"Perilously close to propaganda": How Fox News shilled for Iraq War, and Jon Stewart returned sanity

"Fox Effect" pushed American media to get in line and back the Iraq War. Only two comedy shows had guts to resist

Published May 23, 2015 10:30AM (EDT)

  (Fox News)
(Fox News)

Excerpted from "That's The Way It Is: A History of Television News in America"

It was no accident that the war in Iraq was the quintessential television event. Months before the invasion began, Bush administration and military officials began planning how they would convey it to the American public in the new age of around-the-clock media coverage. They were determined to control the story and encourage media identification with the US-led campaign. And they recognized that the enormous news hole that the cable channels in particular needed to fill required a constant stream of new information. Severely limiting media access, as the military had done in Afghanistan, was unlikely to produce enough news to fill this hole and could inspire independent journalistic inquiry or provide a forum for naysayers. Accordingly, they settled on a more open and seemingly transparent approach, turning “Operation Iraqi Freedom” into an extravagant and compelling reality TV show. Instead of the usual bare and colorless room where military officials issued briefings to reporters and television cameras, they had Hollywood producers create a more visually arresting set, as one might see on Survivor. And they supplemented the official military-produced film of airstrikes—a staple of television war coverage since the Persian Gulf War—with a more intimate, ground-level view of the conflict by allowing several hundred credentialed and specially trained reporters, including veterans like Ted Koppel, to accompany American and British troops as “embedded” correspondents.

Launched during prime time on March 19, 2003, and lasting for six weeks, Operation Iraqi Freedom was a dazzling show and produced some great television moments. Perhaps the most dramatic occurred on April 9, when coalition forces and the press entered Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and television cameras captured a stirring sight, a group of Iraqis, with the assistance of an American tank, toppling a large statue of Saddam Hussein in a public square. It was just as Cheney had predicted—American forces were being greeted as liberators. But as numerous studies of media coverage of the Iraq War later revealed, television reporting from the front lines was far from transparent, and even the famous statue-toppling incident was something of a pseudoevent. In order not to offend tender American sensibilities, the networks and cable channels elected not to broadcast video footage of bloodshed and casualties, and they abided by a Bush administration request not to show any of the coffins or body bags arriving in the US bearing American dead. And while embedding reporters with military units was a terrific way of giving the war a human dimension, it was not a very good way to shed light on the big picture. The parade of experts who offered analysis and commentary were no better. Mostly retired military officers, they were eager to discuss military strategy and tactics, not the political and diplomatic problems that were certain to result if the US had to keep a large occupation force in Iraq. Ironically, the cable news channels, with plenty of airtime that could have been devoted to context, did an especially poor job of explaining the big picture. As usual, ABC’s Nightline and PBS’s NewsHour did the best. Ted Koppel’s reports from the front lines were particularly cogent and informative.

This was indicative of a larger pattern. By and large, the networks offered viewers a wider array of perspectives than the cable news channels. And they were less likely to express open identification with coalition forces. The most blatantly pro-American coverage came, not surprisingly, from Ailes’s Fox News. Predisposed to see things from the Bush administration’s point of view, FNC anchors and reporters had trouble containing their enthusiasm at the prospect of expanding the war on terror to “take out” Saddam Hussein and “liberate” Iraq. FNC’s talk-show hosts were particularly bellicose, goading their guests to rant about Hussein’s malevolence and the benefits that would follow any American-instigated regime change. They denounced nations that refused to join the US-led coalition as cowardly appeasers and routinely suggested that Americans who opposed the war were traitors who had cast their lot with the enemy. And once the war began, FNC became the military’s biggest cheerleaders, covering its relentless march to Baghdad with the unabashed enthusiasm of drunken alumni at a football game watching their team roll over a particularly hapless opponent. It was, as numerous industry observers noted, an entirely new kind of TV journalism. Eschewing objectivity and the skepticism of officialdom that had inspired many journalists since the era of Vietnam and Watergate, coverage of the war on FNC came perilously close to propaganda.

