Pundits Grapple With Breaking War News

The Sunday pundits normally look back at events of the past week, providing interpretation and analysis with the benefit of days or hours to prepare before going on camera.

With war in Iraq raging, this weekend’s pundit shows became almost indistinguishable from 24/7 coverage as they moved to "expanded" editions. Events that broke as the shows aired were uniformly negative: a friendly fire incident, a soldier being detained for attacking his leadership, fierce pockets of Iraqi resistance, and reports of Americans taken as POWs and then executed.

There was little evidence of a "long view" on military operations from non-military pundits.

A somber Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was the lead guest on Meet the Press and Face the Nation. He appeared tired, as one would expect of a leader in his position. He only occasionally showed flashes of his combative style and likely did not have as much confirmation on the breaking events as he would have liked, so he appeared terse and almost dismissive at times.

General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the lead guest on Fox News Sunday and This Week. He, too, appeared tired, but maintained his composure well. He likely wished he were back at his command post, gathering details on the latest news from the battlefield rather than responding to questions.

Rumsfeld’s interview with Meet the Press host Tim Russert began with photos of Iraqis gathered near the Tigris River, searching for Americans who allegedly parachuted into the city. Russert’s questions implied that American troops were having difficulty, but Fox’s Brit Hume was heartened by the scene, calling it a "comic opera" that proved, "If Baghdad were being bombed in the way some people have alleged, you wouldn’t see this."

Hume, who has pulled long hours of duty as Fox’s anchor during war coverage, was easily the most passionate pundit. His comment during the panel discussion that America was conducting the war under a "standard unprecedented in history" led NPR’s Mara Liasson to remark, "I think this administration has accepted the standards to which it is being held and those standards got a lot higher because of the way we got into this war. We don’t have wide international backing. We don’t have the international backing we sought."

Liasson’s comment led the panel to familiar arguments about the nature of the coalition, Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, and anti-war protests. Among other declarations, Hume said, "Bill Clinton did the right thing in Kosovo," the anti-war demonstrations are "rooted in demonstrable lies," and European fear of unrivaled American power is "tiresome." The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol saw some foreign criticism as "ludicrous, cartoonish views," while NPR’s Juan Williams attempted to place the protests in a positive context.

On Meet the Press, Time’s Michael Elliott called the Iraq campaign "hard slugging." Just two days earlier, The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks summarized the war this way: "We have the secretary of defense negotiating surrender terms before we even engage the enemy. We have a military that is trying to scare the enemy troops but not kill them."

There will likely be more swings of the pendulum before next week’s shows.

"We Missed"

Secretary Rumsfeld’s explanation on Meet the Press for why the Iraq Defense Ministry is still intact. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, citing negotiations with the Iraqi military, said failing to take out the Defense Ministry was "not an accident."

Quiet Dogs of War

The one positive theme to emerge from the Sunday shows was the failure of several gloomy scenarios, such as the use of chemical or biological weapons. "The dogs that haven’t barked is pretty good news," said Bill Kristol on Fox.

"Tom Daschle Is a Friend of Mine"

With that preface on Fox, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said of the Minority Leader’s comments, "I don’t agree with his view. We have to support our troops." Gephardt manage to squeeze in criticism of the president’s budget proposals while continuing to favor the military action against Iraq.

Changing the Nature of War

David Brooks on The News Hour: "Formerly you had psychological weapons used for military purposes. Now have you military purposes used for psychological ends. To me it is a scary thing and uncertain thing."

Tribute of the Week

Tim Russert closed Meet the Press by reading the names of confirmed American casualties from the war in Iraq. He added, "No matter what your position may be on the war in Iraq, no one can question the heroism and bravery of these young men."

Alliteration of the Week

Juan Williams, on Fox: "People talk about shock and awe. I watched that tape with dread and dismay."

Will Vehrs is an economic developer in Richmond, Va., who turned his lifelong obsession with pundit shows into this Web log. His "Punditwatch" column appears on Tony Adragna's Quasipundit; he recently began writing "Virginia Pundit Watch" for Bacon's Rebellion.

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