COMMENTS: President Bush Keeps All Eyes Focused on Georgia

George Bush was not treated as a lame duck this time. The conflict in Georgia was the unanimous decision as Story of the Day. All three newscasts offered double-barreled coverage, offering battlefield footage from the front and diplomatic coverage of the Bush Administration's reaction. ABC and NBC both led with the Washington angle, ABC from the White House itself: "We expect all Russian forces that have entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country," the President declared, as he dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Tbilisi along with humanitarian assistance. CBS did not have a correspondent in Georgia but did have anchor Katie Couric interview its president, Mikheil Saakashvili. NBC's anchor Brian Williams was again in Beijing for the Olympic Games. ABC sent its anchor Charles Gibson to Dallas for its Oil Crunch series and an interview with Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil.

President Saakashvili offered CBS' Couric his own frontline dispatch: "Russian tanks ran through our towns…destroyed buildings, blew up civilian objects, killed people, rampaged through places, did ethnic cleansing." He called Russians an "insult to humanity, an insult to common sense of mankind." He promised that "Georgia will never, ever surrender." Couric noted that Saakashvili claims to speak "frequently" with Republican Presidential candidate John McCain.

The networks' own correspondents on the ground offered little reportage to confirm Saakashvili's purple rhetoric. ABC's Clarissa Ward (embargoed link) confirmed that Russian tanks had indeed moved deep inside Georgian territory and cut off the highway from Tbilisi to Gori. Yet she reported Gori's fleeing citizens as blaming the chaos in their home town on "ethnic militias and criminals" not Russians. NBC's Jim Maceda repeated the explanation by the Russian military for their continued maneuvers--"just clearing out weapons in areas that could be used to attack their peacekeepers." Back in Washington, NBC's Andrea Mitchell consulted her unnamed sources in "military intelligence" and found "no hard evidence Russia is continuing to advance." From London, CBS' Mark Phillips opined that it may not need to: "What is clear is that the complete Russian victory in this small but nasty war has created a new reality on the ground."

Introducing his network's coverage from Beijing, NBC anchor Brian Williams cautioned that this "violent and messy conflict does not lend itself exactly to white hats or black hats or equal amounts of good or evil" before pointing out that the United States has "decidedly chosen sides" in favor of Georgia. ABC's David Wright (embargoed link) characterized the message President Bush had given to Secretary Rice to deliver to Tbilisi as "unwavering support for Georgia's democratically elected government." CBS' Lara Logan saw limited options for the United States to express such support, suggesting that it may block Russia's application to join the World Trade Organization. "The one thing Georgians want most from the US is military assistance but that is the one thing they are not likely to get."


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