TV Yawns at Saddam Tapes

Objectivity shows up in the funniest places on TV news. Take, for example, the latest taped message from Osama bin Laden, where the architect of Sept. 11 spits in America’s face by comparing the "criminality" of the American military to that of Saddam Hussein. The TV networks repeated this robotically, without comment. Far be it from them to pass judgment.

On the morning shows, they merely passed along Osama’s message of moral equivalence, reading it with no attempt to rebut it, rethink it, or reject it. On the evening news, Osama’s Uncle-Sam-same-as-Saddam message wasn’t treated as a stinging lie about our forces. It was, instead, forced through the same well-worn storyline: It’s more proof that the plotters of the Iraq war were wrong to connect Saddam to al-Qaeda.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell insisted that "On its face, that would seem to contradict the administration’s pre-war claims of a link between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda." CBS anchor Bob Schieffer asserted: "It sounds like Osama didn’t like Saddam any more than we do." Apparently, there’s no lower way to insult Saddam Hussein than to compare him to the U.S. military.

For the last few years, the media have been largely uninterested in investigating Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror and his connection to terrorists. The lion’s share of media attention has been focused on the errors, setbacks, and depredations of the American military and their commanders. They’ve been insistent in their refusal to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt about the Iraqi thug’s connection to terrorism, and jump at the opportunity to denounce the administration, believing instead the words of Osama bin Laden.

ABC briefly broke the mold on Feb. 15, when they devoted a "Nightline" segment to some 12 hours of tapes recorded in the 1990s of Saddam talking to aides about all manner of incredible things, including how they were lying to United Nations weapons inspectors, and how, according to Saddam, terrorism was coming to the United States. ABC’s investigative reporter Brian Ross also offered a shorter version of his story on "World News Tonight" and "Good Morning America."

Ross allowed the audience to hear the voice of Saddam proclaiming that America would suffer terrorism via weapons of mass destruction, although he insisted on tape that it would not come from Iraq. They also heard Saddam’s son-in-law declare in 1995 how they were misleading the UN about WMD. But Ross was measured in assessing (SET ITAL) exactly (END ITAL) what this proved, quoting the CIA’s Charles Duelfer that these tapes do not prove Saddam possessed WMD when war broke out, but that "the regime had the intention of building and rebuilding weapons of mass destruction, when circumstances permitted." Between these three stories on three shows, ABC gave the tapes about 15 minutes of airtime.

Even so, ABC demonstrated an odd sense of news judgment. Ross’s first bite of the apple appeared almost 13 minutes into "World News Tonight." As they premiered their Saddam-tapes story on "Nightline," it wasn’t even the first story. It was the second, aired only after ABC reviewed Dick Cheney’s interview with Brit Hume on Fox.

Three stories on the Saddam tapes are a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of stories ABC and the others devoted to the proposition that the Iraqi tyrant didn’t possess WMD and was not connected to anti-American terrorism. Still, ABC looked quite a bit more serious about telling this Saddam story than the other two broadcast networks. On the night ABC broke its story, CBS and NBC both performed the video equivalent of crumpling up the story and throwing it away in little more than 150 words (about 45 seconds) each.

On NBC, Brian Williams noted, "We are learning tonight that like a lot of world leaders, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein recorded meetings with members of his government." He said their investigative reporter, Lisa Myers, listened to the tapes, and he quickly recounted Saddam’s claims of future terror attacks with WMD against America. It was bad enough Williams couldn’t muster a whole story, but then to describe Saddam as the former Iraqi "president"? Pathetic.

CBS was even worse, with anchorman Bob Schieffer vaguely asking defense reporter David Martin about "some CD recordings" of Saddam. Martin proclaimed it wasn’t really news: "intelligence officials say they’ve had them for some time and they contain no revelations about weapons of mass destruction." CBS reported no quotes of what Saddam or his son-in-law said on the tapes.

Now imagine how much coverage these tapes would have received if Saddam had declared in 1995 that some reckless American president would eventually invade Iraq based on phony claims that he had WMD. You know and I know he would be taken at his word, and his words would lead every national newscast for weeks to come.