January 24, 2005,
Eight years ago last week, ABC News added George Stephanopoulos to its "objective" media team, fresh out of the Clinton White House. He wasn't presented as the face of objectivity at first. He began with a tag-team assignment with conservative Bill Kristol, who was dismissed over the holidays in 1999. As the 2000 campaign began, Stephanopoulos was soon the network's only political analyst and then as the fall campaign began in 2002, he became host of This Week with George Stephanopoulos, something that sounded like a joke in 1996. On this timetable, it shouldn't surprise us if ABC goes all the way and has Stephanopoulos replace Peter Jennings in 2006.
#aD#On that first appearance for ABC, Good Morning America co-host Charles Gibson asked: "I understand they're going to throw you in the pit with Sam and Cokie and George [Will]... Do you look at this as getting even, or do you look at it as being able to really contribute to the political dialogue of America?" With a smile, Stephanopoulos replied: "I'm hoping to contribute, but I wouldn't mind getting even every once in a while."
That might explain the pile of gloomy news from ABC as President Bush prepared to take another oath of office. On Monday night, ABC's first Nightline of inauguration week was guest-hosted by Stephanopoulos. The subject was more of the same: When will public opinion finally sink the war in Iraq? Formally, the topic was televised pictures of flag-draped coffins.
Stephanopoulos began: "Its roots are in Vietnam. But the phrase wasn't actually coined until 1999, when General Hugh Shelton, the military's top soldier, said that an American war must pass what he called the Dover test the war should be fought only if public support could survive the flag-draped coffins, returning to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. For most of this war, that hasn't applied. The Pentagon banned press coverage of the dead coming home." If you were waiting for ABC to note that this policy began in 1991 and continued throughout the Stephanopoulos era in the West Wing keep waiting.
This is the same old song in heavy rotation on the network hit parade. Ever-escalating violence, tragic American deaths, growing anxiety about war, and the refrain: Haven't you noticed yet that it's not worth the cost? The former Clinton spin doctor said President Bush is facing "growing doubts about the war in Iraq," and although Bush "told the Washington Post this weekend that his November victory ratified his judgments on Iraq...an ABC News poll out today showed more American disapprove of how the president is handling Iraq, more than at any time since the Abu Ghraib scandal."
In other words, what measure are you going to trust for a democratic verdict an election counting up the voices of more than 120 million voters, or a random sample of 1,000 adults that ABC randomly selected out of the phone listings? ABC wants you to pick B.
After that gloomy introduction, ABC turned to a report on the Louisiana National Guard's deciding on a public showing of coffins returning home after six men were killed in one bombing incident on January 6. Reporter Dave Marash hit every gloomy note about Bush's sinking approval: "In the last six weeks, a dozen Louisiana soldiers have died in Iraq. And even in this powerfully patriotic community, that's creating a growing anxiety about the American mission in Iraq and our chances for success there." That's a growing anxiety that ABC hopes and prays it can build.
Stephanopoulos then interviewed Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.), repeating for effect: "I know that members of the Guard and Reserve feel this is their patriotic duty. But, as we saw in the piece there, a lot of people in the town are starting to wonder is this worth it?" The media can remind the average TV news-watcher of a liberal version of the Verizon cell-phone commercial, with a pollster constantly asking, "Are you against the war now? How about now?"
On Tuesday morning, Stephanopoulos was back on little sleep to sing his song some more. He told Diane Sawyer that since Franklin Roosevelt, President Bush has the lowest approval rating of any president beginning his second term except for Richard Nixon.
Stephanopoulos explained with enthusiasm the nature of Bush's polling problem: "The big issue is Iraq. Sixty-one percent in this poll say that Iraq is President Bush's biggest challenge in his second term, 55 percent say the war now wasn't worth fighting that's as high as it's ever been and 58 percent disapprove of the way President Bush is handling Iraq. The problem for him is it is getting worse, not better, since the election and White House aides know this is the biggest drag on his approval rating."
The first question voters might ask is: Why have Bush's ratings sunk since his reelection? The answer is: It's possible they haven't. ABC and the Washington Post polled adults regardless of whether they were registered to vote or not, which generally draws a more negative result for Bush. There were no separate numbers for registered or likely voters, a fact ABC did not pass on to viewers.
To see the difference, consider the polling question: "Do you think the war with Iraq has or has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States?" In the current poll, 50 percent said yes, while 47 did not. But an ABC-Post poll of registered voters last September found a wider margin of 54 to 42 percent.
Here's another recent ABC-Post poll result not offered to the audience: When they asked in mid-December whether troops should stay until civil order is restored or be pulled now to avoid casualties whether order is restored or not, 58 percent said the troops should stay, compared to 39 that favored immediate pullout.
Stephanopoulos insisted to Sawyer that Bush's big problem is "the conduct of the war right now. People are still being pummeled by these pictures of violence every single day from Iraq. We saw over the weekend the first photos in a year of flag-draped coffins coming home, those six National Guardsmen from Louisiana, and the White House aides again concede they know, as we head to this election in Iraq, it's going to get worse in Iraq again. More violence every day."
You have to smile at the passive-aggressive tone there. Bush is somehow being "pummeled by pictures," but by whom? Stephanopoulos is suggesting that Bush may have defeated Kerry, but he cannot defeat the Permanent Media Government. Stephanopoulos and all the "news" merchants who echo him believe that the "Dover test" is a sincere measure of democracy, even if it's a ruthlessly media-manipulated democracy suffused in daily images of hopelessness and death. The networks ought to end their newscasts with the slogan "Undermining America's Resolve for Military Action Since 1968."
What they are trying to do is not enlighten the citizenry, but badger it into submission, thinking that if they keep hammering the subject of casualties to death, eventually the public will grasp their enlightened point of view. Consider this: Would George Stephanopoulos consider hosting a Nightline program exploring candidates for high office in the Iraqi elections who they are and what their platform might be? No, because ABC no doubt believes that would only help Team Bush sell the virtues of the war. "News" is defined by what harms Bush. Any more helpful subject isn't news, but despicable advertising for the military-industrial complex.
But all they're advancing is the strange vision of Presidents Carter and Clinton that the wisest and most honorable presidents never waste an American soldier's life on any risky military mission and along with it, the strange notion that America was safer in the late 1970s or most of the 1990s, when we did nothing about gathering threats to our national security beyond babbling about the necessity of global arms-control agreements and kissing dictators on the cheek.