Despite its departure from the norm—or perhaps because of it—FNC rose to the top of the ratings in the months after the 9/11 attacks, surpassing CNN in January 2002, and increasing its lead over its rivals during the Iraq War in the spring of 2003. During the war’s giddy first week, FNC averaged 5.6 million viewers in prime time, compared to CNN’s 4.4 million and MSNBC’s paltry 2.2 million. By the end of 2003, the ratings of all three cable news channels had declined, but FNC’s lead over CNN had increased, and its prime-time programs drew 50 percent more viewers than CNN’s. Clearly, many viewers didn’t want objective journalism about US foreign policy. With the nation “at war,” they wanted unapologetic pro-American cheerleading.

FNC’s success soon produced a widely discussed “Fox effect” among its cable rivals, especially MSNBC. Like FNC, MSNBC producers placed an American flag in the corner of the screen after the 9/11 attacks and moved gingerly toward a more “patriotic” presentation of news about the war on terror in the months before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The outbreak of the war—and FNC’s staggering ratings success—encouraged MSNBC officials to become even more pro-American. They hired conservative supporters of the war, including Michael Savage, a notorious right-wing radio personality, to host evening talk shows and they presented mawkish stories on American troops in the field. Embattled MSNBC president Erik Sorenson defended the new emphasis by claiming that conservative voices were needed for balance and suggesting that the country wanted more positive reporting that would give the Bush administration and the military the “benefit of the doubt.” CNN, as usual, tried to remain in the middle of the road, a necessity for any organization that advertised itself as the “world’s news network.” By March 2003, however, the pressure to support the US mission became overwhelming, and CNN executives and producers found it virtually impossible to maintain an independent point of view. CNN’s professions of internationalism, always a problem for some Americans, had become an acute liability in an atmosphere where, as President Bush put it shortly after 9/11, “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.”

On May 1, 2003, in an expertly choreographed spectacle aboard an aircraft carrier, Bush announced that the “combat phase” of Operation Iraqi Freedom was over. Hussein was in hiding and would soon be captured by American troops. His government had been overthrown, and American officials expressed confidence that Iraq would soon be a vibrant, functioning democracy. Speaking before television cameras in prime time, under a huge banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” Bush praised the military for their efforts, and tried to give the campaign a suitably upbeat Hollywood ending. By attacking the US, he noted, “the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States, and war is what they got.” Offstage, Karl Rove must have been delighted. Everything had gone according to plan. The war had been won. Iraq had been liberated, and the US had flexed its muscles, sending a message to other nations around the world. And, best of all, the American public had rallied behind the Bush administration, providing it with renewed political capital.

But uncomfortable facts soon ruined the show’s happy ending. Substantial numbers of Iraqis expressed unhappiness with the American occupation and organized a spirited and highly effective armed insurgency. The insurgency forced the US to keep a huge military force in Iraq and produced a stream of American casualties. US military and intelligence operatives were unable to find any hidden weapons of mass destruction—the public rationale for the war. Apparently, Hussein, who told UN inspectors before the war that he had shut down his weapons programs, had been telling the truth. Even worse, a number of sources, including former high-ranking Bush administration officials, came forward with claims that Bush and his closest advisors had been planning to overthrow Hussein before the 9/11 attacks and had purposely hyped dubious intelligence in order to convince Congress and the public that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had to be deposed. The Bush administration and its surrogates tried to discredit these critics by impugning their motives and even their patriotism. Yet their revelations were impossible to ignore.

Gradually, the networks and the cable news channels, with the notable exception of Fox News, awakened from their torpor. In April 2004, as the Bush team were revving up their reelection machinery, the CBS program 60 Minutes II broadcast a sensational report, illustrated with eerie digital photographs taken by US servicemen, documenting instances of sadistic torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a former prison where Hussein had incarcerated his enemies that was now being used by American forces to detain suspected insurgents.

It was followed by additional reports in newspapers and magazines that revealed that the torture of prisoners was widespread and sanctioned by official policy. The Bush administration responded indignantly that the Abu Ghraib case was an isolated incident perpetrated by a few “bad apples,” and they successfully changed the tenor of the discussion so that the word torture virtually disappeared from media reports. Instead, reports described it as “mistreatment” and “abuse.” But charges that US officials had resorted to torture—not just at Abu Ghraib but in their interrogation of suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay—would not go away, and were revived in late 2005 by Senator John McCain, giving the story a new legitimacy and inspiring television journalists to pursue it more aggressively.

