COMMENTS: Network Anchors Question General Petraeus

First comes the House, next comes the Senate, then third comes the network news. In the orchestrated build-up to the President's televised address to the nation on Thursday evening, Gen David Petraeus, George Bush's military commander in Iraq, touched base with each of the inside-the-Beltway power centers. After testifying to committees on Monday and Tuesday, the general sat down for interviews with all three anchors in Washington to make his case for a continued troop deployment their Story of the Day. ABC's Charles Gibson and NBC's Brian Williams anchored their newscasts from the nation's capital; CBS' Katie Couric returned to New York City after her one-on-one. None of the interviews was newsworthy enough, however, to warrant the lead slot on any newscast. ABC and CBS led with demographic data; NBC led with its own in-house opinion poll results.

Unspoken in the interviews with Petraeus--but referred to obliquely--was the insinuation by the antiwar group in the newspaper ad that NBC's Jim Miklaszewski mentioned on Monday that Petraeus might not testify in straightforward fashion but instead allow White House spinmeisters to massage his message in order to "Betray Us." So NBC anchor Williams characterized Petraeus as "a patriot" in introducing his q-&-a. CBS' Couric noted that the general "welcomed the chance" to respond to accusations of "cherrypicking and twisting the facts." And Petraeus himself told ABC's Gibson (subscription required): "I have tried to shut out optimistic and pessimistic moments, candidly--and just have realistic moments."

CBS' Couric was frustrated when Petraeus made no predictions about the war beyond July of 2008. She cited criticism that his strategy "is too open-ended with no long-term plan;" that "this sort of time-will-tell, we-will-see-how-it-goes philosophy just does not cut it." So Couric asked about the long term directly: "You cannot envision 100,000 US troops in Iraq for the next 20 years?" "No way." "What about in five years?" "I am not going to hazard that kind of projection."

NBC's Williams zeroed in on Petraeus' identification of his enemy and obtained significant clarification. The anchor reminded the general that "over the last two days of testimony you mentioned al-Qaeda by our count 160 times." He asked Petraeus to explain. "I did not mention that to try to tie this into the Global War on Terror""It is not a unified force and I have not tried to make that case""We do not label them all al-Qaeda""There clearly are Sunni insurgents and then resistance fighters, rejectionists, various labels, if you like, that are independent of al-Qaeda."

"The general said," NBC's Williams concluded, "this week in Washington has been an out-of-body experience for him."


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