The Upshot

Pentagon says ‘no favoritism’ toward NBC in coverage of Iraq withdrawal

Michael Calderone
The Upshot

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Richard Engel

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Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent, informed viewers Wednesday night that "we are with the last American combat troops in Iraq."

It made for compelling television, with Engel being the only correspondent reporting live on camera accompanying 440 troops crossing the border into Kuwait — the final U.S. combat brigade to leave the country.

The U.S. presence in Iraq didn't end Wednesday night. Indeed, 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in noncombat roles after September 1. But the pullout was a significant milestone that NBC and MSNBC covered extensively throughout the night.

Engel first appeared on "NBC Nightly News" from the "Bloommobile," a specially equipped vehicle that can broadcast live via satellite from a war zone. (It's named after David Bloom, the NBC correspondent who died in Baghdad in 2003).

NBC wasn't the only news organization along for the convoy ride — the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and Fox News were a few of the outlets with reporters embedded. But those outlets didn't have the technology available that allowed for NBC's live shots with Engel. An NBC spokeswoman told The Upshot that the network's producers "knew we' d be the only broadcast outlet to broadcast live" because of the capabilities of the Bloommobile.

So not surprisingly, NBC and MSNBC pulled out all the stops for more than four hours of live coverage.

"Countdown" host Keith Olbermann stepped in a couple hours early to anchor on MSNBC, with "Hardball" host Chris Matthews taking a break from his vacation to appear from Boston. Host Rachel Maddow acknowledged being in a "very small circle" of people aware of the network's plans.  She left for Baghdad over the weekend and appeared live last night from the Green Zone.

Fox News broke into regularly-scheduled programming Wednesday and devoted much of the 7 p.m. hour to the Iraq news, according to TVNewser. CNN's Rick Sanchez spent considerable time on Iraq during the 8 p.m. hour. But MSNBC was the only network to broadcast live for so long, while frequently touting its "exclusive" access.

So how did NBC News get such incredible access and network bragging rights? Well, they asked.

Douglas Wilson, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told The Upshot that "there was nothing pro-active on our part" and that Engel simply "requested that he and the Bloommobile ride in one of the last convoys."

"There was absolutely no favoritism," Wilson continued. "Actually, we didn't know this was something exclusive. This was a normal press request and we supported it."

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Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Iraq, also told The Upshot that the network wasn't handed the story.

"NBC did not receive exclusive coverage," Johnson said.  "Other media participated as well. However, at NBC's request and with the backing of the Pentagon, they were allowed to place a satellite truck in the convoy and report on the movement once it crossed the border."

Johnson added that "media have been anxious to portray the departure of troops to meet the goal of 50,000 by Sept. 1" and "this movement of combat vehicles to Kuwait was perhaps one of the best opportunities to do so and is indeed very symbolic for the changing mission."

"Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams told viewers that NBC's coverage of the convoy leaving Iraq served as an "official Pentagon announcement." And NBC also made sure that other reporters were on hand to document the network's documenting of the historic event. Brian Stelter, a media reporter for the New York Times, was invited to report from the control room. (Stelter was invited ahead of time but had not been told what story NBC had brewing).

Echoing Williams' statements, NBC News president Steve Capus told Stelter that "the announcement that the last Stryker brigade was leaving Iraq had not been made" by the military.

"It's not just the gimmick of one live broadcast," Capus said, "it is yet again a commitment to covering what is happening in Iraq and the brave men and women who have committed so much of their lives to these missions."

The convoy leaving Iraq was significant not only for the U.S. mission, but also for the network's news division. Bloom's death had a major impact on NBC News, so dusting off the Bloommobile added to the emotional weight of the broadcast. Also, Engel spoke about reporting regularly from Iraq since before the war started. "This has been seven and a half years in the making," Engel said upon reaching Kuwait.

"This brings closure for me," he added. "It brings closure for a lot of the solders. They feel they've accomplished something in this country."

Photo 1: Screenshot of Rachel Maddow and Richard Engel (Courtesy of MSNBC)

Photo 2:  AP/ Maya Alleruzzo

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