The Iraq War on Cable TV

CNN and MSNBC vs. The Fox News Channel

CNN and MSNBC's Bad News Agenda

Our study of cable news coverage looked at all Iraq stories aired during a ten-week period, from May 15 through July 21, a period that included both "bad news" developments for the U.S. mission in Iraq (notably heavy coverage of accusations of military misconduct surrounding the November 2005 killing of a number of Iraqi civilians in Haditha) and "good news" as well, such as the June 8 announcement of the successful airstrike that killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

For each network, our analysts examined both the 10am and 2pm EDT hours of live weekday news coverage, or 100 hours of news coverage for each network. It is during these daytime hours that all three cable networks offer similar programming that most closely resembles a traditional newscast, heavy on ostensibly neutral field reports with little overt commentary from the anchors. FNC’s Fox News Live aired at both 10am and 2pm, as did MSNBC Live. CNN’s morning news program was called CNN Live Today, while their afternoon show was called Live From.... (Since the end of our study period, both shows have been replaced by a live news program called CNN Newsroom.)

Our analysts found a total of 721 items on Iraq, including field reports, interviews, breaking news events and brief items read by the news anchors. All three networks aired approximately the same number of stories: CNN showed 246 Iraq stories totaling 10 hours, 42 minutes of coverage, followed closely by FNC (244 stories; 10 hours, 32 minutes) and MSNBC (231 stories; 9 hours, 19 minutes).

Interestingly, all three networks ran significantly more Iraq war news during their 10am hour (a total of 19 hours, 37 minutes) than during the 2pm hours (10 hours, 55 minutes), when all three cable networks featured heavier coverage of domestic news.

Chart1The amount of coverage given to the Iraq war depended on the ebb and flow of events in Iraq itself as well as the need to cover any major developments in the rest of the world. Media attention on the conflict increased in late May as the networks focused on a Time magazine report accusing a group of U.S. Marines of killing Iraqi civilians in Haditha; the May 29 wounding of CBS News reporter Kimberly Dozier and the death of her crew also garnered heavy coverage. Coverage of the war peaked in early June, following the successful strike against terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and President Bush’s surprise June 13 trip to Baghdad to meet with the newly-established elected government. In mid-June, the kidnapping and killing of two U.S. soldiers also drew relatively heavy coverage.

As other world events competed for attention, however, cable news producers pushed the Iraq war to the sidelines. From late June through the end of the study period, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drew heavy cable news coverage, particularly after the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on July 12. The first week of July also saw heavy cable news attention to another threat to peace, North Korea’s testing of several missiles in defiance of the international community.

All three networks emphasized insurgent attacks against U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, a topic that accounted for fully 35 percent of all Iraq stories. CNN gave slightly more coverage to these attacks (96 stories, or 39% of coverage) than either MSNBC (86 stories, 37%) or FNC (79 stories, 32%), but the differences do not appear especially significant.

Apart from the drumbeat of daily attacks, the news agendas of the three cable networks diverged. CNN and MSNBC devoted more resources to covering stories that reflected poorly on the U.S. mission in Iraq, while FNC aired more stories about U.S. achievements in Iraq than either of its rivals.

Chart2CNN and MSNBC, for example, focused extensively on allegations of misconduct by U.S. forces in Iraq — principally a November 2005 incident in Haditha in which a group of U.S. Marines are alleged to have attacked and killed perhaps 24 unarmed civilians after a roadside explosive killed a Marine in their unit. The story received renewed focus in May after anti-war Congressman John Murtha held a news conference in which he alleged the Marines "killed innocent civilians in cold blood." At the time, the incident was still being investigated by the military; as of early December, no charges had actually been filed against any of the Marines involved.

FNC made sure viewers knew about the allegations, broadcasting a total of 12 stories on Haditha and other allegations of U.S. military misconduct. But MSNBC and CNN pursued those same stories much more aggressively. MSNBC aired a total of 36 stories on alleged U.S. misconduct, three times as much coverage as the Fox News Channel, while CNN’s coverage was an astounding five times greater (59 stories).

2006-05-30-CNNHadithaCNN and MSNBC’s coverage took on the characteristics of a feeding frenzy, with the U.S. troops presumed guilty. CNN anchor Tony Harris echoed Murtha’s inflammatory charges during a May 30 report: "Men, women and children, gunned down in cold blood. That’s the allegation....U.S. Marines are suspected of killing two dozen unarmed civilians, accusations of a cover-up also a part of the mix. Democratic Congressman John Murtha has been briefed on what happened....Murtha calls the alleged atrocity as bad as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, if not worse."

