Upcoming debate moderator Russert added to record of distortions on Sunday's Meet the Press

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

On the January 13 edition of Meet the Press, host Tim Russert -- who, with NBC's Brian Williams, will moderate the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on January 15 -- once again cited the "[2002] National Intelligence Estimate, which had a lot of caveats" about Iraq's weapons programs to challenge a Democrat about his or her Iraq war vote, something he did not do in two previous interviews with Sen. John McCain. Russert also aired a statement from Democratic strategist Donna Brazile criticizing former President Bill Clinton's recent comments about Sen. Barack Obama, but not her subsequent remark that "I take the president at his word that he was not being condescending; he was not being insulting."

On the January 13 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert challenged Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) on her vote in 2002 giving President Bush the authority to use military force against Iraq, asking her: "Do you wish you had read the National Intelligence Estimate, which had a lot of caveats from the State Department and the Energy Department as to whether or not Saddam Hussein really had a biological and chemical and active nuclear program?" Russert has asked similar questions of other Democratic presidential candidates who voted for the Iraq war resolution. Yet in two separate interviews on Meet the Press, Russert did not challenge Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) assertion that "every single intelligence agency in the world believed he [Saddam] had weapons of mass destruction"; he did not ask McCain if McCain wishes he had read the NIE, which was made available to all members of Congress before the vote, according to The Washington Post. During the June 5, 2007, Republican presidential debate, McCain admitted that he did not read the NIE before the 2002 vote on the Iraq war authorization. Russert also aired a statement from Democratic strategist Donna Brazile criticizing former President Bill Clinton for using the phrase "fairy tale" in reference to Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), but not her subsequent comments that Clinton had "clarif[ied] his remarks" and that she "take[s] the president at his word."

The upcoming January 15 Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas will be moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, "[j]oined by" Russert and Today's Natalie Morales. Media Matters for America has noted numerous instances of misinformation from Russert and Williams, including asking Democratic candidates questions based on misrepresentations and falsehoods. Moreover, following the October 30, 2007, debate in which 14 of the 30 distinct questions Russert asked the Democratic candidates were either directed to Clinton or to other candidates about Clinton, several media figures asserted that Russert and Williams had acted as Clinton's "opponent[s]."

Russert's double standard -- Dems and McCain

During the January 6 edition of Meet the Press, Russert asked McCain, "Looking back at the beginning of the war, back in March of 2003 ... if you had known then, if the intelligence came out and said, 'We know that Saddam Hussein does not have biological, ... or, or chemical, or a nuclear program' ... would you still have voted to authorize the war?" In his response, McCain said, "I'd love to get into thousands of historical hypotheticals with us. But what we knew at the time and the information we had at the time that every single intelligence agency in the world believed he had weapons of mass destruction." Similarly, during the May 13, 2007, edition of Meet the Press, Russert asked McCain, "In hindsight, was it a good idea to go into Iraq?" but did not challenge McCain's reply that the invasion of Iraq "was certainly justified" because "[e]very intelligence agency in the world, not just U.S., believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."

As Media Matters documented, while Russert failed to ask McCain about the caveats in the NIE, he had previously challenged two other Democrats -- former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) -- over their 2002 votes giving President Bush the authority to use military force against Iraq, citing the NIE "caveats." In those interviews, Russert mentioned the "caveats" in the October 2002 NIE in which the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) dissented from the intelligence community's majority judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. On the February 4, 2007, edition of Meet the Press, Russert challenged Edwards on his vote to authorize military force against Iraq, asking him, "Why were you so wrong?" and later noting that "the [October 2002] National Intelligence Estimate that was given to you, and now made public, had some real caveats." Russert then quoted from a conclusion reached by the INR in the 2002 NIE: "The activities we have detected do not add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what [the INR] would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." In addition, on the April 29, 2007, edition of Meet the Press, Russert asked Biden regarding the prewar intelligence: "How could you, as a U.S. senator, be so wrong?" Russert said that "there are a lot of caveats put on the level of intelligence about the aluminum tubes and everything. General [Anthony] Zinni ... said when he heard the discussion about the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had, he said, 'I've never heard that' in any of the briefings he had as head of the Central Command."

