Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Garbage, The Stink, The Network News

As part of our TV edition, we're reposting this piece by C.I.

The Garbage, The Stink, The Network News

As most Americans were starting their mornings or just waking up yesterday, the Associated Press was reporting that 5 US troops were killed in Iraq. By the time evening rolled around and the networks were starting their broadcasts, they had more than enough time to find the story. If they gave a damn. One network did. Two kind of did. One didn't care that you knew that they didn't give a damn. That's four, yes. We're counting PBS' NewsHour.

We'll start with the worst if only to make everyone else look better.

ABC World News with Diane Sawyer might strike some as having a strong opening. Most in the know however are probably remembering when Diane was on the morning shift (long before Good Morning America and ABC) and she was one of three who had an interview with British royalty. It was a fluff interview. (And long before Princess Diana entered the picture in case anyone thinks Diane was on to a big story but just missed it!) All three were told the ground rules and agreed to them. Diane broke the ground rules. And was quite proud of herself after.

For what?

She accomplished nothing. It was a piece of fluff interview -- all three. But Diane, to prove her 'independence' if not her skills, broke the ground rules and . . . produced nothing of value or interest. Not even a curiosity was captured.

That describes the Nixon White House worker's work probably better than anything else, all these years later.

Yesterday, World News opened with an overly long segment of Diane in Afghanistan. There were a few moments that some idiots may applaud. Especially at the start.

"Are we winning?" Diane asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Gen David Petraeus. That's a "yes" or a "no." But Diane let Gates prattle on and Petraeus follow up by wheezing, "We're making progress."

Diane then wanted to know (in her strongest moment -- for her), "If we can't talk about winning, if we don't talk about military victory, is it too much to ask of American military men and women to put their lives on the line for the hope of a negotiated settlement with the people they're fighting?"

It's the sort of moment they'll clip and pretend is amazing. (It's nearly identical -- especially in delivery -- to Barbara Walters with Colin Powell when he was still Secretary of State.)

Gates, Secretary of Defense in two consecutive administrations, thought the following was 'information' when it's actually rather telling on his 'leadership,' "Diane, we have not had a declared victory in a war with the possible exception of the first Gulf War since WWII. It is the phenomenon of modern conflict."

Petreaues and Gates both wanted to point to Iraq with Gates applauding the "strategy" in Iraq.

Asked about ten billion a month being spent on the war, Gates insisted, "The cost is already coming down, we will be spending 40 billion dollars less on these wars in 2012 than we did in 2011. I think you also have to ask the question what's the cost of failure? We've invested a huge amount of money here. We've invested 1254 lives up to this point so what's the cost of getting it wrong. Congress-Congress is almost always impatient I remember in the spring of 2007 people saying the war is lost in Iraq."

First off, ICCC lists US troop fatalities in Iraq to be 1610, not "1254." (DoD's count is 1594.) (He says "twelve-hundred and 54 lives.") I have no idea where Gates got that number but that is the one he gave. (Iraq is at 4462 according to the Pentagon figures plus the 5 killed yesterday, so he wasn't referring to Iraq -- though, yes, he did mingle the two in his answers.) If $120 billion -- by Diane's remarks and not rejected by Gates or Petreaus -- is being spent yearly on the Afghanistan War, I'm not really sure how Gates' assertion (true or false) that next years costs for both wars will be $40 billion less means much at all. $40 billion is a third of just the cost of the Afghnistant War. $170 million is the estimated cost for both wars this year. Gates is talking about a 'reduction' that maintains 3/4s of the obscene budget. It's a point Diane failed to grasp or at least follow up on. It's interesting that Gates went to money before the human costs. It's also telling that he wants Americans to now ask, "What's the cost of getting it wrong?" When that question should have been asked before either war started and since Gates admitted that no war -- except possibly the first Gulf War -- has been won by the US since WWII, maybe they should have been a lot more hestitant when they started the wars and maybe that point should be brought up by the government every time they start a new war: "We'd like to start a new war, we know we really haven't won one since WWII, but we'd like to start a new one!"

After 12 minutes of this nonsense, it was time to toss to George Steph in the US who quickly launched into the story of Anthony Weiner having 'textual relations' with some women. Over 2 minutes and 40 seconds were spent on that nonsense. Then it was time for 'headlines' which was a long cancer segment and then George offering "Welcome back, Katie!" to Katie Couric who just signed with ABC today to do her own talk show. I like Katie, I know Katie, I'm happy for her and wish only the best for her talk show, but, no, it wasn't broadcast evening news. (Nor do I think she'd see it as such.)

It was then time for the woman whose fortune Tricky Dick once kissed to return to her roots of fluff with an overly long profile on Robert Gates that was as 'penetrating' as this, "He's the kind of man you can count on."