Emboldened by their exposure of the Abu Ghraib torture, CBS broadcast another potentially explosive story on 60 Minutes II in September 2004. Produced by Mary Mapes and narrated by Dan Rather, the same team who had done the report on Abu Ghraib, it revealed that President Bush had received special privileges while serving in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Rumors of this had circulated for years, and Mapes and her crew conducted interviews and examined a cache of documents that seemed to provide confirmation. Heavily promoted by CBS and rushed to be ready for broadcast during the program’s season premier, Mapes’s report immediately aroused the ire of bloggers on the Internet. They questioned the authenticity of the documents and claimed that Mapes and Rather had a vendetta against Bush. At first, CBS, Mapes, and Rather defended the report’s accuracy. But when mainstream news organizations joined the investigation and began examining the documents, their authenticity fell further into doubt. It now seemed likely that they were forgeries, and Mapes and Rather had been duped. Two weeks after the report aired, CBS president Andrew Heyward was forced to issue a retraction and apology. An independent panel hired by CBS exonerated Mapes and Rather of ideological bias. It concluded, however, that they had engaged in sloppy journalism and been too eager to produce a dramatic scoop in time for the season premier. This hardly satisfied CBS’s many right-wing critics and provided them with yet more evidence of CBS’s liberal bias.

By early 2005, many more Americans had begun to question the wisdom of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the Bush administration found it more difficult to influence the news media’s coverage of its foreign and domestic policies. On the Internet, in the alternative press, and on the websites of foreign news outlets, from newspapers like Le Monde and the Guardian to the cheeky Qatar-based television network Al Jazeera, stories critical of the American occupation and the war on terror were widely available to Americans. And as they multiplied and began to spark discussion and debate, segments of the American press became more willing to question and criticize the Bush administration. But it was a slow and halting process, and it angered American opponents of the war who were frustrated by the media’s reluctance to defect from the “team” that Bush had mobilized after the 9/11 attacks. Not until Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans at the end of August 2005 did most of the mainstream media reassert themselves and begin to produce journalism that was largely independent of the administration’s influence. Caught off guard by the storm and seemingly indifferent to the devastation it was causing, Bush and his advisors lost control of mainstream media discourse and spent the rest of his presidency in a defensive crouch.

Ironically, until Hurricane Katrina, one of the few places on television where American viewers could hear unambiguous criticism of Bush administration policies was the cable channel Comedy Central. Established in the early 1990s and owned by media giant Viacom, it specialized in old sitcoms, movies, standup and sketch comedy, and a smattering of original programming. Among the latter was a satirical news program called The Daily Show, which began in 1996. Hosted by Craig Kilborn and focusing mostly on pop culture subjects, it was broadcast at 11 p.m. Eastern Time, opposite local news programs and before the late-night talk shows. The program changed considerably in 1999, when Jon Stewart, an experienced comedian, replaced Kilborn, and a former editor of the satirical newspaper The Onion, Ben Karlin, became the program’s head writer and executive producer. With Stewart and Karlin at the helm, The Daily Show became more news-oriented, particularly during the 2000 election campaign. The show’s following increased after 9/11, when Stewart and his “correspondents” became even more topical and began chiding the news media for their unwillingness to question or criticize Bush administration policies. For a number of months after Bush’s dramatic “Mission Accomplished” speech, Stewart was one of the few voices on television regularly asking about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, and his dogged refusal to let the issue die kept it in the spotlight and eventually inspired journalists to begin asking as well.

Not surprisingly, the show was assailed by conservatives and even many professional journalists for criticizing Republicans far more than Democrats. To the right in particular, The Daily Show was an appalling example of liberal bias. Stewart and Karlin conceded that their humor often titled to the left, yet they reminded their critics that, unlike Fox News, they made no claims to being journalists. They also noted that the party in power presented an easier target, and that some Republicans said things that were so ignorant or absurd that they invited ridicule. The problem, as Stewart and Karlin saw it, was that the media were too afraid to call them on it, creating an opening for The Daily Show to do so. Karlin suggested that the mainstream media were shackled by “weird handcuffs”: “They have to present both sides of the argument, even if one side . . . is wrong.”

