Assad Shirks Blame for Chemical Attack, CBS Doesn’t Report It

The Syrian government’s chemical attack on its civilians sparked massive media attention because of the suffering it caused and the complicated politics of the Syrian conflict.

On April 13, about a week after the attack, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad claimed the attack was a fabricated pretext for the United States to strike Al Shayrat air base. ABC and NBC both covered Assad’s denial, but CBS did not.

ABC gave the story two minutes minutes, reporting Assad said “Definitely, 100% for us it’s a fabrication. We don’t have an arsenal. We’re not going to use it.” Assad also asked, “Were they dead at all?” referring to gruesome images of children suffering from the attack. ABC explained the U.S. has electronic and forensic evidence to prove the attack occurred.

ABC World News Tonight

NBC covered Assad’s claim during a story about ‘The Trump Doctrine.’ A clip showed Assad saying, “They fabricated the whole story to have a pretext for the attack,” but didn’t explain that the U.S. has evidence the attack occurred.

NBC Nightly News

CBS’s political coverage that night was extensive, lasting almost 12 minutes. It included stories on

  • the U.S. bombing Afghanistan
  • a potential North Korean nuclear test
  • a “misdirected strike” on U.S.-allied fighters in Syria
  • CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s criticism of Wikileaks
  • a check on promises Trump made to voters before his inauguration, and
  • the reversal of a Texas voter ID law.

Former NPR executive editor Madhulika Sikka doesn’t think CBS’s choice is problematic. “CBS had a very substantial series of stories that were serious and enlightening and I don’t know that inclusion of Assad’s statement would have made any difference to the stories they were trying to tell.” She also thought that Assad’s denial didn’t add much substance to the story.

Sikka also said, “[ABC’s] link to Assad was tenuous, their story didn’t need it.”

Carol Marin, political director for NBC Chicago, also believes that Assad’s statement isn’t Important to the story. “[The newsroom] might say ‘Well it’s good to say what Bashar Al-Assad is saying, but he’s never told the truth about chemical attacks on his own people.’ So his denial does not add much to this story.”

Marin also argues that urgent stories should be covered over stories that are solely interesting.

“Is it interesting? You can argue it’s interesting. Are there other stories that maybe are more urgent to go after? I think you could argue that too… With the texas Voter ID law in texas, you might be stopping the disenfranchisement of some voters. You’re not going to be un-poisoning the people of Syria.”

As to whether NBC had a responsibility to give context for Assad’s quote, Marin said, “I always love context but we’ve had the context for some time. The Syria story wasn’t brand new that day, we’ve been tracking the Syria massacre for some time.”

More from Carol Marin:

  • “[CBS] sounds like a pretty meaty broadcast, it doesn’t sound like anything lacks context or is frivolous content. They may have made a calculation that some of the stories they were covering were more urgent and that Bashar Al-Assad’s denial didn’t improve or change or even greatly inform the situation in Syria.”
  • “I’m always a little bit grateful when the three network news broadcasts do not march in lockstep. That they’re not all thinking the same way so they have no ability to deviate because they’re looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re the same as the other. I don’t think that gives you and me a lot of range or choice.”
  • [It is okay to leave out the story] “As long as the newscast is substantive and the stories are significant. In a 22-minute news hole they have to make some really hard decisions. We all love all the stories we’ve covered and all the information we gather but something’s got to go.”
  • “They’re changing nightly news up to and including the last hour before the broadcast – a little away from this, kill this, add that. This is why producers have bad stomachs and terrible temperaments (except Tom of course.)”
  • “Does the public have an urgent need to know he said it’s not true after we’ve seen all the evidence it is? I’m not sure that tomorrow isn’t as good a day as today, compared when you weigh in all the other stories that you think are terribly important.”
  • “As long as you can say ‘I gave my audience substance and I didn’t cheapen it, everyone can be right in this business.”

More from Madhulika Sikka:

  • “I don’t think it was a measure of importance necessarily but what they provided was a fresh series of stories with real information.  David Martin’s story for example gave us a lot of rich history and context for the ‘mother of all bombs’ which I had not seen in other places.”
  • “I understand the time crunch broadcasts face, I don’t think I was missing anything, I understood the story without any more detail.”
Michaela Johnson

Michaela Johnson

Michaela Johnson is junior broadcast journalism and government and politics double major with an interest in homeland security policy. Michaela is also interested in sports reporting, and has previously interned for CSN Mid-Atlantic and the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. She is currently a communications fellow with the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that works towards an efficient, effective and engaged federal government. After graduation, Michaela would like to pursue a career in sports or political reporting. She can be reached at mjohns55@terpmail.umd.edu or on Twitter @mjohnson262.

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