The Iraq War on Cable TV

CNN and MSNBC vs. The Fox News Channel

Table of Contents:

Tone: Fair and Balanced FNC vs. Pessimistic CNN and MSNBC

In addition to examining each networks’ news agenda, our analysts also looked at the tone of each news item on the Iraq war. For much of the past three years, journalists have been criticized for unduly emphasizing the setbacks and losses of the Iraq war and paying less attention to accomplishments and progress; by so emphasizing the bad news coming out of Iraq, critics charge, the media have served to demoralize the public and build sentiment for a withdrawal from Iraq without regard to the effect this might have on the overall War on Terror. The argument is not that the media’s day-to-day reporting is inaccurate or untruthful, but that journalists’ predisposition to publicize bad news has skewed the public’s overall perception of the Iraq war.

So, as we did in our study of broadcast news in 2005, our analysts looked at how many stories focused on positive developments (such as reports of U.S. and coalition achievements and progress on the political front) or negative developments (including reports of insurgent attacks and incidents of U.S. military misconduct). To be labeled a "positive" report, the amount of optimistic or upbeat news contained in the story had to exceed negative or pessimistic news by at least a three-to-two margin. Conversely, a news story was considered "negative" when there was a three-to-two margin in favor of pessimistic news. All other stories were categorized as "balanced/neutral."

Chart4While all three networks were reporting on the same day-to-day developments, the difference in tone is fairly remarkable. As the chart shows, both CNN and MSNBC emphasized news that carried a pessimistic or downbeat spin. On MSNBC, negative news overwhelmed positive stories by a four-to-one margin, while on CNN the disparity was a whopping six-to-one.

Over on the Fox News Channel, the number of pessimistic stories (75, or 30% of FNC’s total coverage) was greater than that of optimistic or positive stories (48, or 20%), but the end result is much more balanced coverage than was found at either of its cable competitors. FNC also had the highest number of neutral stories (123), significantly more than either MSNBC (91) or CNN (73).

Chart5The differences in tone are strongly related to the differences in the networks’ choice of news topics (as discussed in the previous section). Both MSNBC and CNN aired much heavier coverage of the allegations of U.S. troop misconduct in late May, which helped tilt their overall coverage in a heavily pessimistic direction. In the case of the Haditha allegations, reporters seemed to presume guilt despite the lack of any official report. On the last day of May, CNN’s Iraq reporter Arwa Damon framed the options this way: "Twenty-four Iraqi civilians killed in a bloody rampage allegedly by Marines. Among the dead, women and children. Was it a rampage fueled by rage? An unprovoked massacre?"

The day before, MSNBC invited viewers to voice their outrage, as anchor Chris Jansing posed her network’s Question of the Day: "Based on what you know, do you think there’s any justification for what happened in Haditha?"

On May 26, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips echoed Democratic war critics like Congressman John Murtha, who argued that the Haditha incident was part of a larger pattern of eroding military discipline after three years of ugly fighting: "Some critics have come forward and said, look, this is just one more reason troops have to come home. They’ve been there too long. They’re becoming insensitive to the fight over there, and this is what happens....[People] start to fall apart emotionally, psychologically."

Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre seemed to agree with Phillips’ assumption: "The accounts of this house-to-house search for, apparently searching for one of the bombers who killed one of their own Marines, gives all the impression that it was almost like they were on a — they were looking for revenge." But McIntyre quickly added: "But, again, we just want to say the investigation is not complete."

In fact, according to research conducted by University of Minnesota professor Colin Kahl during a fellowship with the Council on Foreign Relations, the truth is that U.S. forces have done an excellent job of avoiding civilian casualties and have gotten better, not worse, over the course of the war. Writing in the policy magazine Foreign Affairs, Kahl noted that "despite some dark spots on its record, the U.S. military has done a better job of respecting noncombatant immunity in Iraq than is commonly believed....U.S. compliance with noncombatant immunity in Iraq is relatively high by historical standards...[and] has been improving since the beginning of the war."

