CBS vs. WMD

News outlets couldn't get enough of "Memogate." But the failure to find Saddam's weapons? That's right up there with the cat-found-in-a-tree story.


Eric Boehlert
January 14, 2005 8:06PM (UTC)

Monday saw the long-awaited verdict for "60 Minutes Wednesday" and its famous on-air star Dan Rather, who was part of the airing of a poorly sourced report about President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. Then on Wednesday came word that the exhaustive search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had come to an official and quiet close, without any proof to support Bush's claim of an ominous stockpile. Both reports painted unpleasant portraits of the central parties involved and raised serious questions about their professional judgment. Which one garnered more press coverage? The one about the guy who reads the news on TV.

In fact, the difference wasn't even close. Monday's independent inquiry regarding last September's ill-fated "60 Minutes Wednesday" exposé exploded all across the media landscape. Based on column inches and the number of hours of TV chatter it garnered, the CBS story could rank second only to the South Asian tsunami as the biggest news story of the young year. That's a bit peculiar considering that much of the report on CBS dwells on the minutia of internal journalistic guidelines, as well as the do's and don'ts of hiring forensic experts to verify documents. But not only did the so-called Memogate story appear on Page A1 Tuesday up and down the media-obsessed East Coast (the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today), but it made it to the front page in Middle America, too -- in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Houston Chronicle and St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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But the extent of print coverage was restrained compared with that of television news teams, and specifically the 24-hour news channels, which could not stop talking about the Rather report. Between Monday morning and noon Thursday, Fox News anchors, reporters and guests mentioned CBS on the air 294 times, according to the monitoring service TVEyes. While it's possible some of those CBS mentions were unrelated to the networks' infamous National Guard story, a vast majority of them clearly were.

Fox's degree of obsession isn't surprising given its rightward slant, but it turns out that MSNBC was even more CBS-crazed this week, tallying 401 mentions in fewer than four whole days of broadcasting. (A big chunk of those came courtesy of radio man Don Imus, whose morning show is carried on MSNBC, and who talked about CBS hour after hour, day after day.) Meanwhile, CNN and CNN Headline News chalked up 170 mentions combined, while on the AM/FM dial, National Public Radio talked about CBS 70 times.

How does all this compare with the story the Washington Post broke on Wednesday that weapons inspectors had officially given up looking for the elusive weapons of mass destruction, the supposed rationale for the Iraq war? Only CNN gave that story the same kind of attention it gave to CBS, according to TVEyes. At Bush-friendly Fox News, there were just 54 WMD mentions (compared with its 294 regarding CBS). MSNBC talked about WMD 74 times, while NPR brought up the subject 36 times -- half as often as it did the Rather report.

Among CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and NPR, Rather's name was uttered 461 times on-air this week, compared with 20 times for Charles Duelfer. He led the fruitless WMD hunt, which the Pentagon will only say cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Maybe if Rather's name had been attached to the weapons report, things would have worked out differently.

On newsstands, the WMD story received an equally chilly reception. A check of the country's major dailies Thursday showed that only the Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel, Arkansas Democrat Gazette and Daytona Beach News-Journal opted to run the story on A1. "We saw it as the final chapter in an important ongoing story, particularly since it [WMD] was the reason for going into Iraq," says Troy Moore, senior managing editor at the Daytona Beach News-Journal. "For us it was a pretty easy decision."

Other editors disagreed, arguing that Wednesday's WMD revelation simply did not qualify as big news. "The feeling was that after all these years, the fact they didn't find any weapons of mass destruction, the ending of the search, needed to be recorded, but we didn't think it was Page 1," says Ron Royhab, executive editor of the Toledo Blade. (The chaotic fallout from local storms dominated the Blade's front page on Thursday.)

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Some suggest Wednesday's WMD search revelation did not significantly advance the story from last fall, when findings from Duelfer's interim report were made public (i.e., the WMD never existed). "We gave abundant play to the Duelfer report last September and October, breaking news of its conclusions when it was still in draft form, writing several front-page stories when it was finalized and generally treating it as a comprehensive document," said New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, via an e-mail. "The fact that the investigators decided to let that report stand as their, if not necessarily the, final word felt to us like news of the 'Francisco Franco Is Still Dead' variety."

That may be true, but by comparison the findings from the CBS report hardly came as a shock either, yet they were treated as extraordinarily important. Just as it was clear last fall that Duelfer's team was unlikely to find any evidence of a WMD arsenal in Iraq, it was equally obvious last September that "60 Minutes Wednesday" had made serious mistakes in its reporting and that executives were likely to pay with their jobs. (Four did this week.)

"In both cases, the stories were telegraphed long ago and proved to be a bit anticlimactic for readers," says Paul Anger, editor of the Des Moines Register, which kept both the CBS inquiry and the WMD story off its front page this week.

It's worth noting that the New York Times not only kept the WMD story off Page 1 Thursday but ran just a 140-word news brief deep inside the newspaper about the end of the WMD hunt. (The Times' editorial page, however, weighed in with a fuller, 515-word take on the announcement: "The search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may have been one of the greatest nonevents of the early 21st century.") There's an age-old rule of journalism that says never hype a competitor's scoop, but Keller denies that the fact that the Washington Post had the story on Wednesday (on Page 1) affected how the Times played it on Thursday.

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The Times' restraint certainly undercuts a wider accusation, which surrounds the CBS debacle, that the mainstream media has a liberal bias and is out to get the Bush White House. "You could make the argument that the Times leans to the left," says Royhab in Toledo. "And you would think they might put [the WMD story] on Page 1 as a major administration failure."

Instead the Times, like so many others this week, chose to dwell on the scandal story about a newsroom, not the war room.


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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