After months of improving security in Iraq, the big network morning shows on Friday cited one horrific suicide bombing as proof that “mayhem and misery are back in Baghdad,” as CBS correspondent Mark Strassmann put it. But over the last five months, the broadcast networks have consistently reduced their coverage of Iraq, as if the story of American success in Iraq is less worthy of attention than their old mantra of American failure in Iraq.
Media Research Center analysts tracked all coverage of the Iraq war on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from September 1 through January 31, and we documented a steady decline in TV coverage of Iraq that has coincided with the improving situation in Iraq. Back in September, the three evening newscasts together broadcast 178 stories about the war in Iraq; in January, that number fell to just 47, a nearly fourfold decrease. (See chart.)
On all three networks, however, journalists are admitting that the U.S. strategy is yielding success. “As a new year begins, overall violence is falling and hope seems to be rising,” fill-in anchor Harry Smith announced on the January 1 CBS Evening News.
“The downturn in violence is being reflected in an upturn in the country’s economy. Since the U.S. troop surge took hold, everything from Iraq’s street markets to its stock market has been enjoying better days,” anchor David Muir cheered on ABC’s World News Saturday January 26. Baghdad reporter Hilary Brown translated the comments of one Iraqi businessmen: “‘Each month is better than the month before,’ says this shop owner. ‘It used to be the other way around.’”
In a report for the January 12 NBC Nightly News, reporter John Yang seemed more bullish on the surge than the Bush administration. Noting how some U.S. troops have begun to return home without replacement, Yang fretted: “Military analysts fear the surge may be ending too soon.” Yang then played a soundbite from NBC military analyst Jack Jacobs: “But at the end of the day, the administration has decided it’s going to take troops out of Iraq, no matter what happens tactically and strategically.” Are journalists suggesting that the surge is too successful to end?
Even as the tone of the networks’ Iraq news has become more positive, much good news has gone unreported. Many Democrats have suggested that the surge may be a security success, but say a lack of political reconciliation still dooms our efforts in Iraq. Yet on January 12, the Iraqi parliament passed a law designed to promote national reconciliation, a long-sought development that was featured as the top story in the next morning’s New York Times. But the CBS Evening News ignored the new law, while NBC’s Nightly News gave it just a quick mention in a longer story about President Bush’s trip to the Middle East.
Only ABC’s World News gave the important development more than passing attention, mentioning the development the day it happened, and following up with a longer piece the next Monday. “A significant political breakthrough in Iraq,” anchor Charles Gibson noted on the January 14 World News. “Iraqi lawmakers have put their differences aside and agreed to allow some members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to take government jobs. It’s a key benchmark sought by the United States.”
In a full report, reporter Hilary Brown echoed Gibson: “This law is being held up as a major step towards the rehabilitation of the Sunni minority into public life, and an essential part of political reform here.”
Similarly, USA Today on January 18 blasted good news on its front page, with a large headline declaring “75% of areas in Baghdad secure; A year after U.S. buildup, forces ‘own the streets’”
The story by Jim Michaels offered impressive data showing the scope of the U.S. military’s success:
About 75% of Baghdad's neighborhoods are now secure, a dramatic increase from 8% a year ago when President Bush ordered more troops to the capital, U.S. military figures show.
The military classifies 356 of Baghdad's 474 neighborhoods in the "control" or "retain" category of its four-tier security rating system, meaning enemy activity in those areas has been mostly eliminated and normal economic activity is resuming.
The data given by the military to USA TODAY provide one of the clearest snapshots yet of how security has improved in Baghdad since roughly 30,000 additional American troops arrived in Iraq last year.
Yet none of the broadcast evening news shows picked up on the upbeat report that night or in the days that followed. Only the CBS Evening News mentioned Iraq that night, with anchor Katie Couric reporting an awul attack: “In southern Iraq today, a religious celebration turned into a bloodbath. Gunmen from a messianic Shiite cult attacked worshipers preparing for the holiday of Ashura. Authorities say nearly 50 people were killed.”
Throughout this long war, the broadcast networks have consistently been drawn to the bad news in Iraq -- car bombings, U.S. casualties, allegations of wrongdoing by our troops, etc. -- and the seemingly endless wave of bad news has obviously eroded public support for the mission. But now even network reporters are admitting that the news from the war front is good, yet the flood of war coverage has slowed to a trickle.
If the perception of American failure in Iraq is a big story, what about evidence of American success?