TV's Bad News Brigade

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

Conclusion: The Progress We’re Making in Iraq Is Too Important to Ignore

Over the course of the year, all of the networks reported an erosion in the American public’s support for the mission in Iraq. NBC took a survey in May asking whether “removing Saddam Hussein from power was or was not worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost?” More than half (51%) said the war was not worth it, while just 40 percent said the benefits of invading Iraq have been worth the cost.
In late August, after two weeks in which the networks lavished attention on Cindy Sheehan and her left-wing protest group, ABC asked the public whether “the United States is or is not making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq?” It was nearly an even split, but the pessimists outnumbered the optimists, 50 to 48 percent.

In mid-September, CBS asked if “United States troops [should] stay in Iraq as long as it takes,” or “leave Iraq as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable.” Just over half (52%) wanted our troops to leave as soon as possible, compared with 42 percent who thought it important to finish the job.

Given the gloomy portrait that has been painted for them, the public’s mood is entirely understandable. Much of the reality of Iraq is still depressing, particularly the loss of American lives and the nearly-constant terrorist activity. But many of the soldiers who have served in Iraq think American media coverage has been too pessimistic, too focused on car bombings to really appreciate the progress being made on the ground.

In the October 9 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, reporter David Brown wrote about his conversation with Army Specialist Bobby Hillen, who saw enormous progress in the year he was in Iraq. “It was a drastic difference,” he told the reporter, as children went from playing in bomb craters to attending new schools. Hillen was upset that most Americans were not aware of all of the good work being done in their name.

“It’s a slap in the face to a soldier when you turn on the news and all you hear are the negative aspects,” Hillen told the newspaper.

Earlier this year, on NBC’s Today show, co-host Matt Lauer interviewed a group of American soldiers in Iraq. When they all reported that morale among the troops was high, Lauer was incredulous.

“Don’t get me wrong here,” Lauer told the soldiers. “I think you are probably telling me the truth, but a lot of people at home [are] wondering how that could be possible with the conditions you’re facing and with the attacks you’re facing. What would you say to those people who are doubtful that morale can be that high?”

ShermanPowell101405“Sir, if I got my news from the newspapers also, I’d be pretty depressed as well,” replied Captain Sherman Powell. “We are confident that if we’re allowed to finish the job we started, we’ll be very proud of it and our country will be proud of us for doing it.”

Just as it would be wrong for reporters to conceal the bad news (of which there has been plenty) journalists have an equal responsibility to fully inform citizens about the progress that is being made in Iraq. As the networks’ own polls illustrate, our citizens are trying to make up their minds about whether the mission in Iraq is likely to succeed or fail, whether our soldiers are working towards a result that will benefit American security and the cause of freedom. The conundrum is that the daily journalism on which they rely usually does not do a very good job of providing citizens with the kind of big-picture overview they need to make such important decisions. In the case of Iraq, TV journalists have spent much of their time following the terrorists’ agenda of violence and mayhem, pushing the accomplishments of our soldiers off the public’s radar screen.

But there have been good things happening in Iraq, too, and it may turn out that the daily, not-so-glamourous work being done by our soldiers and the Iraqis themselves will turn out to be history’s big headline on the war. It is a challenge for journalists, especially TV reporters, to find ways to balance the dramatic daily attacks with the big picture of a country slowly but surely being restored and democracy dawning in the heart of the Middle East.

But such balance is crucial, since it is ultimately the public that is watching all of this unfold on their TV screens who will decide if the mission in Iraq proceeds to victory, or is ended short of success.