Russert's quotation problem

During his January 13 interview with Hillary Clinton, Russert aired a statement Brazile made on the January 8 edition of CNN's The Situation Room regarding Bill Clinton's assertion that Obama's characterization of his position on the Iraq war was "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." On the January 8 Situation Room, Brazile asserted: "As an African-American, I find his words and his tone to be very depressing." After airing the video clip, Russert added, "So these are people who are not supporters of Obama, who are listening." But Russert did not note that on the January 11 edition of The Situation Room, Brazile said, "President Clinton went on several nationally syndicated black radio stations today to clarify his remarks. Look, I take the president at his word, that he was not being condescending; he was not being insulting. Rather, he was pointing out Senator Obama's previous statements on Iraq and where he perhaps might stand now." Brazile added, "I think the president understands now that when you use those words some people take offense. But we know Bill Clinton. We love Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton has soldiered in the fields for people of color."

In addition to falsely purporting to show Brazile's full comments on the issue of Bill Clinton's remarks while omitting Brazile's subsequent remarks, during the same interview with Clinton, Russert played a truncated quote from Bill Clinton and falsely asserted that he was showing viewers "exactly what President Clinton said." Referring to January 7 comments Bill Clinton made about Obama, Russert told Hillary Clinton: "It just isn't Senator Obama who is taking offense. This is exactly what President Clinton said in Dartmouth. Here is the tape." Russert then proceeded to air video of Bill Clinton saying: "Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." In fact, Russert did not show viewers "exactly what President Clinton said." He did not show what Clinton said immediately before the "fairy tale" quote, when Clinton referred to Obama's statements from 2004 about the Iraq war. Indeed, The New York Times' Mark Leibovich noted on January 13 that in using the words "fairy tale," Clinton "was referring specifically to the perception that Mr. Obama was totally pure in his opposition to the Iraq war." In addition to showing the truncated video, Russert read an excerpt from Bob Herbert's January 12 New York Times column, in which Herbert claimed that Bill Clinton "sa[id] of Mr. Obama's effort: 'The whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen.' "

Russert also read from a January 11 Times article that purported to quote a comment Hillary Clinton made about civil rights, and Russert noted Herbert's assertion that Hillary Clinton had "tak[en] cheap shots at, of all people, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." But the Times article that Russert read truncated Hillary Clinton's actual statement, omitting from the quote her reference to President John F. Kennedy and "[t]he power" of King's dream.

Russert's "quotation problem" is not limited to his January 13 interview with Clinton. During his November 11, 2007, Meet the Press interview with Obama, Russert asserted that "critics will say you've not been a leader against the [Iraq] war," then read a quote he attributed to Obama: "In July of 2004, Barack Obama: 'I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports. ... What would I have done? I don't know,' in terms of how you would have voted on the war." However, in citing Obama's comment "What would I have done? I don't know," Russert did not quote the very next sentence of Obama's statement, which was, "What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made."

Further, two of the questions Russert asked during the October 30, 2007, Democratic presidential candidates debate were based on falsehoods: He misrepresented debate exchanges on Social Security and fabricated a quote he attributed to Clinton to accuse her of having "one public position and one private position" on the issue of raising the cap on income on which Social Security taxes must be paid. He also falsely claimed that a 2002 letter written by Bill Clinton to the National Archives "specifically ask[ed] that any communication between [then-first lady Hillary Clinton] and the president not be made available to the public until 2012." Several media figures have since uncritically used Russert's false assertion about Clinton's letter to the National Archives in reporting on the Clintons' records, as Media Matters documented (here, here, here, and here).

Other Russert/Williams misinformation

Two of the questions Williams asked during the April 26, 2007, Democratic presidential candidates debate were also based on falsehoods. He falsely suggested that the so-called Feingold-Reid Bill would mandate that all U.S. troops be withdrawn from Iraq by "about a year from now," when in fact, the bill would have allowed the continued deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq for three "limited purposes." Williams also quoted former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's (R) claim that "America will be safer with a Republican president," before asking Clinton, "How do you think, Senator, it happened that that notion of Republicans as protectors in a post-9-11 world has taken on so?" In fact, at the time, several recent polls had found that Democrats had an advantage on the issues of national security and foreign policy.

