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"Happy" Criticism Is Not Fair

You have to hand it to FAIR – when the liberal media watchdog group issues an "action alert," their community takes action. When FAIR complained about a commentary by "Face The Nation" host Bob Schieffer last month, our inbox was flooded with e-mails and we responded. Once again we're up to our size limits with hundreds of e-mails spurred by one of FAIR's "action alerts," this time taking issue with an "Evening News" story.

On August 21, White House correspondent Bill Plante reported on President Bush's press conference, most of which dealt with the war in Iraq and the ongoing tension in the Middle East. Plante's report can be seen by clicking the box above and the entire transcript of the press conference can be accessed here. Here's FAIR's beef:

During his August 21 press conference, George W. Bush responded to a question about the Iraq War by saying that "sometimes I'm happy" about the conflict. But many readers and TV viewers never heard the remark, since journalists edited the statement to save Bush any possible embarrassment.

Bush's unedited comment was as follows:
Q: But are you frustrated, sir?

BUSH: Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated. Rarely surprised. Sometimes I'm happy. This is -- but war is not a time of joy. These aren't joyous times. These are challenging times, and they're difficult times, and they're straining the psyche of our country. I understand that.

Viewers of CBS Evening News (8/21/06) saw a carefully edited version of that response—one better suited to presenting Bush as serious and concerned with the effects of the war. Reporter Bill Plante previewed the answer by saying that Bush "conceded that daily reports of death and destruction take a toll, both on the nation and on him." The edited quote that followed:
Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated, rarely surprised. These aren't joyous times. These are challenging times, and they're difficult times. And they're straining the psyche of our country. I understand that.

FAIR notes that the NBC "Nightly News" report on the press conference also omitted the "happy" part of the comment and that print outlets "generally left out" the remark. The folks at FAIR think this was all very unfair, concluding: "with the Iraq War widely unpopular with the public, many viewers may have found Bush saying that it sometimes made him "happy" jarring and distasteful." More on that below. First, some samples from our in-box. Melissa O. asks:
Why did CBS decide that Bush's comments about the Iraq War making him "happy" should be excised from your reporting?
As reporters, you hold a public trust to report credibly, accurately and thoroughly.
Ralph E. said:
Thanks for your disgraceful removal of the words expressing [the] true feelings of our president; keep up your un-American reporting tactics.
C.J. is outraged:
Why not print all of President Bush's words regarding the war in Iraq? I am sure the parents, friends and relatives of the soldiers fighting in that war would not be "happy" themselves knowing the president's words and thoughts. It is time to stop pretending and withholding facts to the American people and the rest of the world. And the honesty needs to begin with YOU, the news media, who are supposed to print and publish the news, not just what you want to print. Let's hear the facts and the truth! You have a responsibility to the American people.
And Joseph V. is just disgusted:
It is distasteful to see you and hear you appease the Administration and cheat the public by not fully and correctly reporting Mr. Bush's remarks on Iraq. It is a feat worthy of what the communists used to do during the Cold War years. As institutions whose existence depends on the democratic process in an open society, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves, if, indeed, you are capable of shame.
I asked Bill Plante for his response to FAIR's complaint, and he told me in an e-mail:
It's nonsense to think that we omitted "sometimes I'm happy. This is -- but war is not a time of joy" in order to spare the president any embarrassment. I made the edit because it made the bite shorter while keeping the sense of the statement. Bush's admission that the war is "straining the psyche of our country," while evident to most people, was news coming from him.
I will agree with some of the criticism made on this story in one respect – that more is always better, less edits are preferable and context is always crucial. But then I don't have to shove a 45-minute press conference into a 2 minute, 20-second package for the "Evening News." It's very difficult to take the rest of the criticism seriously.

First of all, FAIR asserts the following: "During his August 21 press conference, George W. Bush responded to a question about the Iraq War by saying that 'sometimes I'm happy' about the conflict." That is hardly an accurate statement when put into any sort of context whatsoever. The original question, posed by NBC correspondent Kelly O'Donnell, was a specific question about reporting that came from a meeting the president recently had regarding the nature of the violence in Iraq. Here's her original question:

When you talked today about the violence in Baghdad, first you mentioned extremists, radicals, and then al Qaeda. It seems that al Qaeda and foreign fighters are much less of a problem there and that it really is Iraqi versus Iraqi.

And when we heard about your meeting the other day with experts and so forth, some of the reporting out of that said you were frustrated, you were surprised. And your spokesman said: No, you're determined.

But frustration seems like a very real emotion. Why wouldn't you be frustrated, sir, about what's happening?

When the president said he didn't recall being "surprised," O'Donnell prompted him with: "About the lack of gratitude among the Iraqi people." President Bush then launched into a (very) lengthy answer about earlier efforts of insurgents to create sectarian violence, what he sees as the continuing threat from al Qaeda in Iraq, the challenges to provide security, the encouraging sight of 12 million Iraqis having voted, and his overall belief in his strategy to continue that kind of progress.

O'Donnell then asked him, "are you frustrated, sir?" Bush then delivered the lines cited in the FAIR complaint. Coming on the heels of his previous answer involving the broad scope of the current situation in Iraq, you can hardly read that as the kind of joyful celebration of war FAIR asserts it to be. In fact, had any news organization presented that comment in such a way, it would have been a unfaithful representation of what was said. Also omitted from FAIR's version is the fact that the president went on to say this:

You know, nobody likes to see innocent people die. Nobody wants to turn on their TV on a daily basis and see havoc wrought by terrorists. And our question is: Do we have the capacity and the desire to spread peace by confronting these terrorists and supporting those who want to live in liberty? That's the question.
Certainly anyone is free to completely disagree with the president's view of the situation in Iraq or the way he and his administration are handling it or anything else for that matter. Growing numbers of Americans say they are deeply unhappy with his performance. Taken in real context, Bush was clearly attempting to mix optimism with an acknowledgment that it's a difficult situation – as he's done countless times in the past.

Aside from the very important matter of context, there is also the less-pleasant reality of time. As I noted previously, Plante's story ran somewhere in the neighborhood of 2:20, a fairly lengthy piece for a broadcast news story. In that period of time, Plante addressed what he saw as news – including Bush's repeated assertion that the U.S. won't be leaving Iraq anytime soon, his admission that the war is "straining" the nation, his call for a quick international presence in Lebanon and his comments about Iraq and the 2006 midterm campaigns. The edited soundbite in question ran for 16 seconds. The full statement FAIR is using to assert a cover-up was 26 seconds long and included several seconds of pause.

This is an unfortunate reality in broadcast news. I wish soundbites ran two full minutes. I'm right in step with all those who think an hour-long evening newscast would allow for better news coverage and be a public service. I also think that edits made for time are always going to be a source of suspicion, leaving anyone with an axe to grind to speculate about what's being left out. But just because stories are limited to two minutes instead of five doesn't mean the reporters doing them aren't trying to provide a solid, accurate story. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can be leveled at the media from both sides of the political spectrum. Creating controversy out of thin air doesn't help settle the real problems in the press.

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