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TV's Bad News Brigade

ABC, CBS and NBC’s Defeatist Coverage of the War in Iraq

Night after Night, a Deluge of Discouraging News

More than any overt editorial judgments, our researchers were interested in the agenda of the networks’ Iraq stories. How many stories focused on pessimistic developments, such as terrorist attacks or U.S. casualties, and how many told audiences about positive news, such as schools being rebuilt or progress on the political front? We went through each news story, cataloguing the various news topics and the way they were reported each night. To be classified as “positive,” the optimistic news had to exceed the pessimistic by at least a three-to-two margin; to be counted as a “negative” story, the story had to be similarly dominated by bad news. Stories that could not be assigned to either group were counted as balanced or neutral.

chart2-101405The results show just how heavily the network news agenda was skewed towards bad news. More than three out of five stories (848, or 61%) emphasized setbacks or obstacles to the U.S. mission in Iraq. Conversely, only 211 stories (15%) could be categorized as positive or optimistic, a four-to-one disparity. (See chart.) The remaining 329 stories (24%) contained a generally balanced mixture of optimistic and pessimistic information, or focused on a neutral topic (such as U.S. troops going to Easter services).

A principal reason for the dour tone was near-constant coverage of terrorist attacks, including kidnappings, car bombings, assassinations and massacres. Nearly every day, TV audiences were confronted with the horrors caused by the last remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and the carnage created by foreign terrorists such as the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq.

Terrorist attacks are designed to attract attention and spread fear. The networks’ daily coverage relayed the terrorists’ deeds in gruesome detail. On February 28, ABC’s Nick Watt gave viewers a graphic account of a suicide bombing targeting a medical clinic in the city of Hillah: “Pools of water turned red with blood; buildings scarred by shrapnel and body parts.” Ten days later, Watt told how terrorists had bombed a funeral in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq: “Survivors carried out the bodies of the dead and wept. One of them described a ball of fire and a huge explosion, then, scattered blood and human flesh.”

“It’s been another terrible day in Iraq,” CBS anchor Bob Schieffer typically began as he introduced a May 24 story on a series of car bombings aimed at civilians. From Baghdad, correspondent Mark Strassmann amplified Schieffer’s grimness: “The carnage has been shocking: nearly 600 Iraqis killed in less than a month, attacks that have left this country tilting toward civil war.”

Fully 40 percent of the networks’ Iraq news (564 stories) featured terrorist or insurgent attacks, an average of two stories every night. In about half of these stories (269), the mayhem caused by terrorists was either the principal or sole focus of the story. In the other 295 stories, news of terrorist attacks shared attention with other topics, such as Iraq’s progress toward a democratically-elected government or U.S. military strategy.

chart3-101405No other aspect of the Iraq war received as much attention from reporters. On June 14, NBC anchor Brian Williams was somber. “The insurgency in Iraq took an evil and gruesome turn today,” Williams charged as he related how a suicide bomber had thrust himself into “a large crowd of retirees, older civilians, waiting at a bank to pick up their pension checks.” That attack killed more than 20 people.

When it came to the dispiriting tone of the coverage, there was little difference between the three networks. The CBS Evening News carried a slightly higher percentage of positive stories (17%) and a slightly lower percentage of negative stories (60%) than the other two networks, but the differences are hardly significant. Stories about terrorist attacks comprised a slightly higher percentage of coverage on ABC’s World News Tonight (44%) than on either the CBS Evening News (39%) or NBC Nightly News (38%), but those differences are also insignificant. When it came to Iraq, all three networks pursued essentially the same negative news agenda.

TV’s portrait of Iraq grew bleaker as the year progressed. The percentage of pessimistic stories grew to more than 70 percent in August and September, up from about 50 percent back in January and February. At the same time, the percentage of optimistic stories fell, from about 20 percent of the coverage early in the year, to just seven percent by the end of the summer. By August and September, negative stories outnumbered positive stories by an astounding ten-to-one margin.

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When it came to the terrorist attacks, a rare bit of optimism came in the few reports that documented how the Iraqi people are fighting back against the bombers. On March 15, CBS’s Kimberly Dozier reported how more Iraqis are stepping forward to help the coalition thwart the terrorists. “They are killing their fellow Muslim Iraqi citizens, and this is not acceptable among the Iraqis,” Iraq’s National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie told Dozier. “Iraqi blood is not cheap. These people should be denounced.”

Reporting on rumors that the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi might be badly injured, ABC’s Brian Ross on May 25 noted that “some Arabs on this popular Web site said they hoped the news was true. ‘Let this criminal Zarqawi go to Hell,’ wrote one. ‘God curse him alive or dead. To Hell,’ wrote another.”

Anchor Charles Gibson soon asked Baghdad reporter Nick Watt: “I’m surprised by something in Brian’s piece, the vehemence of the comments on Arab Web sites in opposition to Zarqawi, because we keep hearing that he has considerable support.” Watt confirmed that many Iraqis “will be very glad if he does die.”

The July 22 World News Tonight similarly told viewers about an Iraq television program that features confessions from captured insurgents. Reporter Mike von Fremd noted “the show is wildly popular and many viewers think those captured are getting what they deserve. ‘They are terrorists,’ this man said, ‘they have no excuses.’”

Terrorist bombings, and the mayhem and chaos they cause, are certainly news events that ought to be reported. But when the terrorists bypass military targets and instead attack elderly pensioners, day laborers, medical clinics, schools and other civilian targets, their obvious goal is to discourage and demoralize the American and Iraqi publics, perhaps believing that at some point the televised scenes of horror will erode the will to complete the mission.

Nearly every journalist would agree that it is important to show the grisly reality of terrorist activity in Iraq. But by placing such a heavy emphasis on these bloody attacks, the networks are also giving the enemy some of the terrifying publicity they seek.