On the February 11, 2007, edition of Meet the Press, Russert advanced the false notion that Democrats rarely discuss their faith, telling Washington Post columnist David Broder that during Obama's presidential announcement speech, "My ear heard something that I had not heard from Democratic candidates in some time. Up front, Senator Obama began his speech with references to his faith, and then came back to that same issue in the speech." In fact, numerous prominent Democrats have publicly discussed their faith, including Edwards, who had discussed his United Methodist upbringing with Russert on Meet the Press the week before.

From the January 13 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: It just isn't Senator Obama who is taking offense. This is exactly what President Clinton said in Dartmouth. Here's the tape.

BILL CLINTON [video clip]: Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen.

RUSSERT: Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, who's neutral --

CLINTON: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: -- said this: "To call that dream a fairy tale, which Bill Clinton seemed to be doing, could very well be insulting to some of us."

CLINTON: Tim, let me -- let me just stop you right there.

RUSSERT: But, no --

CLINTON: No, wait a minute.

RUSSERT: No, I didn't stop you. Let me just go through --

CLINTON: No, but you did not give the entire quote and so --

RUSSERT: No, but you --

CLINTON: The entire quote was clearly about the position on Iraq.

RUSSERT: But I'm --

CLINTON: It was not about the entire candidacy. It was not about the extraordinary, you know, abilities.

RUSSERT: But Congressman -- but Congressman Clyburn has been covering this race. Donna Brazile, herself a longtime activist in the Democratic Party, this is what she said. Here's Donna Brazile.

DONNA BRAZILE (Democratic strategist) [video clip]: As an African-American, I find his words and his tone to be very depressing.

RUSSERT: So these are people who are not supporters of Obama, who are listening. Now, let me just go to the Martin Luther King thing because you had your opportunity to talk about this at the beginning of the show and I just want to lay this out for our viewers. This is how The New York Times categorized it: "In an interview with Fox News on Monday, Mrs. Clinton tried to make a point about presidential leadership. 'Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of '64,' Mrs. Clinton said in trying to make the case that her experience should mean more to voters than the uplifting words of Mr. Obama. 'It took a president to get it done.' " Again, Congressman Clyburn: "We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics. That bothered me a great deal."

[...]

RUSSERT: Again, learning from a mistake. Do you wish you had read the National Intelligence Estimate, which had a lot of caveats from the State Department and the Energy Department as to whether or not Saddam Hussein really had a biological and chemical and active nuclear program?

CLINTON: I was fully briefed by the people who wrote that. I was briefed by the people from, you know, the State Department, the CIA, the Department of Defense; all of the various players in that. And many people who read it -- well, actually, not very many people read the whole thing because we were getting constant briefings. And people -- some people read it and voted for the resolution, some people read it and voted against the resolution. I felt very well briefed. And it wasn't just what the Bush administration was telling us in the NIE; I went way outside of any kind of Bush administration sources -- independent people, people from the Clinton administration, people in the British government. I looked as broadly as I could at how to assess this.

And if, of course, you see the vote as I saw it, as opposed to how it's been characterized, I thought it was a vote to put inspectors back in, to make it very clear that Saddam Hussein wouldn't be able to go off unchecked. If those inspectors had been permitted to do the job that they were set up to do, we would have avoided war. It became clear in retrospect, Tim, once people started writing books and information came out of the administration, the president had no intention of letting the inspectors do their job. That's not what I was told by the Bush White House. That's not what we were told in constant briefings from high-level Bush administration officials. That's not what the president told the country in his speech in Cincinnati shortly before the vote. If you remember, he said this vote was the best chance to avoid some kind of confrontation.

From the January 11 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

WOLF BLITZER (CNN host): Bill Clinton made some waves this week on the eve of the New Hampshire primary when he complained that the portrayal of Barack Obama's Iraq war stance was, quote, "a fairy tale." Today, the former president went on the Reverend Al Sharpton's radio show to explain what he meant. President Clinton says he wasn't talking about Obama himself or Obama's campaign. Listen to this.

BILL CLINTON [audio clip]: First of all, that's not true. I have given hundreds of speeches on Hillary's behalf on this campaign. I don't believe I've given a single one where I did not applaud Senator Obama in his candidacy. It's not a fairy tale. He might win. I think he's a very impressive man, and he's run a great campaign. I was addressing a specific argument that had never been brought up in the debates.

