Some resolve and generally good reception

Television: The different networks made different work of the president's address last night.

January 30, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

When George W. Bush talks to the country of war, he doesn't squint, he doesn't stutter, and he doesn't flinch.

This, we now know. In a highly favorable behind-the-scenes look at the White House on NBC last week, Bush occasionally seemed tongue-tied or uncomfortable with Tom Brokaw and his crew. Last night, when he discussed confronting terrorist threats during his nationally televised address to Congress, Bush spoke with resolve, and received bipartisan applause.

As Brit Hume, anchor for the Fox News Channel, said before the speech: "This is to be very much more a war address than a laundry list of legislative priorities."

But when he took on domestic concerns, Bush veered between partisan catch phrases and vague, feel-good formulations of policy initiatives. (A call to repeal the "death tax," more formally known as the "estate tax," drew cheers from fellow conservatives but much less visible support from many Democrats, who say it favors the already wealthy.)

After the speech, ABC's Peter Jennings asked a focus group of more than a dozen people assembled by the network whether anyone thought Bush did not warrant his approval ratings, which stand above 80 percent in a variety of polls. Not one person raised a hand.

Incongruously, Bush gave an upbeat end to his deeply unsettling opening salvo: "As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger."

A study released Monday by the Center for Excellence in Journalism thoroughly examined coverage since the terror strikes and found that the three major broadcast network newscasts - ABC, CBS and NBC - have fallen in lock step. "Perhaps, after nearly 40 years of close competition, they have so assimilated each other's virtues that [the three newscasts] have become indistinguishable in the way they are put together," the report states.

Yet different networks made different work of Bush's remarks last night. Just after the speech and the response by House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, NBC News returned to two key issues covered earlier in the evening on the network's nightly news: the faltering economy and the collapse of Enron. The Texas-based energy trader, now bankrupt, kept close ties to the political establishment, especially President Bush. (NBC had earlier shown videotape from a speech by former Enron CEO Kenneth L. Lay telling employees to keep faith in the company and their money invested in Enron stock. An anonymous questioner asked whether he was smoking crack cocaine.)

John King, CNN's White House correspondent, quickly noted that Bush did not once mention Osama bin Laden. Instead, as King said, Bush referred to Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are said to have carried out terrorist acts against American targets. Bush is "clearly here seeking a mandate for a much wider war outside Afghanistan," King said.

When it came to his roster of heroes - Ronald Reagan's trademark technique of honoring carefully selected people who sit in the balcony of the Senate chamber - Bush picked war heroes, Olympic athletes, new Afghan officials, volunteers and others who have encountered the conflict against terrorism at home and abroad.

Last night was Bush's chance to strike a tone for the conflict ahead.

The White House was so intent on forging a consensus for a conflict that senior administration adviser Karen Hughes appeared on the CBS, CNN and NBC morning news programs to say that "as many as 100,000 terrorists were trained in Afghanistan camps." Knight-Ridder and Hearst newspapers and the Associated Press also moved stories based on background interviews with White House officials citing that figure.

But, under questioning from reporters later in the day, Bush aides backed off. They acknowledged that previous estimates, already sufficiently staggering, indicate that there are 10,000 to 15,000 such terrorists.

The networks didn't question Hughes on her statement, which would have represented a major change in the estimates of terrorist ranks. CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said morning show host Jane Clayson was pressed for time because Hughes had arrived late; after Hughes' remarks, she asked a final question about the Enron debacle.

In his address, Bush invoked a shadowy enemy that counted "tens of thousands" of terrorists sprinkled throughout the world. And, as in all his remarks about the conflict, the wartime president received nothing but support from his congressional audience.

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