MSNBC turbo talker Chris Matthews no doubt rattled some glasses amidst the Beltway cocktail circuit last week when he seemed to call out the press corps for turning its back on Iraq. "It is not on the tube," said Matthews incredulously of the ongoing conflict. "I watch the news; I don't see the war any more."
A review of network news logs proves Matthews was dead-on in his assessment; coverage is way down this month. Unfortunately, Matthews later misspoke when he suggested it's the American people who are bored with Iraq and that the press has simply responded to news consumers' lack of interest by cutting back on its war reporting. But there's no evidence that the American people are bored with the war. In fact, the issue of Iraq and the war was chosen by voters as "the most important issue facing this country today," according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll.
There is, however, ample evidence that the American media, on the eve of the crucial midterm elections, have lost interest in the chaotic saga, with network news coverage in recent weeks plummeting and Page One newspaper dispatches from Iraq growing sparse. The media fade has come at a perfect time for the White House as it attempts to shift voters' attention away from Iraq and move it over to the war on terror.
What's so startling is that we've seen this exact media retreat before -- during the fall of the 2004 campaign. Back then, when sustained, aggressive coverage of the unfolding chaos inside Iraq could have done real damage to the Bush/Cheney ticket, the press shifted its attention away from Baghdad. Instead of a summer of tenacious war coverage, Bush was blessed with a cable news agenda that focused on endless hurricane updates, Martha Stewart's legal woes, and the tawdry Laci Peterson trial. As pollster Peter Hart suggested at the time, any day between August 15, 2004, and October 15, 2004, that Iraq was not making headlines was a good day for the Bush campaign. Suffice it to say, Bush had a lot of good days that autumn.
It was not until after the election that the press -- and particularly television news -- once again showed deep interest in Iraq. Fact: In the 10 weeks prior to Election Day in 2004, the war in Iraq was the most reported story on the weekly night news programs just twice, according to the media research of Andrew Tyndall. But immediately following Bush's re-election, the war in Iraq instantly became the most covered story on the nightly news programs -- for seven weeks in a row.
Now we're seeing the same media pattern repeat itself as the press' inattention could once again help bail out the White House.
It's inevitable -- and understandable -- that over the 43-month span of the conflict in Iraq, media interest would ebb and flow, as well as be dictated by events on the ground. And in 2005, as well as into early 2006, there was a legitimate argument to be made that Iraq fatigue had set in among reporters, editors, and producers, as well as news consumers, with both sides growing tired, or at least somewhat immune, to the almost daily dispatches of the latest IED explosion and the steady drip, drip, drip of U.S. casualties.
But the civil war currently raging inside Iraq -- it has claimed nearly 7,000 civilian casualties in the last two months -- is a different story altogether; one that begs for sustained, detailed coverage. After all, the country that the United States invaded, the country it has spent tens of billions of dollars trying to rebuild, where nearly 3,000 Americans have been killed, and the country Bush promised was going to stand as a beacon of stability in the region is teetering on collapse, with sectarian violence tearing sections of Baghdad apart.
Yet, instead of racing towards that important story, the press appears to be turning away from it just as nervous Republicans nationwide are also turning away from it. To quote Matthews, "It [the war] has been taken off television, and Bush must love it."
Television news interest in Iraq has been on a steady decline for years but has recently accelerated dramatically. In 2003, the ABC, NBC, and CBS nightly newscasts, on average, devoted 388 minutes each month to covering Iraq, according to Tyndall's numbers. By 2005, that monthly tally had decreased by more than 50 percent -- to 166 minutes each month. Today, unless there is a dramatic, late-September surge in coverage, the Big Three nightly newscasts will end the month having devoted a total of 40 minutes to Iraq, or less than 15 percent of their airtime.
Iraq hasn't been the networks' top nightly news story since the Monday-to-Friday week of June 26-30.
The recent Tyndall numbers illustrate how dramatic the fall-off in war coverage has been since Labor Day weekend; the unofficial start of the campaign season. For the single week ending September 1, the three nightly newscasts aired 22 minutes in Iraq coverage. In the following two weeks, the number plunged to six and seven minutes, respectively. (Coverage did rebound somewhat last week.) The decline came at a time when many experts agreed Iraq itself was virtually imploding. Yet that disturbing development was easily trumped by Bush's 9-11-timed war on terror PR blitz. During the first two weeks of September, the Big Three newscasts aired 152 minutes of terrorism-related stories, compared to 13 minutes for Iraq.
The mainstream media withdrawal is not confined to the nightly newscasts. A check of recent transcripts indicates that, during the first three weeks of September, ABC's Nightline and CBS' 60 Minutes both aired just one detailed report each about Iraq. (Katie Couric's softball sit-down on CBS Sunday night with war sponsor Condoleezza Rice -- "a smart, tough, deeply religious woman"-- was a journalism embarrassment.)
Online, ABC's The Note, the influential daily tip sheet for a readership it has dubbed the "Gang of 500" (politicians, lobbyists, consultants, and journalists who help shape the Beltway's public agenda), obediently followed the White House lead. During the first three weeks of September, The Note linked to more than 500 must-read articles; roughly two percent were about the war in Iraq.
Meanwhile, here's a sample of major-market newspapers nationwide and, according to Nexis, the number of A1 articles they published between September 1 and September 21 about events inside Iraq:
- The Boston Globe, 0
- The Charlotte Observer, 3
- The Chicago Tribune; 5
- The Columbus Dispatch, 4
- The Hartford Courant, 0
- The Houston Chronicle, 0
- The Miami Herald, 6
- The New York Times, 12
- The San Diego Union-Tribune, 0
- The Seattle Times, 1
- The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 0
- USA Today, 1
- The Washington Post, 17
Readers have taken note of the downturn. "Where's the War?" an angry Seattle Times reader recently wrote to the newspaper. "How can it be that I couldn't find a thing about the Iraq War until page 11 in The Times?"
There is clear evidence the MSM's pullback from Iraq is paying dividends for the White House, which badly wants the attention away from the war. (Iraq, after all, is "just a comma," according to Bush's weekend spin.) After months of steady erosion, and despite the wave of security breakdowns inside Iraq, the latest USA Today/Gallup poll contained a relatively dramatic turn in public opinion, showing a five percent decline in the percentage of people who think the war in Iraq was a mistake. (The number stands at 49 percent in September, compared to 54 in July and 57 percent in March.)
It's safe to assume that nobody inside the White House or the RNC wants to see more prominent coverage of Iraq on the nightly news between now and November. The question is: Are journalists going to play off the Republican play sheet the way they did in 2004, or strike out independently and prioritize the extraordinary events unfolding inside Iraq?