BLITZER: So if Bill Clinton said what he meant, meant what he said, why is he out there today having to clarify his so-called "fairy tale" remark?

Joining us from New York, our CNN contributor Carl Bernstein. He's the author on the book on Hillary Clinton entitled A Woman in Charge -- the book now out in paperback. And with us here in Washington our CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.

Let me ask you, Donna. What do you think? Did the former president resolve this matter? Did he, you know, sort of clarify exactly what he meant?

BRAZILE: President Clinton went on several nationally syndicated black radio stations today to clarify his remarks. Look, I take the president at his word that he was not being condescending; he was not being insulting. Rather, he was pointing out Senator Obama's previous statements on Iraq and where he perhaps might stand now.

Look, Wolf, this is a very exciting moment for Democrats. It's a historic moment. If Dr. King were alive he would be excited to see at least the Democratic Party offering an African-American man and a white woman as our two top choices for the presidency. Not to take anything away from Senator John Edwards, who Dr. King would also applaud for raising the issue of poverty in this race.

I think the president understands now that when you use those words some people take offense. But we know Bill Clinton. We love Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton has soldiered in the fields for people of color. And I think at this moment, we're going to let things just lie and just go on and continue to compete for all the votes out there: black, white, gay, lesbian, women, men, rural, everybody -- 'cause that's what the Democrats do.

From the January 6 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Looking back at the beginning of the war, back in March of 2003 --

McCAIN: Yep.

RUSSERT: -- if you had known then, if the intelligence came out and said, "We know that Saddam Hussein does not have biological," --

McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: -- "or, or chemical, or a nuclear program" --

McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: -- would you still have voted to authorize the war?

McCAIN: Well, obviously, given information that we have changes your decision-making process. But Saddam Hussein was still a threat. The sanctions were breaking down. There was a multibillion-dollar Oil for Food scandal in the United Nations. The -- every day American airplanes were being shot at. Saddam Hussein had used and acquired weapons of mass destruction in the past, and there was no doubt there was going to be in the future. The problem in Iraq, my friend, was not whether we went in or not; it's the way it was mishandled after the initial invasion.

RUSSERT: Yeah, but, Senator, it's an important question because President Bush --

McCAIN: It's an important --

RUSSERT: President Bush has said --

McCAIN: Yeah.

RUSSERT: -- "Even if I knew he did not have biological, chemical, or nuclear program" --

McCAIN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

RUSSERT: -- "I still would go into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein." Would you have?

McCAIN: I -- yes, but the point is that if we had done it right, it's been well chronicled in many, in many books, you and I wouldn't be even discussing that now. The mishandling after the war. Look, I met with a high-ranking former Al Qaeda operative in Iraq recently. And I asked him, "How did you succeed?" He said, "The lawlessness after the initial invasion and Abu Ghraib." And so they were able to recruit people because of the disorder and the mishandling. So you would not be asking me if it hadn't been mishandled, you would've said -- because we succeeded and established a stable Iraq - you'd have said, "Aren't you glad we went in? Because Saddam Hussein, one of the most brutal, most terrible dictators in history, who fought in several wars, used weapons of mass destruction, invaded his neighbor, is now gone from the world scene." That's what you'd be saying.

RUSSERT: But I think there'd be a real debate with the, with the -- amongst the American people if we were told he did not have biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

McCAIN: If frogs had wings -- look, Tim, we can talk about lots of hypotheticals. Would we have, would we have stopped Saddam Hussein from going into Kuwait back in '91 when, when he went in? Would we have, would we have said that the Chinese aren't going to cross -- would we have known -- if we had known that the Chinese were going to cross the Yalu in the Korean War, would we have done it differently? I'd love to get into thousands of historical hypotheticals with us. But what we knew at the time and the information we had at the time that every single intelligence agency in the world believed he had weapons of mass destruction. So --

RUSSERT: So bottom line, the war was not a mistake?

McCAIN: The war, quote, the invasion was not a mistake. The handling of the war was a terrible mistake.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
MSNBC, NBC
Person
Tim Russert
Show/Publication
Meet the Press
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