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The Iraq War on Cable TV

CNN and MSNBC vs. The Fox News Channel

Executive Summary

Journalists who act offended by even the mildest suggestions that the media elite have a liberal bias have in recent years become vocal media critics themselves, accusing the Fox News Channel (FNC) of skewing its news in a conservative direction. While all three cable networks feature prime time personalities who are rarely shy about making their opinions known, how does FNC really compare with CNN and MSNBC when it comes to hard news reporting of a major story like the Iraq war?

MRC analysts reviewed all three cable news networks’ reporting on Iraq during a crucial ten weeks this year, from May 15 through July 21, a period that included heavy news coverage of allegations of U.S. military misconduct at Haditha as well as the successful air strike that eliminated al-Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Analysts looked at weekday coverage during the 10am EDT and 2pm EDT hours, a time of day when FNC, CNN and MSNBC all emphasize traditional news reporting from field correspondents, not opinionated talk show-style debate.

The results show clear editorial differences between the three cable networks. CNN and MSNBC resemble the big broadcast networks, emphasizing a bad news agenda of U.S. misdeeds and mistakes, while FNC was better able to balance the bad news with news of U.S. achievements in Iraq. Key findings:

  • FNC was the most balanced network. All three cable news networks ran more stories reflecting bad news about the situation in Iraq than stories about coalition achievements. But FNC was the most balanced, with 20 percent of stories emphasizing optimism, compared with 30 percent that stressed pessimism.

  • CNN was the most pessimistic network. Fully three-fifths (60%) of all CNN stories on the war emphasized setbacks, misdeeds or pessimism about progress in Iraq, compared to just 10 percent that reported on achievements or victories. MSNBC’s tilt was closer to CNN, with four times more bad news stories (48%) than reports stressing good news (12%).

  • CNN and MSNBC sensationalized charges of U.S. wrongdoing. While FNC provided significant coverage to unproven claims of U.S. military misconduct in Iraq (12 stories), the other networks took a much more sensational approach to the story. MSNBC aired three times as much coverage of alleged misconduct as FNC (36 stories), while CNN aired a whopping 59 stories — nearly five times the coverage of FNC.

  • Fox News Channel aired more stories about coalition success in Iraq. FNC aired a total of 81 stories announcing coalition victories in Iraq, nearly as many as MSNBC (47 stories) and CNN (41 stories) combined. During the ten weeks of our study, most coverage of Iraq’s political process reflected optimism about the democratically-elected government, a topic that FNC also showcased more than either MSNBC or CNN (63 stories vs. 34 and 38 respectively).

  • Even on the best day, CNN and MSNBC found negative themes to promote. While all three networks presented news of Zarqawi’s death as a victory for the U.S. coalition, CNN chose that day to interview a Middle East journalist who complained, "There’s no good news in Iraq. There’s no corner that’s been turned, there’s no milestone....I just feel very depressed and hopeless." 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.

In 2005, MRC documented how ABC, CBS and NBC’s evening news coverage of Iraq had consistently emphasized bad news topics — car bombings, kidnappings, U.S. military casualties, etc. — while providing relatively little coverage to positive developments, such as steps to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and the landmark democratic elections held that year.

While the actual events that transpired during the 2006 study period are not the same as those in 2005, CNN’s and MSNBC’s pessimistic coverage is a familiar echo of the approach taken by their broadcasting brethren. FNC, in contrast, offered decidedly more balanced coverage — disclosing the bad news, to be sure, but also making sure viewers learned of U.S. and coalition achievements in Iraq. Such an approach certainly sets the Fox News Channel apart from its broadcast and cable competitors, whose more balanced approach may be preferable to lopsidedly negative coverage that seems designed more to influence the course of events than to merely report on them.