Andrea Mitchell pretty much gave it away on Thursday’s Nightly News, allowing that “Many administrations, Democrat and Republican, stage-manage events. And often the news media ignore the choreography.” But the networks didn’t want to “ignore the choreography” yesterday, because it didn’t fit their spin. Mitchell preferred to expose what she called “a rare look behind the curtain of a White House trying to sell an increasingly unpopular war.”
If the Iraq war is “increasingly unpopular” — and polls suggest it is — one reason may be because the broadcast networks have heavily skewed their news agenda toward the bad news coming out of Iraq: car bombings, U.S. casualties, terrorist attacks, squabbling among Iraqi politicians, etc., etc.
I just finished a study of every Iraq story aired on the three broadcast network evening newscasts this year, from January 1 through September 30, nearly 1,400 stories. (More) Full results are posted on the MRC’s Web site, but the bottom line is that the networks offered an extremely pessimistic view of the situation in Iraq, and the number of stories focusing on the progress and accomplishments of U.S. troops has been shrinking (down to just 7 percent of all Iraq news in August and September).
Here are some of the key findings from our executive summary:
-- Network coverage has been overwhelmingly pessimistic. More than half of all stories (848, or 61%) focused on negative topics or presented a pessimistic analysis of the situation, four times as many as featured U.S. or Iraqi achievements or offered an optimistic assessment (just 211 stories, or 15%).
-- News about the war has grown increasingly negative. In January and February, about a fifth of all network stories (21%) struck a hopeful note, while just over half presented a negative slant on the situation. By August and September, positive stories had fallen to a measly seven percent and the percentage of bad news stories swelled to 73 percent of all Iraq news, a ten-to-one disparity.
-- Terrorist attacks are the centerpiece of TV's war news. Two out of every five network evening news stories (564) featured car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings or other attacks launched by the terrorists against the Iraqi people or coalition forces, more than any other topic.
-- Even coverage of the Iraqi political process has been negative. More stories (124) focused on shortcomings in Iraq's political process — the danger of bloodshed during the January elections, political infighting among politicians, and fears that the new Iraqi constitution might spur more civil strife — than found optimism in the Iraqi people's historic march to democracy (92 stories). One-third of those optimistic stories (32) appeared on just two nights — January 30 and 31, just after Iraq's first successful elections.
-- Few stories focused on the heroism or generous actions of American soldiers. Just eight stories were devoted to recounting episodes of heroism or valor by U.S. troops, and another nine stories featured instances when soldiers reached out to help the Iraqi people. In contrast, 79 stories focused on allegations of combat mistakes or outright misconduct on the part of U.S. military personnel.
-- It's not as if there was no "good news" to report. NBC's cameras found a bullish stock market and a hiring boom in Baghdad's business district, ABC showcased the coalition's successful effort to bring peace to a Baghdad thoroughfare once branded "Death Street," and CBS documented how the one-time battleground of Sadr City is now quiet and citizens are beginning to benefit from improved public services. Stories describing U.S. and Iraqi achievements provided essential context to the discouraging drumbeat of daily news, but were unfortunately just a small sliver of TV's Iraq news.
Earlier on NewsBusters, Tom Segal posted a nice run-down of some of the positive developments that the networks have been overlooking in Iraq. This weekend, Iraqis will take yet another step toward becoming a Middle Eastern democracy, good news by any measure. Will the networks take the opportunity to balance out the pessimism that’s colored most of this year’s Iraq news?