COMMENTS: NBC Acts as Shill, Distorts News Judgment

The war in Georgia should have been Story of the Day. It was the lead on both CBS and NBC. ABC ran anchor Charles Gibson's interview on the crisis with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She saw Russia "call into question the viability of the democratically elected government of Georgia. So it appears that their aims and their aspirations were greater than to simply deal with the situation inside South Ossetia." But NBC's supercharged effort to use its news division as a promotional shill for sports won the day. With anchor Brian Williams in Beijing, NBC singlehandedly (10 min v ABC 2, CBS 4) muscled the Beijing Olympics to the top of the standings. ABC, by the way, led with the arrest of suspected al-Qaeda leader Aafia Siddiqui, a story neither of the other two newscasts mentioned.

All three networks relied on British newsgathering partners for eyewitness coverage of the Georgia fighting. Gabriel Gatehouse of the BBC was in Gori for ABC. He showed us the city's central square: "All the buildings around the square, all the glass has been knocked out of them." A rocket attack there had killed a Dutch journalist and four others. Stuart Ramsay of SKY News told CBS anchor Katie Couric that Gori was "without doubt a very, very dangerous place to be." If there is a ceasefire, he commented, it was "pretty much called by the Russians on their own. They did not need to do it. They have won this." Robert Moore of ITN traveled to South Ossetia, the secession-minded province where the fighting started. He found the Russian army in full control there: "This is not some kind of short term military adventure. This is an occupation and not for a generation will Georgia gain this territory."

NBC's Jim Maceda reported from Tbilisi. He traveled along the highway towards Gori and found evidence of rout. He saw "dozens of military vehicles and weapons abandoned by retreating Georgian soldiers. They left behind personal gear as well. You can see a backpack and a water canteen; here is a shovel; one soldier even left his helmet behind." ABC's Clarissa Ward (embargoed link) attended an enormous rally in the capital: "The atmosphere here on the streets of Tbilisi is one of intense patriotism with speakers telling the crowd Georgia Will Never Give Up! Georgia Will Never Accept Russian Rule!" London-based Richard Roth of CBS covered the refusal of Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president, to negotiate with his counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, "accusing the Georgian leader of starting the war, even calling him a lunatic." France's President Nicolas Sarkozy is acting as mediator.

"This is not 1968," declared Secretary Rice to ABC anchor Charles Gibson, seeming to reject equations between the attitude of contemporary Russia towards Georgia and that of the USSR towards Czechoslovakia. In fact, the opposite was her point. Rice was drawing such an equation, calling the Soviet Union "the predecessor state" of Russia. Her distinction was that Russia nowadays wants to be "a part of the prosperous and forward looking Europe." Back in 1968, the USSR had no such ambitions and therefore had no stake in preserving its international good standing.


I can't believe this situation has been going on for a week, and CBS still doesn't seem to have an on-air TV correspondent on the ground in the region... not even in Moscow.

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