Rewind: In Bush Years, Killing of Iraqi al-Qaeda Leader Zarqawi Greeted by Media Scowls

While the killing of Osama bin Laden is a moment for all patriotic Americans to show pride, it's not hard to guess that the media's reception of the news would have been less positive if it had occurred in the Bush years -- and imagine if it had happened at a politically sensitive time (right before the 2006 midterms, or anywhere in the 2008 presidential cycle).

In our 2006 Special Report on cable news coverage of Iraq, we laid out how the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was celebrated on Fox News, but CNN and MSNBC went looking for ways to keep up the negative tone even with the most positive news:

Over on CNN that same day, while the anchors and reporters generally heralded the successful strike on Zarqawi as good news, the network introduced some decidedly pessimistic themes. Afternoon anchor Kyra Phillips brought aboard journalist and author Nir Rosen, and asked him whether he thought Zarqawi’s death would make much of a difference: "From what I understand, you think we’re going a bit overboard with this coverage and he’s not as big a fish as everyone is making him out to be?" Rosen agreed, then launched into a deeply pessimistic analysis after Phillips asked him about the formation of the new government:

There’s no good news in Iraq. There’s no corner that’s been turned, there’s no milestone. The civil war began intensively in 2005, and it’s continuing. This ethnic cleansing, Sunnis from Shia neighborhoods, Shias being expelled from Sunni neighborhoods, dead bodies on the street every day, tortured and killed because they’re Sunni or because they’re Shia. Events inside the Green Zone just don’t really matter....The Green Zone is just a theater for people outside of Iraq. The militias are on the street in Iraq. They are the ones killing each other every day. And I just feel very depressed and hopeless. I think the civil war is going to intensify.

While most Americans were presumably taking a moment to celebrate the death of Zarqawi, or at least appreciate the efforts of the U.S. military in eliminating the vicious terrorist, CNN and MSNBC continued with their more pessimistic agenda. CNN featured two reports on the already much-covered Haditha allegations; a piece by senior correspondent John Roberts closed with a hyperbolic quote from Dartmouth College’s Aine Donovan: "If Haditha proves true, it will be, unfortunately and very sadly, the most memorable episode of this war."

Over on MSNBC, the network took time away from covering the breaking news of Zarqawi’s death to feature positive profiles of United States military deserters, highlighting their claims that the Iraq war is immoral. Anchor Melissa Stark attempted to smoothly transition between the contrary subjects: "On this very successful day for the U.S. military with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one U.S. soldier is refusing to deploy to Iraq. Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada believes the Iraq war is morally wrong and a breach of American law." Reporter Tim Haas claimed Watada has "become the new face of the anti-war movement."

There is still the possibility that anti-war stalwarts in the press will still lament the violence against Osama bin Laden. Also in 2006, Washington Post cultural critic Philip Kennicott lamented the celebration of Zarqawi's death in an essay headlined The headline: "A Chilling Portrait, Unsuitably Framed." Kennicott found a framed picture of Zarqawi's dead face "bizarre." He lamented that the reaction was cheers from the war supporters, and intimidation of the anti-war crowd, that they had to cheer, too.

So will this image, given a strange dignity by its prominent frame, be a defining image of the war? Not likely. Its primary function is forensic. It proves, in an age of skepticism (heightened by a three-year history of official claims about the war turning out to be false), that Zarqawi is indeed dead. But beyond that, the image has little power. Indeed, as with so many images in this war, it is loaded with the potential to backfire.

Among the dissenting voices in the hubbub yesterday were those worried about Zarqawi's status as a martyr. And here, again, the frame plays a very odd role. In many traditions, a framed picture of the deceased suggests something like an icon, something to be venerated. Photographs of journalists photographing the image at the news briefing showed Zarqawi's face looming above them. One might believe, for a moment, that they had gathered to bask in its exalted presence.

Kennicott then moved on to echo left-wing fanatic Michael Berg, asserting Zarqawi's death was just another regrettable part of a cycle of retribution, a geopolitical version of the Hatfields and McCoys:

The image itself, a disembodied head, connects this event to the abject misery that Zarqawi had brought to so many people in Iraq over the course of his deadly career. He was the one who reportedly sawed off the head of Nicholas Berg, and now Zarqawi's head was appearing, lifeless, eyes closed, as if it too were somehow detached from his body. For those who want revenge, the head of Zarqawi is a welcome sight; but it reminds others how much this war has been about cycles of killing, retribution, tribal and sectarian violence, and the most primitive destructive urges...

And now we gaze on Zarqawi's face one last time, as he reminds us that the new product wasn't so new; the war turned out to have all too much of what wars have always had in them, death, destruction and chaos. Zarqawi's head forces us to confront once again the most primitive dynamic of war: It's an eye for an eye, or a head for a head.

Tim Graham's picture

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