WASHINGTON — A visibly anguished President Bush said Friday that television networks made him look as though he "didn't give a damn" about U.S. soldiers killed in Panama when they used split-screen techniques to show him bantering with reporters at the White House as the caskets of American dead were being carried from a C-141 Starlifter in Delaware.
What spurred the President's complaint was the fact that his remarks during a pre-Christmas news conference in the White House coincided with the arrival of the first Panama casualties at Dover Air Force Base, and that--without his knowledge--some networks showed the two events on the screen simultaneously during live coverage.
As a result, a seemingly indifferent Bush was shown smiling and joking while beside him, on millions of television screens, an armed forces honor guard carried the flag-draped coffins down the jet transport's loading ramp and across the tarmac.
The scene, which occurred Dec. 21, prompted a flurry of calls and letters to the White House complaining about the President's apparent insensitivity.
Bringing up the subject himself at the end of a news conference Friday, Bush said viewers "thought their President, at a solemn moment like that, didn't give a damn--and I do, I do. I feel it so strongly." His voice rose with feeling as he spoke.
Bush asked that in the future the networks let him know in advance if they plan to show a major event at the same time he is speaking.
The networks had differing reactions to the President's protest. ABC apologized. Cable News Network defended its action. CBS defended Bush's right to complain. NBC praised itself for not using a split screen. It had shown only Bush's news conference remarks live, then used a tape of the arrival of the flag-draped coffins.
White House officials were very angry at the time of the split-screen episode and, along with the President, have remained upset for more than two weeks.
"It's hard to believe the networks did not understand the significance of it," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Friday.
ABC News President Roone Arledge "agreed with the President's statement on the incident," spokesman Scott Richardson said. "In fact, when it occurred, he called the control room and told them to go back to the President (thus removing the casket scene from the screen), which they did. (Anchor) Peter Jennings explained to viewers what was going on and apologized on the air."
CNN carried several minutes of the coffins being unloaded from a plane while Bush was conversing with reporters.
"It's a decision we have thought over and would make again," CNN spokesman Steve Haworth said. "There was no editorial decision to embarrass the President, but to keep viewers abreast of two very important live occurrences."
He rejected Bush's plea for advance notice of network plans, saying: "It is the duty of his staff people to watch the networks and inform him if they feel a need to postpone something."
CBS News President David Burke said in a statement that his network believes it had "a responsibility" to broadcast both events simultaneously but it "understands President Bush's sensitivity" about the incident.
"Today, President Bush, as is his right, called our judgment, but not our intent, into question," Burke said. "That right strengthens all and is beneficial not only to news organizations but to the workings of our free society."
NBC did not use a split screen, a spokesman said, because producer Lloyd Siegel was "aware of the possibility of creating an unintentional irony" and wanted "to preserve the integrity of the President's remarks."