December 8, 2006

Headlines of Several Minds on Iraq Report

For days, it was the worst kept secret in Washington – and almost anywhere else for that matter. Media leaks and breathless speculation practically rendered the official Dec. 6 release of the Iraq Study Group report more of a formality than a breaking-news event.

That apparently didn’t dampen public interest, however, since the report’s publisher, Vintage, had already ordered a third printing of the 160-page report the day after its release. And as of the afternoon of Dec. 7, it had already climbed to number two on the Amazon.com bestseller list.

Given that level of interest, many of the nation’s newspapers naturally treated the release—and the early reaction to it—as page 1 news. The report—a complex document—painted a grim picture of the situation in Iraq, and as its title suggests, tried to help find “a way forward.” One major task for newspapers was to absorb the report and translate its main message into a concise headline that grabs the reader’s attention and perhaps creates a significant impression.

A PEJ review of headlines from nearly 200 (197 to be exact) Dec. 7 papers posted on the Newseum web site reveals that there were two major story lines embedded in those headlines. One portrayed the report as largely critical of the Bush administration and/or emphasized how dire and grim the situation was in Iraq. The other, somewhat more neutral in tone, focused on the report’s theme that a shift in direction was necessary. While neither message was particulary cheery, editors seemed split over whether to focus on the idea of failure and blame or the need to change.

By a narrow margin, the first category was the largest, with 88 headlines trumpeting the bad news for the White House as the main message of the day.

“It’s Not Working: War Policies Have Failed in Almost Every Regard, Report Says,” read the Chicago Sun-Times headline.The Great Falls (Montana) Tribune put it more simply with “Report: U.S. failing in Iraq.” Like a number of other papers, The San Diego Union-Tribune mentioned the president directly in a headline that read: “Bush’s war policies are big failures, study says.”

Another 73 headlines primarily played up the report’s conclusion that a new direction was necessary.

“Changes on Iraq crucial, panel says” declared the Deseret (Utah) Morning News. “Iraq report charts new course,” was the headline in The Burlington (Vermont) Free Press. A headline with a hint of hope in it, “Panel report maps path out of Iraq,” appeared on the front page of The (Toledo) Blade.

There were another three dozen headlines that did not readily fit into any particular category. Some tended to be notably bland such as “Key issue in Iraq detailed,” in the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle. Others were in a questioning mood like the Virginian Pilot headline that read “Is this the fix? Bipartisan panel makes 79 recommendations.”

At least five of the headlines focused on criticism or shortcomings of the study group report, including one in The Tribune of San Luis Obispo California that concluded: “Iraq Study Group report is short on how to clear hurdles.”

A few of the papers tried to move past the findings to offer a glimpse into a murky future. In that genre, it’s hard to argue with the sentiments of the Erie (Pennsylvania) Times-News headline that wondered “Iraq report out – now what?”