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Media Coverage of the Ongoing Conflict in Iraq Draws Scrutiny

March 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: As polls show the public increasingly turning against the war in Iraq, President Bush was on the road again today making the case for perseverance.

One issue often cited by the president and his aides: whether press coverage of the ongoing violence has become an obstacle to the U.S. enterprise in Iraq and a driver of American public opinion. The administration has said news organizations under-report progress in Iraq. At the president’s appearance today in West Virginia, one woman had the media in her sights.

FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER: It seems that our major media networks don’t want to portray the good.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: One of the things that we’ve got to value is the fact that we do have a media, a free media that’s able to do what they want to do. If you’re concerned, I would suggest that you reach out to some of the groups that are supporting the troops, that have got Internet sites, and just keep the word — keep the word moving.

And that’s one way to deal with an issue without suppressing a free press, and obviously I know you’re frustrated with what you’re seeing.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president expressed his own frustration yesterday at his press conference.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t talk about it. I’m certainly not being — you know, please don’t take that as criticism. But it also is a realistic assessment of the enemy’s capability to affect the debate, and they know that; they’re capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show.

JEFFREY BROWN: On CBS Sunday, Vice President Cheney was even more pointed.

RICHARD CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: There’s a constant sort of perception, if you will, that’s created because what’s newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad; it’s not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces, in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: At times, the White House press corps has been criticized by opponents of the war for not challenging the administration during the run-up to the invasion. But of late, the relationship has been more contentious. Yesterday, veteran correspondent Helen Thomas questioned the president.

HELEN THOMAS, White House Correspondent: My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your cabinet or cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth, what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil — quest for oil, it hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you, as a lifelong journalist, is that — you know, I didn’t want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect…

(CROSSTALK)

GEORGE W. BUSH: No, hold on for a second, please. Excuse me. Excuse me. No president wants war.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Iraq itself, the war has been the most dangerous conflict for journalists since Vietnam, as reporters have become principle targets of violence and harassment.

The fate of kidnapped American reporter Jill Carroll remains in doubt. And ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff is still undergoing treatment for wounds suffered in an attack last January. Yesterday at the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack was asked whether he agreed that it was hard for reporters to do their jobs, given the security situation.

SEAN MCCORMACK, State Department Spokesman: I think it is important for everyone to understand that there are these — there are those two realities in Iraq at the moment.

You see a lot of the very difficult, difficult stuff. You see the results of terrorist acts, the IEDs, the bombings, the killing of innocent civilians. But there is also another story to tell, as well, and we see many reporters on the ground telling that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Telling that story has exacted a heavy toll. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 67 reporters and 24 support personnel, the majority Iraqis, have been killed since the invasion.

And we discuss some of the issues raised now with Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research organization that studies the news and entertainment media. He’s also a professor of journalism at George Mason University.

And Michael Massing, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. His book, “Now They Tell Us,” is a collection of essays about press coverage of the war in Iraq.

And welcome to both of you.

Mr. Lichter, starting with you, we just heard the State Department spokesman refer to the two realities in Iraq. In what ways is the president and his aides correct when they complain that part of that reality is not being seen in the American media?

ROBERT LICHTER, President, Center for Media and Public Affairs: Well, that’s a harder question to answer than you’d think, because, of course, our reality is also the media’s reality. Will Rogers said, “All I know is what I see in the newspapers.”

But that said, studies of the coverage — certainly the network coverage — shows that there’s two to one or three to one negative tilt in coverage of Bush’s foreign policy, coverage of Iraq; so the coverage is negative and critical.

The question is whether that’s appropriate or whether journalists are pushing to one side. So the question really is: How should journalists define the news? Are there things that are going on that should be used to balance out the most obvious headlines, which are always people being killed? Are journalists trying hard enough? If that is out there, are they trying to hard enough to communicate that to the American public?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Before we answer some of those, let me ask you, Mr. Massing, do you see a full picture or just half of the reality being shown?

MICHAEL MASSING, Contributing Editor, Columbia Journalism Review: Well, I would — there are things that I would like to know more about. For instance, what’s going on in the south of Iraq, places like Karbala, Najaf? I think that things are better there, for instance, than they are in Baghdad.

But, you know, when you have a country in which 60 or 70 people are being killed every day, bodies showing up in roadsides, death squads operating out of the interior ministry, abductions, people afraid to send their children to school because of something that might happen, I mean, just in the nature of the news business, that is going to take precedence.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is that, Mr. Lichter — you raised that question, too. We have the maxim: If it bleeds, it leads. That’s the famous local news maxim. Is that the right way to look at what’s happening now?

ROBERT LICHTER: Well, one would hope that, when you get to the national level of news, there would be a greater sensitivity to the problem. In other words, journalists see this — like Michael says, that’s the news business, but the question is whether they do anything about it.

If it’s a disservice to the American public, using the traditional criteria for news, to miss other things that are happening; I can’t be sure they are happening because I don’t see them in the media.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what do you wonder about? What do you think we might be missing?

ROBERT LICHTER: Oh, well, obviously, there are questions of whether rebuilding Iraq, rebuilding the infrastructure, good relations between the troops and Iraqis, support for the Americans, whether that’s out there and not being reported.

