May 14, 2007

GOP Worries About Iraq Fuel War Policy Coverage

PEJ News Coverage Index May 6 - 11, 2007

On May 10, the lead story in the Washington Post reported on “a remarkably blunt White House meeting” in which Republican moderates warned President Bush that “his pursuit of the war in Iraq is risking the future of the Republican Party.”

The same message came through that day in the New York Times’ headline: “At White House, President is Told that He Faces Defections on War.”

As it has on a number of weeks this year, the political debate over U.S. policy in Iraq generated more coverage than any other story last week, filling 14% of the overall newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from May 6-May 11. This time, however, the story was not the predictable and continuing squabbling of Democrats and Republicans over Congressional maneuvering.

It was Republicans challenging the President with their concerns that the war in Iraq would damage the party’s political fortunes for years to come. And much of the American news media treated the exchange at the White House as a breakthrough event.

On NBC’s nightly newscast, Tim Russert declared, “All eyes on the Republican Party. How long will they support the President’s position on the Iraq War? Yesterday may have been a defining, pivotal moment… It was, in the words of one of the participants, the most unvarnished conversation they’ve ever had with the President.”

On the cable channel MSNBC, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews described the meeting in stark terms. “On Tuesday, 11 Republican House members met with President Bush and his top team and delivered a grim message. They warned that the war in Iraq is endangering the very future of the Republican Party, and President Bush has lost all personal credibility in making his case for more war.”

Last week highlighted the media’s tendency to report other news through the prism of the war and the perceived political damage it is doing to President Bush, his legacy, the GOP and anyone else associated with the conflict. The resignation of Tony Blair in Great Britain, and even the tornadoes in Greensburg, Kansas, were covered as a reflection of the ripple effect of the war. Iraq has become for the media a master narrative affecting everything.

After the Iraq policy debate, the second-biggest story of the week was the foiled plans of a group of would-be terrorists to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey (which filled 6% of the newshole). The Kansas tornadoes were the third biggest story (6%), followed closely by the Presidential campaign (also 6%).

Four other stories were bunched tightly behind the first four—events on the ground in Iraq, Tony Blair’s resignation, the French presidential elections and the wild fires in California (all at 3%).

It was a week of natural disasters. If one were to combine the tornadoes, the Midwest flooding, the Georgia/Florida wildfires, plus those in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and Santa Catalina Island, natural disasters (at 13% total) would have rivaled the Iraq policy debate for consuming the media’s attention. Images of fires behind the Griffith Park Observatory, so familiar from such films as Rebel Without A Cause, lent a sense of drama to the footage.

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.)

Coverage of the Iraq debate last week was made up of multiple story lines. Vice President Cheney made a surprise visit to Iraq. There was more maneuvering over war funding legislation. But a significant element in the evolving media narrative is that the President is beginning to face a revolt in his own party. That was punctuated in the coverage last week by the White House meeting, but it was not limited to that. The media also picked up on remarks by House Minority leader John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi indicating Republicans’ patience on Iraq is not unlimited and that they are likely to reassess the situation in the fall.

The reason for all this, as the media portrayed it, was the Republicans are feeling the growing anti-war pressure in their districts and reportedly are worried it could cost them their jobs. “It was a no-holds-barred meeting,” Republican Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois told the New York Times. In all, roughly a quarter of the Iraq policy coverage was focused mainly on the Republican revolt. And the war debate was the top story in every media sector except for radio, a medium in which talk plays a big part.

The second biggest story of the week, the foiled terrorist plot, broke on Tuesday May 8 with the arrests of six men who were allegedly planning an attack on Fort Dix in New Jersey, hoping to kill as many soldiers as possible.

The story had some absurdist elements. The attackers made a video of themselves chanting about Jihad but were caught because they were foolish enough to take it to Circuit City for copying. The story, however, fizzled fairly quickly.

It was overtaken as the week progressed by natural disasters. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the striking visuals of a town being flattened by the power of nature, the Kansas twisters got more play on television (10% on network and 9% on cable, compared with 2% in print and 6% online).

Yet the Kansas disaster also became a story about Iraq when the Democratic Governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, initially argued that the relief response was inadequate because the National Guard was stretched too thin by the war in Iraq. This complaint was emphasized many times in the coverage, such as in ABC’s “World News Tonight” report by Barbara Pinto. Steve Sparke, a local resident, was shown sifting through the rubble of what had been his house and business and noted, “If we have to have that many troops over there [in Iraq], we need to keep stuff at home to take care of stuff like this.”

The Presidential race, the No. 2 story so far in 2007, was driven by two significant story lines last week. The first was Rev. Al Sharpton’s controversial statement that voters who “believe in God” will defeat Republican candidate Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The second was the effort of Republican Rudy Giuliani to clarify his views on abortion following the previous week’s GOP debate where he seemed a bit unclear. The former New York Mayor’s record is in support of keeping abortion legal.

Perhaps inevitably, the media last week also tied the resignation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the war that consumed the final four years of his decade in office. “For Blair, a Legacy Overshadowed: Briton’s Decade of Achievements Dimmed by Embrace of Bush and Iraq War,” read the headline in the Washington Post May 10, dominating the middle of the front page, below a picture of Blair and Bush together. In all, about half of the stories in the PEJ Index about Blair’s resignation linked the prime minister to the war.

The election in France of Nicholas Sarkozy was also one of the top 10 stories in the U.S. media last week. In some quarters, this, too, was linked to U.S. politics, but in a different manner. Some talk show hosts wanted to connect his victory over his more liberal female rival Ségolène Royal to the chances of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in the United States.

“This election in France – not good news for Mrs. Clinton,” said conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. “They’ve done a preliminary analysis of the votes over there – 48% of French women voted against the female candidate! 48%! Now the Mrs. Bill Clinton camp, Clinton, Inc. cannot be looking at this and smiling.”

But in the end, it was a tougher week for President Bush. The narrative for the President is a man who is having a hard time on all fronts. Even the ceremonial ones.

Normally, a visit from the Queen of England is an occasion to remind Americans of the other part of the President’s job, the ceremonial functions of a head of state. And when Laura Bush persuaded her famously informal husband, reportedly reluctantly, to make their May 7 dinner with the Queen a white tie and tails formal, it was set up to be a reminder that we in the United States are not usually so fussy.

Yet in the clips of their encounter captured by the press, President Bush stumbled. During the day the President muffed a line in which he intended to thank her for her support of the American Bicentennial in 1976. But he mistakenly started to say 1776, the year the colonies declared their independence from England and went to war against the mother country. After a long pause as he tried to recover from the gaffe, Bush managed to make a joke. “She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child.”

That first gaffe was played heavily on cable and on the network news that night. But the Queen, not known as a humorist, then turned that into a two-day media story at the formal dinner that night when she gently poked fun at his mistake. “Mr. President,” she said, “I wondered whether I should start this toast saying, ‘When I was here in 1776.’”

Bush responded by beginning his toast with, “Your Majesty, I can’t top that one.”

Offering up a quickie review of the exchange, the Today Show’s Meredith Vieira joked, “They should go on the road. I think the Catskills. They’d do well.”

Tom Rosenstiel, Paul Hitlin, and Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to a technical error, the CBS News radio headlines from Tuesday at 5:00 pm and Wednesday at 9:00 am are not included in this week's sample.