The role of media in war has long been big and complicated, but by the time Iraq rolled around the media had become both more and less powerful. TV news has been beset by falling ratings, aging viewers, and a sense that the national newscasts and their anchors are less and less relevant. At the same time, for many Americans, the network news and their cable counterparts are the only points of contact with perhaps the most important geopolitical event of a generation. Our newsmen and women are both weak and powerful.
This dynamic fascinates me, which is why I’m intrigued by a newly released book by Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz. Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War is a chronicle of how the network news operations have dealt with covering an unpopular war that put employees in physical danger and forced executives to toe the line between “patriotism” and dissent. The Washington Post has an excerpt from the book. It’s worth checking out for anyone interested in the topic:
Two months before the 2004 election, when she was still at NBC’s “Today” show, [Katie] Couric had asked Condoleezza Rice whether she agreed with Vice President Cheney’s declaration that the country would be at greater risk for terrorist attacks if John Kerry won the White House. Rice sidestepped the question, saying that any president had to fight aggressively against terrorism.
Couric interrupted and asked the question again. Would a Kerry victory put America at greater risk? Rice ducked again, saying that the issue should not be personalized.
Soon afterward, Couric got an e-mail from Robert Wright, the NBC president. He was forwarding a note from an Atlanta woman who complained that Couric had been too confrontational with Rice.
What was the message here? Couric felt that Wright must be telling her to back off. She wrote him a note, saying that she tried to be persistent and elicit good answers in all her interviews, regardless of the political views of her guests. If Wright had a problem with that, she would like to discuss it with him personally. Wright wrote back that such protest letters usually came in batches, but that he had passed along this one because it seemed different.