May 7, 2007

Iraq War, with Subplots, Dominates the News

PEJ News Coverage Index April 29 - May 4, 2007

The title of former CIA director George Tenet’s new book, “At the Center of the Storm” proved cannily prophetic as he embarked on a media tour last week. If Tenet’s intent was to distance himself from the decision to launch the now unpopular war in Iraq, the effect instead was to ignite a debate over his integrity and judgment.

In a May 2 interview on CNN’s “Situation Room,” an unusually combative Wolf Blitzer grilled Tenet, whose book was critical of White House planning for Iraq, about why he did not do more to stop the momentum toward war. “You met with the President every single morning,” said Blitzer. “If you didn’t think it was worthwhile going to war against Saddam Hussein, you clearly could have made this case.”

“You’re being, as you know, criticized from the left, from the right, from the center,” added Blitzer, as he read critical remarks about Tenet from such ideologically diverse figures as Maureen Dowd and William F. Buckley Jr.

Two days earlier, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin—subbing for Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly—asked one of her guests about Tenet’s April 29 appearance on “60 Minutes.”

“Didn’t you get the impression of somebody who was just a pathetic whiner?” she asked.

The controversy generated by Tenet’s new book was the fourth biggest story last week, filling 5% of the overall newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from April 29 through May 4. But the Tenet tempest was really part of a bigger subject—the conflict in Iraq—that continues to dominate the media landscape like no other issue, and which last week spawned many different story lines.

The internal U.S. debate over Iraq policy was the week’s second biggest story, at 12% while the situation inside Iraq was the third leading story at 7%. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s delicate diplomatic tango with Syria (she talked to its foreign minister) and Iran (she didn’t meet with its foreign minister) at last week’s conference on Iraq’s future was the sixth biggest story (4%). The impact of the Iraq war on the American homefront, while failing to make the top story list, attracted 1% of the overall coverage.

All combined, those five Iraq-related stories accounted for 29% of the news coverage last week, clearly making the war the dominant broad theme.

And that doesn’t include the opinions about Iraq expressed by the Republican presidential hopefuls at their May 3 debate in California. That gathering of 10 GOP hopefuls helped make the 2008 presidential race—filling 13% of the newshole—the top single story of the week. The campaign was the top story only the newspaper sector (11%). But if finished a close second to the Iraq policy debate in network TV and in a virtual first-place tie with it in cable news and radio.

The other top-five story last week was the immigration debate, (fifth place) which was driven by the May 1 rallies across the country. At 5% of the total coverage, the topic tied its high-water mark for the year. Not surprisingly, it generated the most attention from cable news (11%), where CNN’s Lou Dobbs is a tireless advocate for an immigration crackdown.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

The bottom four stories in this Index’s top-10 list were an interesting mix of different kinds of news events.

The tenth biggest story (at 2%) was the fallout over the internal Israeli report on last year’s inconclusive war with Hezbollah that appears to have further jeopardized the shaky government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It was a top-five story (7%) in the internationally oriented online news sector. Rupert Murdoch’s bold $5 billion bid to buy the company that publishes the Wall Street Journal was too big a media event for the press to ignore and finished ninth at 2%. (Logically enough, it generated the most attention, at 5%, on newspaper front pages. And were financial pages part of the weekly Index, the total may have grown).

Queen Elizabeth II’s first U.S. visit in 16 years, a largely ceremonial event, was the eighth biggest story of the week, at 2%. There may have been a time when a Royal visit would have been a bigger story.

The seventh biggest story (also at 2%) —the Washington escort scandal—had the potential to explode into a major tabloid-style saga with some influential figures threatened with public exposure as clients of the service.

On April 30, ABC’s “Good Morning America” sounded somewhat breathless, trumpeting the network’s investigation into “the secret list of clients that could take down some of the nation’s most powerful men” and promoting the upcoming “20/20” story with investigative reporter Brian Ross. But when the “20/20” report actually aired on May 4, the network was considerably more cautious, opting not to name names.

"Like much of Washington, it turns out this is pretty dull stuff," Ross told the Washington Post.

If the “D.C. Madam’s” customers didn’t ruffle high-placed Washington feathers, the war in Iraq did. Tenet’s recollections of the run-up to the conflict set off a substantial firestorm while the question of whether Rice would talk to Tehran in the hope of stabilizing Baghdad was a matter of major media curiosity.

And in a week that marked the fourth anniversary of the so-called “Mission Accomplished” speech, in which President Bush landed on a aircraft carrier in a flying suit to declare Iraq a victory, the Iraq policy debate was focused on the political standoff between the White House and Congress over war funding and the imposition of withdrawal deadlines or Iraqi government benchmarks.

The volatile situation on the ground in Iraq—which could ultimately determine the outcome of that debate—was the leading story online (12%), and the second biggest story (10%) in newspapers. Last week, print journalists did some serious digging into that subject. And the results painted a distinctly mixed picture.

On the plus side, the April 29 New York Times revealed “a surprising transformation” inside the dangerous Anbar Province, where Sunni tribal leaders are joining U.S. and Iraqi forces to fight against Al Qaeda and where the “violence is ebbing in many areas…and the insurgency appears to be in retreat.”

On the same day, however, the Times reported that seven out of eight American-financed rebuilding programs in Iraq that had previously been declared successes “were no long operating as designed because of plumbing and electrical failures, lack of proper maintenance, apparent looting and expensive equipment that lay idle.”

A day later, in another ominous note, the Washington Post revealed that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office had been “playing a leading role" in getting rid of some senior security officers primarily for what appear to be political or religious reasons. “The issue strikes at a central question about the fledgling government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: whether it can put sectarian differences aside to deliver justice fairly,” the story asserted.

And that touches on a central question in the policy debate over Iraq. Is the al-Maliki government working in tandem with or at cross purposes with the U.S. government? When it comes to shaping the future, that is probably a bigger issue than what George Tenet did or did not tell George Bush in the days prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to the Republican debate on MSNBC the night of Thursday, May 3, our sample included MSNBC's programming that evening from 6:00 – 6:30 and 7:00 – 7:30 pm ET instead of the normal rotation which would have included 8:00 – 8:30 and 9:00 – 9:30 pm ET.