NBC's Brian Williams: Obama ‘Appeared to Be Clear and Unambiguous’ on ISIS

On Wednesday night’s NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams completely missed the mark on President Obama’s mixed signals regarding how his administration intends to deal with the threat of the Islamic terrorist group ISIS and omitted remarks from Obama that ISIS can be contained to the point of being “a manageable problem.”

At the top of the broadcast, Williams made this blatant falsehood: “[F]or all those who may be wondering if the U.S. is going to rise up, take the bait and get into the fight to root them out, the answer today from both the President and Vice President appeared to be clear and unambiguous.” [MP3 audio here; Video below]

In contrast, the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley took a far tougher stance towards Obama as ABC and NBC neglected to air his remarks in which he said that the U.S. would “degrade and destroy” ISIS, but somehow also: 

If we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL's sphere of influence, its effectiveness, the financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem. 

Anchor Scott Pelley asked in the program’s tease if Obama’s strategy is, as he declared, “clear” and later emphasized that after Obama “was criticized for not having a strategy for attacking ISIS bases in Syria” last week, he again “sent conflicting signals today.”

CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett astutely pointed out that Obama “stepped away from” his statements minutes earlier about eliminating the threat of ISIS completely. Even after Wednesday and going into a key NATO summit, Garrett reported that “[i]t remains unclear if Mr. Obama will expand air strikes against ISIS from Iraq into its strongholds in neighboring Syria.” 

Instead, NBC Nightly News only aired remarks from Obama in Estonia earlier in the day in which he said that “[w]e will not be intimidated” and the “horrific acts” committed by ISIS “only unite us as a country” as well as Biden’s fiery remarks that those who murdered American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff will be taken by the United States “to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice.” 

While NBC only featured Williams’s remarks at the top of the show and a one-minute-and-32-second report from NBC News chief White House correspondent Chris Jansing, CBS aired a reports from Garrett and CBS News congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes, who said that the beheading of Sotloff “was really a galvanizing moment” as more members of Congress have since called for immediate action against ISIS targets to expand into Syria.

Over on ABC World News Tonight with David Muir, a report from ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross was the lone story on President Obama or ISIS on Wednesday night. Ross’s segment focused on the manhunt to identify the man that appeared in the videos where Foley and Sotloff were murdered as other ISIS videos briefly showed some of the faces of ISIS’s propaganda team.


The relevant portions of the transcript from NBC Nightly News on September 3 are transcribed below.

NBC Nightly News

September 3, 2014

7:01 p.m. Eastern

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Good evening. It is among the scariest threats our nation has faced since 9/11 and after the beheading of a second American now by ISIS, for all those who may be wondering if the U.S. is going to rise up, take the bait and get into the fight to root them out, the answer today from both the President and Vice President appeared to be clear and unambiguous. 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will not be intimidated. Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists and those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served. 

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As a nation we're united and when people harm Americans, we don't retreat. We don't forget. We take care of those who are grieving and when that's finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice. 

WILLIAMS: The vice president today at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The President before that in Estonia.

The complete transcript from the relevant segments that aired on the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley are transcribed below.

CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley

September 3, 2014

6:30 p.m. Eastern

SCOTT PELLEY: Tonight, President Obama on the ISIS threat. 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our objective is clear. 

PELLEY: But is it? Major Garrett on the President’s conflicting signals. Nancy Cordes tells us Congress is demanding a clear strategy.

(....)

SCOTT PELLEY: Good evening. After the beheading of a second American by Sunni Muslim terrorists, President Obama said today “whatever these murderers think they will achieve, they have already failed.” The President said America's resolve has been stiffened by the horrific acts of the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The execution of reporter Steven Sotloff was shot on video and posted yesterday on the web, just like the beheading of journalist James Foley last month, but Mr. Obama, who was criticized for not having a strategy for attacking ISIS bases in Syria, sent conflicting signals today. Major Garrett was traveling with the President in Estonia. 

MAJOR GARRETT: President Obama today called the beheading of Steven Sotloff barbaric, and said the killers would be brought to justice. 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will not be intimidated. Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists. 

GARRETT: The President used some of his strongest language to date to describe the U.S. goal of defeating the terror group also known as ISIL. 

OBAMA: Our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL, so it is not longer a threat not just to Iraq, but also the region and to the United States. 

GARRETT: But later, the President stepped back from that language. 

OBAMA: If we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL's sphere of influence, its effectiveness, the financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem. 

GARRETT: White House officials explained the President meant that before ISIS can be destroyed, the U.S. and its allies must manage to degrade its finances and roll back its territorial gains. It remains unclear if Mr. Obama will expand air strikes against ISIS from Iraq into its strongholds in neighboring Syria. Today, the President called for a united front. 

OBAMA: It is very important from my perspective that, when we send our pilots in to do a job, that we know that this is a mission that's going to work and we've got allies behind us so that it's not just a one-off, but it's something that, over time, is going to be effective. 

GARRETT: The first day of NATO meetings here is supposed to be about ending the war in Afghanistan and beefing up long-deficient NATO defense budgets, but, Scott, confronting ISIS is likely to dominate a special sideline meeting the President has organized with the leaders of Great Britain, Germany, France, and Italy. 

PELLEY: Major Garrett in Wales for us tonight. Major, thanks. Today, Mr. Obama ordered more troops into Iraq to help secure the embassy and airport in Baghdad. Mr. Obama first returned troops to Iraq in June to help Iraqi forces with intelligence and advice on ISIS. With today's addition, it will soon be up to 1,200 Americans. The most dramatic language about ISIS today came from Vice President Biden in New Hampshire. 

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE CAPTION: Pressuring the President]

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: When people harm Americans, we don't retreat. We don't forget. We take care of those who are grieving, and when that's finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside. 

PELLEY: But the question is: How do you make them go? Members of Congress are pressuring the President for a strategy. Nancy Cordes is on Capitol Hill for us tonight. Nancy. 

NANCY CORDES: And, Scott, the beheading of a second U.S. journalist was really a galvanizing moment. We saw a huge increase today in the number of lawmakers calling for swift military action and Republicans, in particular, are pushing the president to devise a strategy quickly, to articulate it, and to act on it. Most of them tell us they do not believe the President needs their approval to launch air strikes in Syria, at least not at first, but, just in case, several lawmakers plan to introduce proactive legislation granting him that authority when Congress returns next week. Republican Frank Wolf of Virginia is one of them. 

CONGRESSMAN FRANK WOLF (R-Va.): This group is moving. They are a violent group. You cannot negotiate with them. You cannot sit down and reason with them. So, I think there's been a dramatic change. 

CORDES: The President tried to get congressional approval to strike the Syrian regime last year, but he didn't get it. Lawmakers tell us they believe this situation is different, and they see a clear threat to national security. Scott. 

PELLEY: Nancy, thanks.

Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck is a news analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division