Sunday, October 24, 2010

TV: The WikiLeaks reports

"It is a leak that is more like a flood," Katie Couric declared Friday on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. She was referring to WikiLeaks release of nearly 400,000 documents on the Iraq War. And, if you watched all three networks Friday and Saturday, what did you learn about the flood?


If you watched ABC World News with Diane Sawyer Friday, you learned WikiLeaks was "brazen" -- not generally seen as a compliment and most often precedes the term "hussy." Raddatz notes that the documents "reveal startling detail about civilian deaths, torture of detainees at the hands of the Iraqis and deadly US helicopter assaults on insurgents trying to surrender The classified reports put the Iraqi civilian death toll far higher than the US has acknowledged before at more than 100,000 from 2004 to 2009, 15,000 more than the US has reported. Many deaths were at the hands of the Iraqis but the documents show that the US military was responsible for many more than were previously thought." She noted "prisoners being shackled, blindfolded, kicked and punched" by Iraqi forces and that "the US military would sometimes turn a blind eye."

For three minutes you got a brief overview of the documents from correspondent Martha Raddatz and then you got Diane Conversation -- where the show always falls apart.

Diane Saywer: I know there's a lot of outrage about this again tonight, Martha, but tell me anything more about prosecuting the WikiLeaks group?

Martha Raddatz: Well the head of WikiLeaks said this afternoon that -- he said the FBI has actually interviewed people and there might be espionage charges against him.

It was "brazen," Diane had already informed, now she wanted to toss out "outrage" and wonder if WikiLeaks could be prosecuted? It was the briefest coverage of any of the three commercial broadcast networks and it was the weakest.

NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams gave the story 46 more seconds than ABC did. They started with Chuck Todd and then moved on to Jim Miklaszewski. Anchor Brian Williams referred to what WikiLeaks "threatened to do" and we were off and running through a charged atmosphere that seemed to have very little to do with reporting. Miklaszewski provided this detail, all the documents release were "as thick as a stack of 800 telephone books."

He emphasized the torture and murder of detainees by Iraqi forces and how US military forces were order not to intervene. He went on about the Pentagon's fears and that might have just seemed like reporting were it not for his final statements about the Pentagon: ". . . they understand that they are responsible for the leak of this information and those documents never should have gotten out to the public in the first place."

The documents shouldn't be available to the public? Is that reporting? It doesn't sound like it. It does sound like opinion and opinion that does not belong in the report because it shows clear bias.

At three minutes and 16 seconds, CBS Evening News with Katie Couric offered more time to the story than ABC did but less than NBC. On the plus side, they didn't use charged language. Wikileaks was "the website WikiLeaks" -- no "controversial" or "brazen" or any other leading adjectives. David Martin offered some bulletin points. WikiLeaks' Julian Assange was on via an Al Jazeera clip, Pentagon flack Geoff Morrell was quoted in the segment. Martin offered, "So far, Katie, what the documents tell us is that the Iraq War was even uglier than we thought."

Martin, like the other network's correspondents, repeated the claim that the Pentagon was worried about the names of informers popping up. No one bothered to point out that the Pentagon had access to the documents and that WikiLeaks had asked them to let them know if names of Iraqis needed to be redacted. This was addressed Friday morning on Democracy Now! when Pentagon Papers' whistle blower Daniel Ellsberg revealed this was done with the previous Afghanistan War release and was being done with the Iraq War release:

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes. And moreover, they let the Pentagon know what they were releasing. They gave them the files in code to them and asked them actually to identify people that they hoped to be redacted from those. Now, the Pentagon refused, meaning they prefer to bring charges into -- both in court and in the press, of -- endanger, rather than actually to protect these people, showing the usual amount of concern they have over other humans.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the same been done with these 400,000 documents?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes. That's why they're going over them now. They know what's coming out. And they have every ability, if people are endangered -- which actually is in question to this point. The fact that there's been no damage up 'til now really strongly questions the claims that were made earlier and, as I say, passed on by most of the mainstream press, very uncritically, that there was danger. But if there was, it may well have been in those 15,000 which WikiLeaks is properly going over still.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, what you're saying is that WikiLeaks has let the Pentagon know precisely what it is about to release?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: To my understanding, they have. I'm not in the process. But I understand that they've said that they did make them aware of what it is and have invited them to cooperate in protecting those names. But as I say, the Pentagon, if there are such names, has preferred to make charges.

Saturday, NBC Nightly News had anchor Lester Holt and five minutes and 24 seconds to devote to the story. Apparently more time was needed due to even more charged language such as "controversial website WikiLeaks." Lester got right to the point, "Jim what's the Pentagon's reaction?" Jim Miklaszewski played along, "Lester, the Pentagon officials have condemned the WikiLeaks release of these military secrets." Miklaszewski then stuck to numbers for the bulk of his report such as "681 civilians were killed at [US] military checkpoints alone."

