Big 3 Evening News Anchors Wring Hands Over McClellan Charges on 'Today'

All "Big Three" network evening news anchors appeared on Wednesday's "Today" show to promote a simulcast to fight cancer but ended up wringing their hands about Scott McClellan's charges that the press was too soft on the White House in the run up to the Iraq War.

"CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric accused the White House of "strong arm tactics," and complained, "There was such a significant march to war and people who questioned it very early on...were considered patriotic."

When pushed by "Today" host Matt Lauer, "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams charged:

In Katrina the evidence was right next to us. Sadly we saw fellow Americans, in some cases, floating past, face down. We knew what had just happened. We weren't allowed to that kind of proximity with the weapons inspectors. I was in Kuwait for the build up of the war and yes we heard from the Pentagon, on my cell phone, the minute they heard us report something that they didn't like. The tone of that time was quite extraordinary.

For his part "ABC World News" anchor Charlie Gibson said he felt like all the questions were asked but declared:

I can remember getting in trouble with administration officials because, asking questions that they didn't feel comfortable with. I think the questions were asked. There was just a drumbeat of support from the administration and it is not our job to debate them. It is our job to ask the questions.

The following is the fuller exchange as it occurred on the May 28, "Today" show:

MATT LAUER: We got you here on a kind of a busy news day as you know.

MEREDITH VIEIRA: Yes.

LAUER: And so we want to bring up a couple of other things and one thing in particular. And you're all aware of the Scott McClellan book that has now been talked about. It, it's really a scathing and from an insider's point of view, it's a mixed bag. He talks about things that went right with the administration during his time there but also the things that he feels that went wrong. And it's a scathing kind of look at the build up to the war in Iraq. And, and we can, you two, you three can hash that out and we can on future broadcasts. But it's also a scathing look and commentary on the press--

VIEIRA: The media.

LAUER: --and the media's role. And, and he says that we didn't do our job and we didn't ask the tough questions and we let the administration get away with what they were trying to do and, and I am just curious for your take on this.

KATIE COURIC: Well we have different points of view and I'll start by saying I think he's fairly accurate. Matt I know when we were covering it and, and granted the spirit of 9/11 people were unified and upset and angry and frustrated. But I do think we were remiss in not asking some of the right questions. There was a lot of pressure from the, the Bush White House. I remember doing an interview when the press secretary called our executive producer and said, "We didn't like the tone of that interview." And we said, "Well tough, we had to ask some of these questions." They said, "Well if you keep, keep it up we're gonna block access to you during the war." I mean those kind of strong arm tactics we're really inappropriate.

LAUER: But, but we didn't, but we kept it, we didn't, we didn't give into that.

COURIC: We did! No we didn't give into it but I think there was insidious pressure that, I do think, actually affected some of the coverage from some of the media outlets.

VIEIRA: Did the press withhold information during that period?

COURIC: No I just think they weren't aggressive enough.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: No, only, only war planning that was, that would've endangered Americans. I've always put it this way. In Katrina the evidence was right next to us. Sadly we saw fellow Americans, in some cases, floating past, face down. We knew what had just happened. We weren't allowed to that kind of proximity with the weapons inspectors. I was in Kuwait for the build up of the war and yes we heard from the Pentagon, on my cell phone, the minute they heard us report something that they didn't like. The tone of that time was quite extraordinary.

LAUER: Charlie we do our job or did, were we remiss?

CHARLIE GIBSON: I, I think the questions were asked. I, I respectfully disagree with the gentle lady from the Columbia Broadcasting System. I think the questions were asked. There was a very strong. You know you go back to the Powell speech. There was a lot of skepticism raised about that. I can remember getting in trouble with administration officials because, asking questions that they didn't feel comfortable with. I think the questions were asked. There was just a drumbeat of support from the administration and it is not our job to debate them. It is our job to ask the questions.

LAUER: And is it perhaps a case of hindsight being 20/20? At the time we thought we were asking the right questions, yet in hindsight, knowing what we know now, we wish we could've asked different questions or maybe even tougher questions?

GIBSON: I'm not sure we would've asked anything differently. I don't know.

WILLIAMS: There may be some of that. I think it's, it's tough to go back. Put ourselves in the mindset. It was still post-9/11 America. It's been theorized the President was handed a massive blank check to spend in terms of public approval and outpouring that, that was finite and we've learned now, not infinite. But this book will clearly be part of how the President is viewed in these last remaining months.

COURIC: But you remember there was such a significant march to war and people who questioned--

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

COURIC: --it very early on and really as the war progressed were considered unpatriotic. And I think that it did affect the way, you know, the level of, of aggressiveness that was exercised by the media, I really do.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.