Chart6All three cable networks ran the greatest number of positive stories during the first and second weeks of June, coinciding with Zarqawi’s death and President Bush’s trip to Baghdad to meet with Prime Minister Maliki and his newly-formed government. While all three networks generally treated Zarqawi’s elimination as a success for the coalition, FNC’s coverage was the most enthusiastic. Anchor Jon Scott began the 10am hour by touting "news that the most-wanted man in Iraq has been killed in a U.S. air strike, in what turned out to be an unsafe house for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." Scott asked lead-off guest Senator John McCain: "Is this a sign that patience and perseverance pays off?"

After his interview with McCain, Scott turned to co-anchor Brigitte Quinn: "It’s nice to have some good news to report out of Iraq." Quinn agreed: "Yeah, it sure is, Jon."

2006-06-08-FNCZarqawiA few minutes later, Baghdad correspondent Andrew Stack recounted how news of Zarqawi’s death "definitely affected us here personally," recounting how a triple car bombing — plotted and carried out by Zarqawi’s group months earlier — had damaged FNC’s offices in Iraq. "We didn’t have any injuries or deaths on our staff, but there were 17 people killed that night, and it’s something none of us will ever forget," Stack related. "And so this morning when we heard about this, you can bet a lot of us were pretty happy to see Zarqawi gone."

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."

Chart7A few minutes later, Stark introduced another segment on another American soldier who refused to fight for his country: "Marine reservist Stephen Funk was the first U.S. serviceman to object to the Iraq war. He explained his decision to NBC’s Matt Lauer shortly after the war began." A clip of Funk’s earlier appearance on NBC’s Today program showed Funk rationalizing his conduct: "It isn’t moral to kill someone just because you signed a contract to....In the Gulf, in the last Gulf War, there was only 111 conscientious objectors. And before that, there, in the Vietnam War, there were 200,000. So a lot of people in this generation don’t know this is an actual option and I’m just trying to spread that."

When they got through flaunting Funk, MSNBC offered up reports on Gulf War deserters and Vietnam protests, bringing to four the number of reports on anti-military activities aired on the morning that was crowded with news of a U.S. military success.

TextBox2Five days after Zarqawi’s death was announced, President Bush surprised the media by arriving in Baghdad for a meeting with Prime Minister Maliki that was originally supposed to have been conducted via a teleconference. The President’s presence in Iraq meant more coverage than would otherwise have been expected, although the tone was split between the three networks. FNC reporter Malini Bawa argued that the President’s trip would help the situation: "The visit of President Bush certainly tends to lend some legitimacy and some momentum to his [Maliki’s] new government."

Over on MSNBC, however, reporter Andrea Mitchell argued the opposite, telling anchor Contessa Brewer during the 2pm hour of MSNBC Live that the visit could undermine the new Iraqi Prime Minister: "While it could help him with his own supporters, it could also backfire, of course, with those who view the American presence as interference with the domestic affairs in Iraq. Of course, those who are anti-American view the President very negatively, so it could undercut his credibility there as well. So, it remains to be seen."

As for CNN, 10am anchor Daryn Kagan asked correspondent Aneesh Raman what he thought the visit would mean to everyday Iraqis. Raman was pessimistic: "I think very little. This visit to the average Iraqi will perhaps signal that maybe there’s something in terms of momentum that clearly President Bush is trying to seize upon....But for the average Iraqi, and I’ve seen it over the time period that I was there, that the confidence in the government has eroded and legitimately so."

The key difference between the networks: CNN and MSNBC were eager to devote dozens of stories to sifting through the details of bad news stories like Haditha, but were quick to move beyond stories about U.S. and coalition achievements. FNC, in contrast, provided more level-headed coverage of the bad news that invariably arose, and seemed unembarrassed to cheer U.S. victories such as the killing of one of the single worst enemies the U.S. has faced, terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.