "No. It's been very frustrating all along to be at the receiving end of that criticism with acquisitions like we just spend all of our time in the Green Zone....It's also, in some degree, dangerous. I mean, I know reporters, colleagues of mine who have received so much criticism over the last three and a half, four years, that they felt they've had something to prove. And so they put themselves in extraordinarily dangerous situations. And I know one reporter who was kidnapped as a result of it. So it's not a sense of vindication, but it is good that people are finally starting to see that the situation in Iraq is tremendously difficult, and it is not just reporters who are looking for bad -- bad news stories."

As reported in Newsbusters in March of ‘06, Ingraham combatively told David Gregory that NBC didn’t go and find the positive stories:

Laura Ingraham: "Well here, here's what I think, David. I think with all the resources of networks like NBC. The ‘Today’ show spends all this money to send people to the Olympics, which is great, it was great programming. All this money for ‘Where In The World Is Matt Lauer?’ Bring the 'Today' show to Iraq. Bring the 'Today' show to Tal Afar. Do the show from the 4th ID at Camp Victory and then when you talk to those soldiers on the ground, when you go out with the Iraqi military, when you talk to the villagers, when you see the children, then I want NBC to report on only the IEDs, only the killings, only, only the reprisals....David, to do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off."

In addition to insinuating that media critics bear some responsibility for attacks on journalists, Engel also denied that NBC’s decision to label Iraq a civil war had a political component:

Kurtz: "Richard Engel, why did NBC make this declaration of a civil war? I didn't know that networks had foreign policies. And how do you respond to critics such as CBS executive producer Rome Hartman, who said this was a political statement by the network and not a news judgment?"

 Engel: "...I don't think that decision to call it a civil war was politically motivated at all. I think it was very much driven by what the reports are coming from the ground, what I'm reporting in Baghdad when I'm there, what our military analysts are seeing, and what Iraqis themselves are saying. They believe that it is a civil war and that Iraqis have been calling it that for about a year now. You have sectarian violence at a level that is organized. You have competing factions that are -- that have very distinct political goals. The Sunnis are fighting for their own survival. They believe that they have no future in Iraq as long as this current government is in power. So it is not just a situation on the ground that is unorganized chaos while driven by criminals. You have political and militant groups fighting it out at a very efficient, militarized level, and I think that's what led the -- led us at NBC to start calling it a civil war."

(An aside: One way to simplify the phrase "militant groups fighting it out at a very efficient, militarized level" would be simply to use the word terrorist.) A few minutes later, Engel responded to a Kurtz question about a leaked Rumsfeld memo which said that major adjustments are necessary in Iraq:

Kurtz: "My question to you is, does this show that administration officials have been misleading journalists all along with some of their public, upbeat descriptions of Iraq?"

Engel: "I think it shows that the message of ‘stay the course,’ at least within the White House, has been discredited for some time. The war in Iraq has change several times. What we're -- what the American soldiers are fighting in right now and what we are seeing as reporters in Iraq is not the same war that it began with. In the initial phases, it was a very clear conflict with American forces entering Iraq and trying to topple the government. Then there was one to try and stabilize the country so they could hold elections. Then we see a counterinsurgency, and now we've entered yet a new phase. What I think we are -- what the White House officials in these memos are acknowledging, that the military has entered a new phase of the conflict and that a new strategy is needed, one that, unfortunately, has not been clearly voiced up until now."

So much for political motivation not driving reporting.

A transcript of the segment, which aired at 10:04am on December 3, follows:

Howard Kurtz: "Richard Engel, why did NBC make this declaration of a civil war? I didn't know that networks had foreign policies. And how do you respond to critics such as CBS executive producer Rome Hartman, who said this was a political statement by the network and not a news judgment?"

Richard Engel: "Thank you for having me, Howard. I'm here in Beirut. As you can see behind me there are some demonstrations ongoing. So I'll try and talk over them. I don't think that decision to call it a civil war was politically motivated at all. I think it was very much driven by what the reports are coming from the ground, what I'm reporting in Baghdad when I'm there, what our military analysts are seeing, and what Iraqis themselves are saying. They believe that it is a civil war and that Iraqis have been calling it that for about a year now. You have sectarian violence at a level that is organized. You have competing factions that are -- that have very distinct political goals. The Sunnis are fighting for their own survival. They believe that they have no future in Iraq as long as this current government is in power. So it is not just a situation on the ground that is unorganized chaos while driven by criminals. You have political and militant groups fighting it out at a very efficient, militarized level, and I think that's what led the -- led us at NBC to start calling it a civil war."

10:08

Howard Kurtz: "Richard Engel, this seems to be the week for leaked memos. First we had that memo from National security Adviser Stephen Hadley, leaked to ‘The New York Times,’ which came out during the president's visit with Prime Minister Maliki in Jordan in which Hadley talked about how Maliki was either ignorant, or misrepresenting his position, or incapable of bringing the violence under control. And this morning in ‘The New York Times’ and some other papers, Don Rumsfeld -- let me just get a look at that here. The memo was leaked. He wrote this just before the election. ‘In my view,’ says the defense secretary, ‘it is time for a major adjustment. Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.’My question to you is, does this show that administration officials have been misleading journalists all along with some of their public, upbeat descriptions of Iraq?"

Engel: "I think it shows that the message of ‘stay the course,’ at least within the White House, has been discredited for some time. The war in Iraq has change several times. What we're -- what the American soldiers are fighting in right now and what we are seeing as reporters in Iraq is not the same war that it began with. In the initial phases, it was a very clear conflict with American forces entering Iraq and trying to topple the government. Then there was one to try and stabilize the country so they could hold elections. Then we see a counterinsurgency, and now we've entered yet a new phase. What I think we are -- what the White House officials in these memos are acknowledging, that the military has entered a new phase of the conflict and that a new strategy is needed, one that, unfortunately, has not been clearly voiced up until now."

10:13am

Kurtz: "Richard Engel, top administration officials, as you well know, have repeatedly criticized correspondents like you for painting an unnecessarily negative picture of what's going on in Iraq, staying in the Green Zone, and all of that. Now that this -- even the private doubts and reservations of the White House and the Pentagon are coming out, do you feel vindicated?"

Engel: "No. It's been very frustrating all along to be at the receiving end of that criticism with accusations like we just spend all of our time in the Green Zone. For the record, neither your reporters, Arwa Damon right now in Baghdad, or almost any of the reporters who cover Iraq do so from the Green Zone, but go out every day either with the U.S. military or driving around the city of Baghdad. And to say that we somehow have been just lazy and picking up bad reports to try to make the American mission in Iraq somehow seem like a failure is inaccurate. It's also, in some degree, dangerous. I mean, I know reporters, colleagues of mine who have received so much criticism over the last three and a half, four years, that they felt they've had something to prove. And so they put themselves in extraordinarily dangerous situations. And I know one reporter who was kidnapped as a result of it. So it's not a sense of vindication, but it is good that people are finally starting to see that the situation in Iraq is tremendously difficult, and it is not just reporters who are looking for bad -- bad news stories."

Kurtz: "Right."

Engel: "Iraqis have repeatedly told me time and time again that it's much worse than it appears on television."

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org