July 16, 2007

War Debate Returns with a Vengeance

PEJ News Coverage Index July 8 - 13, 2007

Early last week, as the nation awaited a progress report on Iraq, much of the media portrayed President Bush as a besieged leader clinging to an endangered strategy. ABC anchor Charles Gibson—noting that one official described the White House in “panic mode”—began his July 9 newscast by describing mounting challenges to Bush’s war policy.

“A growing number of Republicans now say they want a new strategy for the war,” Gibson reported. “In other words, the number of problems for the President is rising while his support is falling.”

By the end of a dramatic week—which among other things included a mixed progress report card on Iraq and another key GOP Senate defection—the President may have bought himself a few more months. (In September, General David Petraeus will deliver a more formal assessment of the war that could be politically decisive.)

“Bush quiets GOP revolt over Iraq” declared the July 13 headline in the Los Angeles Times. “By reporting some headway in his buildup, he seems to persuade lawmakers to wait for a September evaluation.”

If last week’s frantic political skirmishing failed to resolve the deadlock over Iraq policy, it did force the issue back onto the media front burner—after a considerable hiatus.

The Iraq policy debate was easily the biggest story of the week, filling 20% of the newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index from July 8-13. It was also the top story in every media sector: newspapers 15%; online 17%; network 29%; cable 22%; and radio 20%.

And that marked a major media comeback. Although the war policy debate had been the top story in the first three months of 2007 (comprising 12% of the newshole), coverage slowed dramatically after May 24 Congressional votes to fund the war without imposing withdrawal timetables. That vote was seen as a major political win for the President and seemed to quiet the debate. It also dampened media interest in the political battle over the war. (In the period from May 27 through July 6, Iraq policy debate dropped to the seventh-biggest story, at 3%, finishing just ahead of the saga of the traveling TB victim.)

Not only did the policy argument re-emerge as the No. 1 story last week (20%), it received nearly triple the amount of coverage generated by the second-biggest story, the 2008 presidential race (which filled 7% of the newshole). The campaign coverage last week was marked by the continuing upheaval in John McCain’s campaign, particularly the departure of several top aides. You’d have to go back to April 15-20, the week of the Virginia Tech massacre, to find a larger discrepancy between the first and second stories in coverage.

The war on terror also was a major theme in the coverage last week. The story had two basic components. One, more international, largely concerned a report suggesting that Al Qaeda had substantially rebuilt its strength (4%). Just behind it in newshole was the related subject of the domestic terror threat (also 4%). That was fueled by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s much-publicized “gut” feeling that the U.S. was entering a period of higher terror risk. A third story directly related to Islamic extremism, the bloody siege of militants holed up in the “Red Mosque” in Pakistan, was the seventh-biggest story at 2%.

The July 11 death of former First Lady Bird Johnson was the sixth-biggest story at 4%. And two crime and scandal stories also made the top 10. The “pizza bomber” case (eighth at 2%) took a strange turn last week when authorities concluded that a man blown up after a 2003 Pennsylvania bank robbery was actually an accomplice to the crime. And Louisiana GOP Senator David Vitter made news (tenth story at 2%) after acknowledging involvement with service of the infamous “D.C. Madam.” Vitter was ensnared in the scandal due in part to the investigative zeal of porn mogul Larry Flynt.

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.)

Among the subplots in last week’s media coverage was an apparent divide in the message on terror. One report came in the form of the new warning of a reconstituted Al-Qaeda—in a counterterrorism report headlined "Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West." The report sounded alarm bells and generated considerable media attention.

But on his July 13 Fox News Channel show, Brit Hume interviewed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who refuted claims that the terror group has regained its past strength. “It’s not as if this is an organization that’s gotten stronger and stronger and stronger so that they’re now back to the point that they were on September 11,” Rice said. “I just don’t think that’s true.”

The confusion was only added to by the coverage of what some journalists and critics saw as the subjective nature of Homeland Security Chief Chertoff’s warning of a possible terrorist attack in the U.S. On CBS’s July 11 “Early Show” Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer tried to parse what Chertoff meant when, during an interview with the Chicago Tribune, he talked about his “gut feeling” that American was in a period of increased risk.

“I think the question here is what does the Secretary know that he is not telling us,” Schieffer said. “He says he has a ‘gut feeling,’ but if this turns out to be no more than that, I think you’re going to see very fierce reaction from Democrats…I think the Secretary is going to have to tell us more than we know now.”

Schieffer suggested that without more information, Democrats might accuse Chertoff of trying “to change the subject” at a time “when the President’s popularity is at an all-time low” and “support for the Iraq war is crumbling in the Senate. Evidence of that crumbling support was certainly in the coverage last week, even as President Bush was asking for more time for his “surge” in Iraq. On Lou Dobbs’s July 10 CNN show, senior political analyst Bill Schneider discussed new poll numbers indicating that Bush’s job approval rating had fallen to 29%. According to the poll, 62% of Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake and 71% want to remove most of the U.S. troops by next April.

“The public has clearly run out of patience,” declared Schneider.

Against that backdrop, the coverage of the Iraq progress report released last week also had its nuances. At a July 12 press conference, the President discussed the interim report on the war that showed progress in eight key benchmarks, unsatisfactory results in eight more and mixed results in two areas.

The fact that the report card contained some good news may have influenced some coverage and headlines.

A number of news organizations played it as a divided message. “Report on Iraq shows mixed results,” declared the headline on the Yahoo! News site on July 12. “White House gives mixed review for Iraq,” was the reaction on the MSNBC site.

But others saw more upside. On the CNN site, the headline was a bit more upbeat with “Bush: Iraq benchmarks report ‘cause for optimism.’”

And some also struck differing tones on Bush’s success in handling unrest in his own party over Iraq policy. On July 13, the Los Angeles Times was crediting Bush with postponing a GOP revolt on the war, while the CBS Evening News was reporting one.

“A new challenge to the President’s war strategy—this time from his own party,” announced anchor Katie Couric. The news was that veteran Republican Senators John Warner and Richard Lugar were working on legislation to require the President to come up with a plan for thinning out the troop presence.

Six months after the President announced his January 10 troop “surge” plan, a fateful political showdown over the conduct of the war may still be two months away. But the debate over Bush’s strategy, at least for last week, once again dominated the news landscape.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to technical reasons, the daytime programs of CNN and Fox News from Tuesday, July 10, were recorded from 2:30 – 3:00 pm ET rather than the typical 2:00 – 2:30 pm ET.