COMMENTS: Change Changes Nothing

President George Bush ensured that Iran's nuclear ambitions would be Story of the Day for the second straight day when he called a press conference to respond to yesterday's National Intelligence Estimate. It found that Teheran's weapons development had been put on hold four years ago. "I have said Iran is dangerous and the NIE does not do anything to change my opinion," the President insisted. As much coverage as he attracted, however, none of the three newscasts placed him as its lead. All three kicked off with the floods in the Pacific Northwest that have cut off Interstate highway traffic from Seattle to Portland.

All three networks assigned their White House correspondent to Bush's position on Iran. "Key findings have certainly changed," asserted ABC's Martha Raddatz about Iran when "time and time again today the President stood firm saying that nothing has changed." Raddatz saw Bush "instantly and consistently on the defensive." CBS' Jim Axelrod found him "unmoved by a stark reversal." Axelrod asked Bush whether he had received advice "from your intelligence team or your administration" not to escalate his anti-Iran rhetoric once it was suspected that its weapons program was inactive. "Nobody ever told me that." NBC's David Gregory made note of the President's denial that he was "hyping the threat and undermining his own credibility."

NBC's anchor Brian Williams introduced his network's Iran coverage by quoting a Washington Post headline: "Neck Snapping Spin from the President." He asked State Department correspondent Andrea Mitchell to get the background from her spook sources. She called their reversal "dramatic and unprecedented in recent history." Their first clues that they had been "wrong for years" about ongoing secret weapons development came in spring from "multiple sources" including human spies, spy satellites, electronic intelligence and intercepted communications. The spies warned the President in August that their evidence might be accurate; and decided last Wednesday that it was indeed solid.

Teheran continues to enrich uranium, a program that "remains very active as we speak," according to CBS' London-based Elizabeth Palmer, with European nations exerting "huge" pressure to persuade Iran to halt. "The first sanctions started to bite a year ago. Food prices are up. Gasoline is being rationed." She reported that leaders of the Islamic Republic "continue to be very worried" that the United States and the United Nations will try to impose even stricter measures. Yet "maintaining an international coalition to confront Iran will no doubt be trickier now," mused CBS' Axelrod. He quoted the UN Ambassador from the People's Republic of China, a member of the Security Council: "Things have changed because of this latest NIE."


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