By 2004, the program had become a running critique of the conventions of television journalism, making it very appealing to young viewers unhappy with the state of TV news. Stewart made his own views about the industry’s emphasis on punditry and partisan debate quite clear in October 2004, when he appeared on CNN’s Crossfire and berated hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for “hurting America” with their verbal food fights. Rather than debunking misinformation to determine truth, as television news programs ought to be doing, they preached to the converted—Carlson to conservatives, Begala to liberals—echoing the partisan attacks of politicians. When pressed by critics for solutions to the crisis of contemporary television journalism, Stewart stopped short of suggesting a return to the conventions of Richard Salant. That would have made him seem old-fashioned, and he may well have been too much of a postmodernist to believe that journalists could reveal the “truth.” But his program’s critique of TV news conventions implicitly raised viewer awareness of the fact that the networks and cable news channels were not providing it. And, in its own peculiar way, The Daily Show undertook the difficult task of doing so.

As The Daily Show became more popular, its profile rose. By 2005, the buzz surrounding the program was intense, and its ratings had swelled. Stewart’s opening monologues, which summarized and dissected the leading news stories of the day, were widely discussed and circulated on the Internet. Audience research revealed that they were the main source of news for many viewers. Often accompanied by video footage, they routinely exposed hypocrisy and dissembling. Unlike conventional news anchors, Stewart regularly offered his opinion in the course of presenting a story and noted when something seemed top-heavy with spin. His interviews were also noteworthy. The Daily Show’s success made it a desirable forum for newsmakers, and Karlin and Stewart were able to land many high-profile guests. Stewart often asked smart, probing questions, mixing humor with seriousness and, at times, palpable outrage. Though, as some critics noted, he was just as likely to pull back and go easy on them. Stewart defended this practice by noting that he was a comedian, not a journalist, and that The Daily Show was “fake news.” The “reports” delivered by his regular correspondents could also be sharp-edged, exhibiting many features common in The Onion. They mercilessly mocked the pretentions of TV journalists and provided producers with opportunities to poke fun at the perversity of “professional news judgment” in the age of infotainment.

In the fall of 2005, one of the program’s longtime “correspondents,” the comedian Stephen Colbert, got his own program, The Colbert Report. It followed The Daily Show and was designed to spoof the opinion-driven talk shows that dominated prime time on the cable news channels, especially Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor. It was an instant hit with viewers and critics and increased Comedy Central’s reputation for innovative programming. Colbert’s character, a blustering, egomaniacal right-winger, displayed many of O’Reilly’s signature traits, and the program included features that mimicked those on the Factor. For example, mocking O’Reilly’s claim that his program constituted a “no-spin zone,” Colbert regularly described his own program as a “no-fact zone.” The Colbert Report was especially derisive of what its producers regarded as the ignorance and cynicism of the American right, which was reflected in the bluster of O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and other pundits on Fox News. On the program’s first broadcast, Colbert
coined the word “truthiness”—gut feelings about what ought to be true, regardless of the facts—to describe the delusional mindset of some right-wingers.

“Let’s face it folks,” he noted in mock seriousness, “we are a divided nation . . . between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart.” Colbert’s character was a big fan of President Bush and regularly bashed liberals for seeking to undermine the Bush administration’s achievements. The comedian rarely appeared out of character, even when being interviewed on other programs, and he shocked many journalists when he hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April 2006 and mocked Bush in the latter’s presence. By expressing unbridled support for Bush and his policies, Colbert was able to criticize them far more explicitly than Stewart. For example, at the WHCA dinner, in the course of praising Bush for his commitment to principles, Colbert noted, “The greatest thing about this man is that he’s steady, you know where he stands. He believes that same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday.” It was devastating, and made Colbert, like Stewart, a hero to the growing number of Americans who were unhappy about the continued US presence in Iraq and the Bush administration’s policies in general.

Excerpted from "That's The Way It Is: A History of Television News in America" by Charles L. Ponce De Leon. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2015 by the University of Chicago. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Charles L. Ponce De Leon

Charles L. Ponce de Leon is associate professor of history and American Studies at California State University Long Beach.

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