MRC Accuses ABC, Jennings of Biased Pre-War Coverage

July 7, 2008 - 8:21 PM

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - A conservative media watchdog group Tuesday accused ABC News and World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings of blatant bias in their coverage of the build-up to war with Iraq.

Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center (MRC), noted that the respected chronicle, the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote in its current issue that reporting prior to a war "is even more necessary than following the action or counting the dead." Bozell believes ABC's news division has failed its viewers in that reporting.

"During this critical period before war, Peter Jennings used World News Tonight not to offer an objective look into the international crisis," Bozell alleged, "but to beat the American administration with a deceptive double standard."

During a press conference in the National Press Club's First Amendment Room Tuesday, Bozell charged Jennings and his colleagues at World News Tonight (WNT) with "harshly criticizing America and its policies, all the while taking a much lighter hand to congressional Democrats [who oppose military action against Iraq], U.N. bureaucrats, France, China, Russia, even Iraq."

Four Areas of Alleged Bias

After examining 234 WNT stories broadcast between January 1 and March 7, 2003, the MRC identified four categories in which it believes Jennings and WNT misled viewers:

    Championing France and the U.N. over the U.S. - The MRC noted the example of WNT reporter Terry Moran describing the White House policy on Iraqi disarmament as "hard-line" while ascribing no descriptive term to the U.N.'s policy of inaction;
    Channeling Iraqi Propaganda - Bozell pointed to a WNT report by Dan Harris, which ended with a "peace activist" interviewing Iraqi children. The report made no mention of the fact that Iraqis are not allowed to speak freely to the press;
    Sanitizing Radical Protesters - The MRC, which is the parent organization of CNSNews.com, criticized WNT for its coverage of anti-war protests in Washington and elsewhere because the network failed to mention that the protests were largely orchestrated by the Workers World Party, an organization that openly pledges "solidarity" with communists in China and Cuba; and
    Manipulating Poll Data - Bozell noted that on January 21, Jennings reported a five- point drop in support for military action against Iraq. WNT did not note an equivalent increase in the polls a week later, and Jennings referred to an even greater increase following the State of the Union address by saying polls were "essentially unchanged."

Bozell noted that, during a Jan. 17 Nightline/Viewpoint special broadcast, ABC News President David Westin promised viewers that the network's coverage would be "objective and give just the facts to the American people."

"It should not have been difficult for Peter Jennings to have covered the run-up to war in a manner that approached ABC News President David Westin's standard of 'objective,'" Bozell opined. "Both NBC and CBS' News' coverage, while not perfect, came far closer to meeting this standard."

'Dissenting View[s] Are Very Inconvenient'

Cliff May with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies spent more than 20 years as a working journalist. He believes he knows why the allegedly biased coverage is happening.

"The elite media, very often, will establish a 'prevailing narrative' - or are persuaded of a 'prevailing narrative' - early on, and then they defend it with an almost religious zeal," May said. "In this case, the 'prevailing narrative' has been that President Bush wants to go to war against Iraq and that such a war will be resented and resisted by Iraqis, by Arabs, by Muslims.

"So Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims with a dissenting view are very inconvenient," May added. "They get in the way of the story [the elite media] want to tell."

Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Conference, grew up in Iraq. She charges the establishment media in the U.S. with grossly underreporting support inside Iraq for the removal of Saddam Hussein.

"Ninety-five percent of the Iraqi population share the same view, but the only problem is they are afraid of the government, and they cannot talk in public about that," al-Suwaij said. "People inside America, they think that Iraq is just like America; a free press, everybody can talk about their opinions, and so on and so forth. But unfortunately, this is not the case."

Al-Suwaij related the story of a third-grade classmate who - during the Iran-Iraq war - questioned in class whether the Iranian leadership was as bad as the Iraqi government had led its people to believe.

"She disappeared the next day with her whole family," al-Suwaij recalled. "At 9 years of age, we were always asked in the classroom, 'Did your family say anything about the government last night?'"

Networks Don't Seek Iraqis in Exile for Iraqi Viewpoint

Eleana Gordon also works with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies on a project called "Women for a Free Iraq." The project is designed to provide reporters with access to Iraqi citizens who are outside of the control of the Hussein dictatorship.

"Who do you see representing, supposedly, the Iraqi point of view? There are people from [the Council on American-Islamic Relations], which is a Saudi-backed Muslim organization. They're not Iraqi people," Gordon charged.

"We don't see a lot of Iraqis, and yet there are four to five million Iraqis in exile; about 20 percent of the Iraqi population," she added.

Bozell suggested four changes that ABC News, World News Tonight and Jennings could make to reduce the bias he sees in their coverage:

    Apply skepticism equally to all parties in the conflict, not just the U.S. and its allies;
    Carefully scrutinize any information coming from Iraq to eliminate propaganda or coerced statements in support of Hussein;
    Fully identify the organizations behind the anti-war movement and report objectively on controversial statements by anti-war activists; and
    Provide straight-forward coverage of polling data, regardless of whose position on the war it supports.

Bozel noted that the MRC's criticism of Jennings and WNT is not personal. He recalled that - when Jennings was criticized for statements that were taken out of context after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - the MRC publicly defended Jennings and chastised his accusers.

"Unfortunately, the way the World News Tonight operation has been going, especially since January 1, is just simply indefensible," Bozell explained. "He is the top dog in that news department in the sense that he's got the power to do a better job if he so chooses.

"One wishes he would," Bozell concluded.

Five calls to ABC News and World News Tonight offices in both New York and Washington, D.C., seeking comment for this story were not returned.

E-mail a news tip to Jeff Johnson.

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