TV's Bad News Brigade

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

The Networks' Good News

Believe it or not, there was good news to be found in Iraq. In fact, although such stories were easy to miss amid the depressing daily coverage, all three broadcast networks ran a number of stories documenting the progress being made by U.S. soldiers and the Iraqis themselves. While such positive pieces were a tiny fraction of the overall total, the occasional look at progress in Iraq offered crucial context to audiences exposed to months of discouraging news.

Success-Story101405Back on June 29, for example, ABC sent reporter Nick Watt to check up on a well-known trouble spot in Baghdad that has turned into a success story. “Last year, Haifa Street became known as ‘Death Street.’ Insurgents set up their own check points. They terrorized local people. They ambushed and killed troops who ventured in.”

Now, Watt explained, “U.S. and Iraqi troops have turned it around.” The street is now patrolled exclusively by troops of the new Iraqi army, and “not one of them has been shot, not one killed,” Watt related. “A coffee shop owner thanks Iraqi soldiers for bringing peace. ‘I couldn’t even open my shop for five months because of the violence,’ he tells them. ‘Now, I stay open until midnight.’”

Watt concluded: “They don’t call it ‘Death Street’ anymore.”

Earlier in the year, on March 16, NBC’s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera reported on a hiring boom in Baghdad’s commercial district, reducing the country’s 30 percent unemployment rate. “More and more reconstruction jobs, from Baghdad’s airport, to Sadr City sewers, to the new television network are now going to Iraqis rather than foreign contractors,” Caruso-Cabrera disclosed.

“One of the economy’s most vibrant spots: the Iraqi stock exchange. When the Iraqi stock exchange opened last summer, only 15 companies were traded here. Now there are more than 40,” she added. “Investors don’t want to miss their chance.”

A few days later, ABC reporter Keith Garvin documented how U.S. reconstruction efforts were helping Iraq’s children: “One of the success stories is the Fine Arts Institute for Girls in Baghdad. After a $60,000 renovation, students are flourishing in their new environment. The school’s headmistress, Karima Hassan Ahmad, says with fresh paint, new supplies and a place to display their artwork, they’re expressing themselves like never before.”

Last year saw major fighting in the Sadr City section of Baghdad, but CBS’s Kimberly Dozier found the situation much improved when she visited in June. Referring to the followers of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Dozier discovered that “now, once-armed followers of this radical cleric are working with Iraqi police. They’re an unarmed, plain-clothes neighborhood watch sanctioned by the U.S. military.”

The truce in Sadr City has meant “U.S.-funded contractors [are] able to work, unimpeded by insurgent intimidation. In this neighborhood, a refurbished pumping station has kept the area free of sewage. The manager says now people are thanking her.” While other areas still need their facilities restored, Dozier said complaining residents are “trading barbs instead of bullets. And some Iraqis are starting to see the foundation of a better life.”

In almost any other country, it would not be international news when a city pumping station is brought back on line, or a school refurbished. But in Iraq, each such step is an important sign of growing normalcy, a positive development at odds with the perception that Iraq is a nation in chaos.

chart7-101405But in the first nine months of 2005, the networks ran only 10 positive stories about the re-building of Iraq’s infrastructure, less than one percent of the total coverage. And another 11 stories cast the rebuilding mission in negative terms, focusing on jobs that still needed to be accomplished or the slowness at restoring normal life.

When it came to another major task — recruiting, training and deploying a new Iraqi army — the networks made it the focus of just 22 stories, while it was mentioned in 83 others for a total of 105, about seven percent of the overall coverage. But more of these stories actually took a positive angle about progress in establishing a credible Iraqi army (36) than those emphasizing setbacks or problems (31), making this a comparatively bright spot in the coverage.

Reporting on a July 24 suicide bombing in Baghdad, NBC reporter Kerry Sanders highlighted the praise of a U.S. army major for the way the Iraqi forces conducted themselves: “The Iraqi security forces here today have held firm. They are here and they are in charge. They have evacuated the wounded, they’re caring for the dead, they’re consoling the people who have lost loved ones. They are here for the Iraqi people.”

On September 11, NBC reporter Peter Alexander noted another milestone in the coalition effort to rout terrorists from the northern city of Tal Afar: “It is the largest military offensive in Iraq since the assault on Fallujah ten months ago, with significant differences: the majority of soldiers here are Iraqi, backed by American armored forces.”

Visiting Baghdad just before the January elections, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams asked U.S. Army General David Petraeus, “Why do you think it is so dangerous right now? You and I could not walk into an open-air market right now in Baghdad.”

The general disputed Williams’ premise: “We could. And I’ll do it if you want, in all honesty.”

Narrating his January 28 story, Williams suggested General Petraeus was hardly the right test subject. “In all honesty, while he may truly mean it, when the general moves around it’s with massive security, the kind of armor plating strongly recommended for all visiting Americans.”

Yet precisely six months later, on July 28, ABC’s World News Tonight went with Petraeus on exactly such a walk “on one of the most dangerous streets in Baghdad” without any American military escorts. Instead, the general’s security detail consisted solely of members of the new Iraqi army. Trusting the Iraqis he had trained, General Petraeus went up to a random street vendor and bought a Coke. He told ABC reporter Mike von Fremd the new Iraqi forces “do have a dangerous job. And they’re not shrinking from it. There’s not a case, since the elections at the end of January that we know of, where Iraqis didn’t fight back. And they’ve taken some pretty horrific losses at various times.”

Over the course of the last nine months, the networks also reported on the capture of wanted terrorist leaders and successful military operations that killed or captured numerous insurgents. But perhaps the most important “good news” stories coming out of Iraq are no more exciting than the bland stuff of day-to-day life. Yet their importance cannot be overstated, for as the commercial, social and political life of Iraq slowly but steadily edges closer to normality, the coalition’s mission to liberate Iraq moves closer to final victory.