One thing that’s clearly not being reported that was reported in previous years, even in Vietnam, is stories on courageous American heroes who win medals, that kind of thing. You hardly ever see a medal being pinned on someone, his story being told. That’s the kind of thing that, on an individual level, really connects with Americans, and I haven’t seen much of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Massing, do you see — there’s often this question about a bias by the media. Do you see a bias against either President Bush himself or against the war?

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, you know, things go in cycles. Before the war, as you mentioned in your report, journalists were very much acquiescent in what the administration did. I think there’s a broad recognition now that the press did not ask the right questions about the reasons for going to war.

I think that, with the Abu Ghraib scandal in April of 2004, you began to see for the first time a more general shift, where the press began realizing they’ve got to start asking more questions.

More recently, like when the — remember the elections last year, three elections in Iraq, the coverage was very positive. I was actually frustrated that the press seemed to not be asking then the hard questions about, “Well, we had an election a few months ago in Iraq; it didn’t make much difference. What is happening in the country with the democratic process?”

I would like to see the press sort of be a little more skeptical on those situations. Right now, I do think the press is being tough. I think the situation has really deteriorated, and that’s why they are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see a bias, Mr. Lichter?

ROBERT LICHTER: Well, certainly. First, it’s a myth that Bush’s foreign policy got positive coverage before the war. Certainly, since the war it’s gotten highly negative coverage, but I think what — I think I agree with Michael, in saying journalists tend to criticize, but that’s not the same as raising the right issues.

You know, Charlie Peter, a great Washington journalist, one said, “The message of Watergate was dig, dig, dig, but journalists thought the message was act tough.” And so I think you’re getting negative coverage that may be kind of compensatory criticism. They’re compensating for not…

JEFFREY BROWN: Compensating for what?

ROBERT LICHTER: Compensating for feeling they hadn’t done their job before the war, not asking the right questions. And the question is: Is it appropriate then to make it even more negative now because they feel it wasn’t negative enough before?

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s the answer?

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERT LICHTER: I think the answer is you follow the news. You try to get inside your head and say, “Wait a second. You know, I’m not the news. I report the news, whatever I think.”

You start with a blank slate every day, and report what’s out there, and watch to make sure that you don’t report in a way that reflects your own feelings of being manipulated.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see, Mr. Massing? Do you accept this notion of compensatory negativity? Is that the way you would express it, Mr. Massing?

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, I think that, in Washington, I think the press often acts as a pack. So before the war, I think that there was a — I might disagree with Bob a little bit; I think the press basically was very much behind the president, subscribed to the conventional wisdom.

When the president gets weak, when his poll numbers go down, the press sees an opening, and sometimes they pile on too much. I mean, some of these press conferences, where’s you find reporters trying to show how tough they are in front of the cameras, I do think they go a bit overboard at times.

I think in Iraq, though, you’re finding less of that. I think that the press really is pretty much shocked at how things are declining there and the level of sectarian hatred and violence. I think that that is really driving the coverage, rather than any compensatory inclination they might have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about — the other question hanging out here is the impact of the coverage on public opinion. Which comes first? Which shifts first? Do you see what’s happening in the coverage affecting the public polls?

ROBERT LICHTER: The public is the chicken, and the media is the egg. Of course, that’s the problem, which is which?

But studies have shown, number one, media coverage does affect public opinion, and critical coverage can turn public opinion more negative over time.

We also know, from studies of past wars, that the support for a war — Korea, Vietnam, you name it — support for a war tends to fall as American casualties rise. So that’s natural; that’s going to happen.

But I think what the administration is trying to say is, it’s not just whether you’re reporting on the casualties — they’re there, sure — but we’re trying to make a case that these deaths are meaningful, that there is a good reason for doing what we are and for people paying the ultimate sacrifice, and the media isn’t communicating that.

Now, I’m not saying I’m saying that, but I think that’s the argument. And I think it’s something that journalists should address head on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Massing, what do you think about the chicken-and-egg proposition?

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, I think the press is not all that intrepid when it comes to challenging the wisdom out there when the public is against it. I feel the press is willing to be courageous, as long as it knows it’s going to be applauded for it.

So when the president’s weak and the public is open to it — the public is now, because of all the casualties, because of all the problems there, there is a political space for the press to fill. And, of course, once they do that, it then feeds back into the loop, and it accentuates the sort of negative public opinion that’s out there. So it’s a self-feeding loop, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Massing, one final question. I just was thinking of it in listening to Jeffrey Gettleman before, describing what it’s like being there as a reporter. Does the press do a good enough job of explaining itself, what its limitations are, which part or how much of the story it can actually tell us?

MICHAEL MASSING: I’m really glad you asked that. It’s a big concern of mine. I think our major media are locked into traditional ways of telling the story: number of people that died, attacks, and so on. And all of that is, of course, important.

But the texture of what’s there — I mean, just what Jeffrey Gettleman was describing, you don’t get that so much in our papers. They’re boxed into traditional ways of telling the stories.

I would like to see somebody like Jeff Gettleman or another reporter do an actual regular column from Iraq. What’s it like? What are you hearing on the street? You can often communicate much more that way than in the traditional political type of story.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have time for a brief response, Mr. Lichter.

ROBERT LICHTER: As we’ve seen at the New York Times, CBS and elsewhere, the irony is the media preaches transparency and openness to other institutions, but when they are the target, they tend to circle the wagons. And I think that actually hurts them; they do themselves a disservice.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Robert Lichter, Michael Massing, thank you both very much.

ROBERT LICHTER: Thank you.