Who Were Those Masked Men?

Six-year-old Charlee Liebers was among the “war protesters” gathered yesterday afternoon near Fort Bragg, the site of President Bush’s speech last night. So reports the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer this morning. While Liebers was observed by the Observer drawing a peace symbol on some poster board, her individual allegiance to the anti-war cause came into question when she told the reporter: “The Army’s dying for nothing. That’s what momma said in the car.”

Rare are the sources who are as candid as little Charlee about who is putting words in their mouths, prompting them, or otherwise directing their actions.

More often, it is up to reporters to unearth this information on their own. And just as often, they’re not very good at it.

After the president’s speech last night, many in the media noted that the audience — 750 members of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army’s Special Operations Unit — applauded only once. For example, the New York Times’ David Sanger reported: “Rather than interrupt the president with applause, the soldiers sat silently in green uniforms and maroon berets, until Mr. Bush, well into his speech, declared, ‘We will stay in the fight until the fight is won.’ Then they clapped, the only applause he received until the end of his address.” The Associated Press’ Tom Raum also pointed out the single instance of applause: “Few audiences are as predictably friendly as military ones, duty-bound to show respect for their commander in chief, often bursting into raucous whoops,” Raum wrote this morning in his “Newsview.” “Bush’s audience Tuesday evening was unusually quiet while the president spoke …”

In both cases, readers were left to wonder why.

Last night, NBC News’ Brian Williams thought to ask. Noting that “some folks at home were no doubt curious about the lack of applause breaks,” and that “by pre-agreement between the White House and Fort Bragg there was no entry applause as the soldiers were at attention,” and that “we were 23 minutes into it before the first break for applause,” Williams wondered to colleague Kelly O’Donnell whether “the crowd [was] addressed or given instructions in any way before the president came out.” O’Donnell replied that she “checked” and that the audience was “told to follow military protocol and be to polite.”

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer also made an effort to explain the audience’s silence: “There was no rah-rah, hoo-hahs from this group,” Blitzer said moments after the president concluded. “That clearly was the instruction from the White House, the commander in chief. A very respectful response for the president …”

On Fox, Carl Cameron explained the missing “hoo-hahs” thusly: “One of the things we were told today by the military brass is that the soldiers were all given strict instruction to avoid their hoo-hahs.” Luckily, Cameron continued, before the speech began, some officers warmed up the crowd and “let them do their hoo-hahs before the president got here.”

Okay, so it was the White House that didn’t want the assembled soldiers to come off as a bunch of yahoos who have watched Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman” one too many times. But if the White House ordered no spontaneous displays of approval (hoo-hahing or otherwise), how to explain the one moment of applause mid-speech? The AP’s Tom Raum could only wonder, noting that the soldiers applauded “in unison after one key passage, as if on cue …” (Italics ours.)

So who was doing the cueing?

Both NBC and Fox got to the bottom of it.

NBC’s O’Donnell reported that the “one applause was triggered by members of the [Bush] advance team. They were a few feet from me. They started to applaud. It was contagious, it swept through the room.” Fox’s Cameron, too, observed that “a couple of Bush staffers in back of the auditorium began to applaud” and the soldiers soon joined in.

The moral of this story? A reporter’s job is not complete until he finds out “what momma said in the car.”

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.