It was truly the gutter. And you could have watched the entire half-hour and never leaned that 5 US soldiers died in Iraq. They never had time for it. But they had time for puff, for sex or 'sex' scandals and for inside baseball. ABC World News Tonight -- the show no one should waste time on.

PBS is probably real proud of their NewsHour right now -- as happy as they are that the stations are taking the blame currently for the decision to air commercials during some programs next fall (that's not a local decision and further proof that PBS games the system and then wants to play like, "We just provide content!"). They didn't forget Iraq last night.

Hari Sreenivasan: In Iraq, U.S. troops suffered their worst loss in more than two years. Five Americans were killed near Sadr City in Eastern Baghdad when rockets hit their compound at a joint U.S.-Iraqi base. They had worked as advisers to Iraqi security police. The remaining 46,000 American troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave by year's end.

And that was it. A headline. Not even the first headline. Whatever happened to the days when American broadcast news knew how you order your headlines? In other words, turmoil in a country that no US troops are stationed in? It's not your opener. You open with US deaths when you have them.

Equally true, Diane Sawyer's program is about 21 minutes (minus commercials) while The NewsHour, minus advertising, is probably close to 46 minutes. With over twice the time, PBS couldn't offer more than 3 sentences on 5 deaths. The show opened with a segment on Yemen. Then on to headlines (which opened with Syria). Then it was time for, yes, a segment on Anthony Weiner. As Stan pointed out last night, "PBS is becoming a cesspool."

It was an awful broadcast that had damn little to do wth news nad made very clear that no one knew what they were doing. It didn't work as hard news, it didn't work as a program geared to an American news consumer, it was part TMZ, it was garbage. I honestly think ABC World News -- even ignoring Iraq -- offered a higher quality than The NewsHour did yesterday but we'll rank it ahead of Diane's show solely for the Iraq headline.

Onto NBC Nightly News. Brian Williams opened with the story of "oversharing" -- he could have been talking about the networks on the Weiner gossip but he was talking about Weiner.

Then? "We turn to overseas in Iraq today. We haven't had news like this for awhile, 5 Americans were killed in a rocket attack in Baghdad. It's the deadliest day for the US there since '09 and today, of course, 5 American families got the worst possible news."

With just that brief headline, Williams showed greater comprehension than did The NewsHour. He and Richard Engel then engaged in conversations about Afghanistan and Iraq. We'll note Engel's comments in the snapshot today.

So if Nightly News came in second, who did the best job? CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.The deaths were noted in the teaser over the theme music and Pelley opened with, "Good evening. We start tonight with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This has been a day of US casualties in Iraq and it is also a day [. . .]" Like Williams and Engel, CBS mixed discussions of the two wars together. There were reports from Afghanistan and Lara Logan providing an analysis of Afghanistan.

Scott Pelley: In the war in Iraq, this was the worst day for US troops in two years. 5 American soldiers were killed when their base in Baghdad was hit by rocket fire. This year, 29 Americans have been killed in Iraq. In Afghanistan, at least 159 US service members have been killed. What's next for both countries? Now to David Martin at the Pentagon, David, the five US soldiers that were killed in Iraq today, what happened there.

David Martin: Scott, this was a rocket attack on a compound in Baghdad where US forces were training Iraqi police. The insurgents got lucky and scored a direct hit on the area where the Americans lived but this is part of a trend of increasing attacks against US forces which Pentagon officials believe is the work of Shi'ite militias who want to see all US troops out of Iraq by the end of this year.

Scott Pelley: Remind us how many US forces remain in Iraq and what's the plan for them?

David Martin: Well there are currently 48,000 US troops in Iraq. Under an agreement signed at the end of the Bush administration, they all have to be out by December 31st unless the Iraqi government asks them to stay. Defense Secretary Gates have offered to keep some troops there to help with things lik intelligence and logistics but so far the Iraqi government has not accepted the offer and time is running out because the drawdown will begin in earnest at the end of July.

I know and like Anthony Weiner and you can insist -- as one ABC friend has this morning on the phone -- that I'm not recognizing the 'implications' of the Weiner story as a result. I disagree. If he has physically cheated, I still don't see how it trumps the deaths of 5 US soldiers. The reality is that it's a local issue for the voters in his district. The only national headline in the story is the call by Pelosi and others for an ethics investigation. It's a trashy little story that doesn't rise to the level of national news. And for those who insist, "You're a Democrat!" or "You know him!," I haven't covered the Republican scandals either. I'm really not interested in any of that garbage. Or faux 'moralizing.'

5 US soldiers died in Iraq, they were sent there by the government, they died in a war that the nation falsely considers to be 'over.' Their deaths were news. It's a damn shame only Pelley and Williams saw that reality. It's a damn shame that PBS and ABC had time for what Bob Somerby calls 'panty sniffing' but not to cover real news.
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