There was much journalistic hand-wringing and finger-pointing during the week of January 10, after CBS News’ official report on its dubious story on George W. Bush’s Vietnam-era service record. (See Extra! Update, 2/05.) But another story released that week suggests that media self-criticism has its limits—especially when the press’s failures involve being too credulous rather than too critical.
The final announcement that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq came on January 12, two days after the CBS report was released. The official evaporation of the Bush administration’s chief rationale for a war that has killed more than 1,400 Americans and an estimated 100,000 Iraqis received next to no coverage. Instead, the big story for the week was CBS’s “Memogate.”
As might be expected, Fox News Channel, which bills itself as an antidote to the mainstream media and often serves as a mouthpiece for the administration, led the way in terms of imbalance in covering the CBS and WMD stories. On January 10, when the CBS report was released, Fox seemingly couldn’t stop talking about it.
Special Report With Brit Hume devoted over 3,000 words to “Memo-gate,” easily the subject of over half the broadcast. Fox’s primetime shows continued to hammer away at the CBS report, with The O’Reilly Factor devoting almost 2,000 words to CBS. Hannity & Colmes also gave CBS about half of their broadcast (more than 3,800 words), most of which was devoted to an interview with conservative media critic and former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg, without any voices to argue against his claim that “Dan Rather corrupted the CBS Evening News.”
Two days later, Fox News Channel all but ignored the news that no WMDs had been found in Iraq. Special Report with Brit Hume gave it 176 words of coverage, with Hume asking Pentagon correspondent Bret Baier one question; Baier’s response included the claim that “there are still suspicions that many weapons made their way into Syria before the war began,” an allegation not supported by the report (AP, 1/17/05). Both O’Reilly and Hannity & Colmes chose not to mention the weapons hunt at all, even during Hannity’s interview with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had famously assured the U.N. that there was no doubt that Iraq possessed WMDs.
It’s not that the lack of WMDs wouldn’t have been news to much of Fox’s audience. According to a 2003 study by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (10/2/03), 33 percent of Fox viewers believed that such weapons had, in fact, been found in Iraq. Given a golden opportunity to set those viewers straight, Fox basically passed.
Unfortunately, the major networks did not prove much better than Fox. Both NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News led their January 10 broadcasts with the CBS story, and both devoted two segments to it—a “news” and “analysis” piece. NBC logged 847 words on the subject, while CBS logged 981 words. In stark contrast, these networks devoted two sentences apiece to the WMD story—56 words at NBC, 35 at CBS.
ABC’s World News Tonight was the only network newscast to lead with the WMD story on January 12—and the only one not to lead its January 10 broadcast with the CBS story.
The nation’s leading newspaper, the New York Times, was also imbalanced in its treatment of the two stories. On January 11, the Times ran three articles on the CBS report, two of which landed on the front page, for a total of 5,420 words. Two days later, the “paper of record” relegated its 145-word story on the missing WMDs to page A16. An unironic editorial commented that the end of the WMD hunt was “little noted” by the world. With the amount of coverage the Times gave to the official proclamation that no WMDs existed in Iraq, no wonder the world didn’t take note.