Jim Miklaszewski: It was also revealed that the US military knew that Iraqi security forces tortured and murdered detainees. American forces were ordered not to intervene but only to report it up the chain of command. One document states an American soldier watched an Iraqi officer strike a detainee with a baton and whip another detainee's feet and back with an electrical cable. The soldier reported the incident but the document shows there was no investigation. Americans also obtained a video showing Iraqi soldiers and an officer executing a detainee. That incident was also reported but nine days later [December 23, 2009] the case was closed.

The report always made WikiLeaks seem a little bit shady. For instance, "the Pentagon said" and "US officials fear" but "WikiLeaks claims they've released the stolen documents in the name of truth". Really? The Pentagon is exposed as a liar in the documents released and you're going to question WikiLeak's motives?

The report features Geoff Morrell at length (and twice) but WikiLeaks is given a single, brief sentence declared by someone never identified to NBC audiences and someone who is not, in fact, part of WikiLeaks. (It was John Sloboda of Iraqi Body Count.)

From Jim's report, Lester tossed to Richard Engel.

Richard Engel: The problem is they don't reflect what we were being told by the military at the time. Particularly before the surge, the military was saying that the situation on the ground was better than was being reported, that it was reporters who were exaggerating the problem. These documents show that the military knew full well how bad the situation was and was telling itself and reporting it internally that there was a really serious situation in Iraq.

Again, the documents expose the Pentagon as a liar but the one Jim's report doubts is WikiLeaks? Really?

CBS Evening News with Jeff Glor (that it's Saturday name) continued to report without charged language, which was a huge plus. David Martin added the Iraqi angle, how the documents "have opened old wounds in Baghdad and could damage Prime Minister Maliki's attempts to form a new government. Some of the abuse occurred when he was in power. And he accused WikiLeaks of deliberately timing the release of the 391,000 documents to sabotage his re-election."

The report featured Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, as well as as a clip of attorney Phil Shriner and IBC's John Sloboda speaking -- all three were properly identified. And Julian was quoted stating of the redcations to the documents, "What has been done is now far too redacted. It is, in fact, now, I would say, a bit of a travesty how redacted this material is." And that was the closest any network came to informing its audience that the Pentagon had a chance to ask for redactions.

At the request of an ABC New friend, we agreed to make Saturday's focus the work done on Good Morning America. Which was superior to the work done by World News Tonight. The segment was seven minutes, making it longer than what any of the network evening newscasts offered. Co-anchor Bianna Gododryga spoke with Martha Raddatz who pretty much gave the summary she had the evening before; however, Bradley Manning was referred to as "Bradley Manning" and not "Brad Manning" -- the only real difference we could tell in her two reports. That and allowing a quote from Julian Assange.

Co-anchor Dan Harris then spoke with a defensive Geoff Morrell who returned Dan's good morning greeting -- "Good Morning" is, after all, in the program's title -- with a whiny, "Not a very good morning over here [the Defense Department], Dan." Dan repeatedly asked him if US forces were ordered not to investigate and Geoff repeatedly danced around it. After Geoff's third dance, Dan declared, "Sounds like: Yes, perhaps they were told not to investigate." Dan then moved to the report where suspected insurgents were attempting to surrender to US military in a helicopter and the crew was told by the command that they could not accept the surrender (no one could surrender to an aircraft, is the claim, rather strange since, as one military historian pointed out to us, surrendering to a sea craft has long been acceptable) but Geoff just ran out the clock on him and refused to ever answer or even address the event.

If you watched all the broadcast network's evening news (plus Saturday's Good Morning America on ABC), what did you learn? "That you should have watched The NewsHour!" Yeah, we've used that punch line before.

Thing is, we can't use it this time. The NewsHour on Friday reduced the story to a headline read by Hari Sreenivasan:

The WikiLeaks Web site released nearly 400,000 secret U.S. files on the Iraq war late today. It was the largest leak of classified U.S. files in history. The documents count at least 15,000 civilian deaths that were never reported before. They also indicate U.S. officials failed to pursue accounts of Iraqi authorities brutalizing prisoners. WikiLeaks earlier published more than 90,000 documents on the Iraq war.

That was it, in full. The leaked documents were made available ahead of time to The New York Times in this country. (CNN claims they were offered them ahead of time as well but insists they turned down the offer.) The first reports filed by the paper (and by The Guardian and Al Jazeera) came just as the show had been hammered out and the segments set, plus no one with the program had the time to go through all the documents or even a large portion due to the late release. So you're left with ABC, CBS and NBC and, of those three, CBS did the best job. Saturday's report by David Martin was better than Friday's and both broadcasts used neutral language.
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