Three days later, CNN’s John Vause extended the indictment to all U.S. troops, not just the few being investigated regarding Haditha: "There is a perception that U.S. forces are brutal and are, at times, trigger happy."

Similarly, CNN and MSNBC were more likely than FNC to highlight news of U.S. military casualties, including both the announcement of new casualties and such media "milestones" as the 2,500th U.S. combat death in mid-June. In the 50 weekdays we examined, CNN aired a total of 50 stories on the killing and wounding of U.S. forces — just slightly more than MSNBC (44 stories) and exactly twice as many as FNC (25 stories).

Few stories about fallen soldiers were framed as tributes to their bravery or sacrifice; most just noted the deaths of another one, two or three soldiers without linking their deaths to any greater purpose. Appearing during MSNBC’s live coverage on June 8, the day Zarqawi’s death was announced, Hardball host Chris Matthews was especially bleak. "Americans keep getting killed," he somberly noted, "and more Americans will be killed next week and the week after and the week after and the week after. These casualties keep coming and they keep hurting the people in this country."

CNN and MSNBC were also more likely than FNC to air stories about the deaths of Iraqi civilians and other non-military combatants, although the differences were modest. CNN ran 49 such stories, compared to MSNBC’s 41 and FNC’s 35. As with stories about U.S. military casualties, FNC could hardly be accused of censoring such material, as the network aired dozens of reports about the dead and dying in Iraq. But CNN and MSNBC both made the decision to air even more such reports than their cable news competitor.

Chart3FNC Devoted More Time to Covering U.S. Achievements: While CNN and MSNBC emphasized the negative news out of Iraq, FNC used its airtime to highlight a decidedly more positive agenda. FNC aired 81 stories relating news of coalition victories in Iraq, many following the June 8 announcement of the successful U.S. air strike that killed al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. When it came to telling viewers about our military’s successes, MSNBC’s 47 stories made them a distant second to FNC, with CNN coming in dead last (41 stories).

Hours after Zarqawi’s death was announced, FNC daytime anchor Martha MacCallum expressed what most Americans probably felt upon hearing the news: "It is clearly a good day in this fight and in this effort."

Apart from Zarqawi’s demise, FNC featured many other reports of successful U.S. and Iraqi-led military efforts to kill and capture other insurgent leaders. Anchor Bob Sellers reported one such success on July 7: "A key capture in the war on terror. Backed by U.S. aircraft, Iraqi troops stormed a Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad and took out a militia leader. At least 30 other terrorists were killed in that raid."

Fox was also more likely than CNN or MSNBC to note the success of other (non-military) efforts in the campaign to bring peace to Iraq. "A cash crunch putting a strain on al-Qaeda in Iraq. Former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin telling the Senate Foreign Relations committee there is evidence that the terror group no longer has control of its network," FNC anchor Brigitte Quinn noted on June 19. "In a letter before he was killed, Zarqawi pleaded for cash, writing that many of his lines of support have been cut off. To cope, terrorists have had to resort to cash couriers who are being tracked by intelligence agents." Only FNC viewers were told about McLaughlin’s upbeat testimony, which was ignored by CNN and MSNBC.

When it came to coverage of Iraq’s political process, FNC again led the way with 63 stories, a level that nearly doubled MSNBC (38 stories) and CNN (34 stories). During the period our analysts examined — which included the final formation of a permanent government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and including representatives of all of Iraq’s major groups — much of the coverage of Iraq’s politics (on all three networks) was positive in tone. FNC anchor Brigitte Quinn gave voice to that optimism in a June 8 report about the end of negotiations for the permanent Iraqi government, calling it "a momentous occasion."

The trends that our analysts discovered during the ten weeks we examined are clear: CNN and MSNBC gravitated toward major "bad news" topics such as military and civilian casualties and allegations of U.S. misconduct, while FNC emphasized "good news" topics such as U.S. military achievements and the creation of a permanent, representative, democratically-elected Iraqi government. That is not to say that FNC never mentioned any of the terrible things that were happening in Iraq (they did), or that CNN and MSNBC never revealed the accomplishments of the U.S.-led coalition (they did). But both CNN and MSNBC systematically chose to emphasize news stories and topics that reflected poorly on the U.S. mission in Iraq, while FNC made it a point to also tell viewers about the positive developments in the war.