TV's Bad News Brigade
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Pessimists on the Road to Democracy
Network coverage of Iraq was at its most hopeful the weekend that Iraqis voted in their first ever free, democratic elections. For a short while it was seen as an incredible transformation. Just two years earlier, Iraq was controlled by a brutal dictator; now, the country was set upon the path to join Israel as one of the Middle East’s only democratic states. But just days after the January elections, network reporters reverted to a more skeptical stance, with stories placing the heaviest emphasis on the problems confronting Iraqis on their road to democracy.
Out of 343 stories that discussed Iraq’s political process, negative news stories outnumbered positive ones by a four-to-three margin (124 to 92), with another 127 stories providing a mixed or neutral view. More than a third of the stories featuring optimistic or hopeful developments were broadcast over the course of just two days, January 30 and 31, the moment of Iraq’s historic elections.
With all three news anchors in Iraq, the networks gave the elections heavy coverage. While all of the evening news broadcasts had featured gloomy predictions before the vote, the large turnout and relative tranquility of the day provided a pleasant surprise. Of the 40 stories that focused on Iraq’s political process on January 30 and 31, fully 80 percent cast the situation in hopeful and optimistic terms.
“Iraqis came out by the many millions, literally, to take part in an Election Day pilgrimage,” CBS anchor Dan Rather enthused from Baghdad’s “Green Zone” on January 30, the day of the vote. “By the time the polls closed today, the celebrations spoke of a new Iraq, one with the potential for a future brighter than many people thought possible before the vote.” The same day, ABC’s David Wright interviewed a Kurdish voter whose father had been killed by Saddam’s regime. “Can you put into words what the feeling was like when you put that paper in the ballot box?” Wright asked.
“Freedom. Happiness. Victory,” came the enthusiastic reply.
Before the vote, reporters expected that Iraqi voters would be thwarted by terrorism. “This has to be the most dangerous political campaign in the world, with suicide bombings and assassination attempts just about every day,” ABC’s Wright fretted on January 9. As for election day itself, “there could be a bloodbath,” NBC’s Jim Maceda predicted on the January 17 Nightly News.
Three days before the election, CBS’s Rather ominously passed along the terrorists’ threats: “Fear is running high as the insurgency’s campaign of intimidation left more Iraqis dead today. Bombs exploded at two Baghdad schools that are expected to serve as polling stations, and anti-election leaflets were everywhere threatening to, quote, ‘wash the streets of Baghdad with the blood of voters.’”
The next night, January 28, CBS reporter Elizabeth Palmer despaired that “the first taste of democratic choice for many people will be a bitter one. They not only have to decide who to vote for on Sunday, but when to vote. One young man asked us this morning whether he’d have a better chance of avoiding a terrorist attack if he went to the polls in the morning, or the afternoon.”
Journalists’ pessimism returned soon after the votes were counted. When Iraq’s newly-elected parliamentarians — representing parties that did not even exist two years earlier — were slow to name a new government, reporters voiced impatience. On April 21, NBC’s Richard Engel complained that the naming of a new government had been held up by “paralyzing horse trading.” Three days later, he declared that the Iraqi government “remains paralyzed by disputes over power....Too much negotiating, it’s dragged on since January.”
Two weeks later, on May 8, Engel reported that while “Iraq finally has a nearly-complete government after nearly 13 weeks of excruciating negotiations” the country “in general, is floundering without decisive leadership.”
Engel was hardly the only reporter seeing dark clouds. On August 12, CBS’s Sharyn Alfonsi was upset that women might be victimized if the new Iraqi constitution were too rooted in Islam. “Islamic hardliners who were contained under Saddam’s regime have re-emerged. Their teachings encourage men to discipline their wives and daughters and, as their views become more widespread, so too could domestic violence.”
Two weeks later, on August 28, CBS’s Lara Logan chastised the Iraqis for failing to finalize their constitution: “Iraq’s unity is in question here in this hall, where their leaders were supposed to agree on a draft constitution inside this very hall. But instead, just hours before the midnight deadline, it stood empty. There is still no consensus, but at least the parties have not stopped talking....The constantly shifting deadlines have turned into political farce.”
A few days earlier, when it became clear that the constitution submitted to voters would not meet all of the demands of the minority Sunni group, ABC’s Martha Raddatz posited the no-win situation facing the U.S. and the rest of the international coalition. Reporting from the Pentagon, Raddatz explained the reasoning:
“This is a very, very worrisome development to some military officials and defense officials in the building. Because if the Sunnis do not feel empowered, they believe the insurgency will get worse.” But the Sunnis could also compete in the constitutional referendum: “If they vote this down, everything goes back to square one. The government dissolves, they have to start over again.”
Reporters were guilty of letting the disorder of day-to-day democratic politics blind them to the potentially wonderful story unfolding before them. Only occasionally, such as the January elections, did journalists lift their eyes from the messy details of Iraqi politics and focus on the revolutionary big picture.
Another such occasion was after Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution,” where peaceful protests helped lead to the withdrawal of Syrian troops who had occupied that country for nearly 30 years. NBC anchor Brian Williams saw the chance for a positive tide to sweep the Middle East, and allowed that some of the credit might rest with American policy in Iraq. Introducing a March 8 story, he described it as “a heady time for a White House that has been calling for the spread of freedom and watching it slowly break out in some spots.”
Reporter David Gregory followed Williams: “The President boasted today that historic change is sweeping the Middle East, and he left little doubt he feels vindicated.” But from the White House lawn he warned, “they insist no one here is gloating. Today, the President said democracy in the region will require a generational commitment, even when the good news these days disappears.”
When it came to Iraq’s democratic revolution, the good news disappeared from the network newscasts all too quickly.