John Roberts, former CBS newsman and new co-host of CNN’s American Morning, has covered Iraq and the Hezbollah/Israel conflict long enough to recognize that the media should have been more vigilant in the run-up to the war, including more diligently fact-checking administration claims. But Roberts believes the problem stems from a lack of journalistic boots on the ground early on.
“CNN had a presence there, and I really can’t speak to that because I don’t know, but I know at CBS we had zero presence on the ground, or very little, in Iraq in the months before the war,” Roberts recalls.
“We had some people in there before the war, [but everything] was difficult to verify. Even if the Iraqis took you to a place that was suspected of having weapons of mass destruction, they had deceived and dodged so many times in the past; why would you think they were telling the truth?”Roberts believes journalist hands are tied when it comes to offering the whole truth in Iraq. “We’re not fully covering the war because we don’t have the access to do it,” he says. But it is also about what the American people can stomach, he adds.“If we showed people the full extent of what we see every day in Iraq, we would either have no one watching us because they couldn’t stand to see the pictures, or we would get so many letters of complaint that some organization would come down on us to stop.”Roberts sees no middle ground on the issue. Even late-night airings present difficulties. “Somewhere, it’s not going to be 10 o’clock,” he says. “If it’s 10 in New York, it’s 7 in Los Angeles.”
His new perch allows him unique access to the issues. A year-plus into his CNN tenure, the man once tapped as a possible replacement for Dan Rather at CBS says he’d rather feed the insatiable cable news beast than man the long desk at a network newscast.For all the “perceived power and glory” of the broadcast networks, “they’re not putting that much on the air,” he says of his old CBS stomping grounds—not compared with the 18 hours of daily, original programming networks like CNN and Fox News Channel have to come up with.Still, the man who appeared to be in line for the anchor seat before Katie Couric got the nod must have the occasional pang. Does he really prefer waking up at 2:40 a.m.—when they say “American Morning,” they’re not kidding—to take endless Blackberry requests for yet another update to a story?“Obviously, if you had a Katie job, you would be able to make an awful lot of money and only have to do it for a few years and then you could retire to Montana or wherever it is that Tom Brokaw went,” he told B&C. “But I would rather be where I am now, particularly given the problems that CBS has got. I don’t want to talk too much about that, but CNN is going along terrifically.”“It’s a tremendous opportunity to roam the news universe,” he adds. “You can exercise those breaking news muscles, as well as the ruminative aspects.”