TV's Gloomy Take on Iraq

On Saturday, millions of Iraqis walked with determination to the polls to vote for a new constitution. The turnout was high. The violence was down dramatically from the triumphant elections of January. But the network found all this boring. On the night before the historic vote, ABC led with bird-flu panic. CBS imagined Karl Rove in a prison jumpsuit. NBC hyped inflation.

They say that news is a man-bites-dog story. In the Middle East, how common is a constitutional referendum? Have they had one in Egypt? Saudi Arabia? Syria? Jordan? Until the last few years, the phrase “Arab constitutional democracy” sounded like a pipe dream or an oxymoron. But today, the reporters can only kvetch. NBC’s Richard Engel growled online that the new constitution was “a deeply flawed document, peppered with religious slogans, and leaves plenty of room for Shiites and Kurds to govern themselves.” Engel says Iraqis disagree on the constitution, but “with the daily pressures of the insurgency, power cuts and lawlessness, there might not be enough time to start over before this country and the people lose hope — along with many of their lives.”

Does Engel wear black everywhere he goes? The news pattern from Iraq has that familiar gloom to it. The process of building a constitutional democracy has been a story made in sessions of boring political blather, in a language Americans can’t understand. Bombs blowing people up — now that’s action, great television, it doesn’t require an interpreter. That’s news.

A massive new study by Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center reviews every Iraq story on the evening news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC from January through September of 2005. That’s 1,388 news stories. He titled it “The Bad News Brigade,” because 61 percent of the stories were negative or pessimistic, while only 15 percent of the stories were positive or optimistic — a four-to-one ratio. The trend in coverage has also become increasingly negative during 2005, with pessimistic stories rising to nearly three-fourths of all Iraq news by August and September, with a 10-to-one ratio of negative stories over positive ones.

Terrorists are the real assignment editors of American TV news from Iraq. Two out of every five network evening news stories (564 stories this year) featured car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings or other attacks launched by the terrorists against the Iraqi people or coalition forces, more than any other topic. That’s an average of two stories every night between the three shows.

Even the evolution of democracy in Iraq is presented in more negative than positive terms. More stories (124) focused on shortcomings in Iraq’s political process — the danger of bloodshed during the January elections, political infighting, and fears that the new Iraqi constitution might spur more violence — than on the positive side of democracy-building (92 stories). And then there’s this: One-third of those optimistic stories (32) appeared on just two nights — Jan. 30 and 31, just after Iraq’s first successful elections. You can see how people who watch the news regularly would ask where the good news can be located.

That’s especially true when the subject of the story is the American soldier. In the most upsetting part of the study, Noyes found that 79 stories focused primarily on allegations of wrongdoing by American forces in Iraq, including this year’s Abu Ghraib hangover stories, compared to only eight that focused on the heroism of American soldiers. Is that still a story? Sure. But what about positive stories about the military? There were only eight stories that focused on the heroism of American soldiers, and only nine on soldier acts of kindness or generosity. The TV news titans not only suggest the mission in Iraq is a waste of money and lives, they are painting our soldiers as a big problem there, not a part of the solution.

The natural rebuttal the media’s defenders would offer to this study came from one defensive blogger at the Washington Post website: “An objective press is not supposed to ’embrace’ anything. It is supposed to report the facts.” But while the news from Iraq can be utterly factual, but in the selection of facts, be utterly biased. The overwhelming picture TV viewers get day in and day out, through this selectivity, is that Iraq is packed with chaos, a “mess.”

Viewers should sense a political mission in the gloom. Demoralization over the “mess” in Iraq drags down Bush’s approval rating, drives the numbers up when the network pollsters ask constantly whether the war is “worth the cost,” and seems to revise history toward the Howard Dean view that deposing Saddam Hussein was a colossal mistake. They are right to assume that when reporters watch the Iraqis stream to the polls, they see sad puppets of the American president trying to put a happy-faced Post-It note on a disaster scene.