August 27, 2007

The V-Word Heats Up the Iraq Debate

PEJ News Coverage Index August 19 - 24, 2007

In a foreign policy speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, President Bush invoked a war last week that he had been loathe to mention before in the four years of bloodshed in Iraq: Vietnam.

And the media stood up and noticed.

“Today, speaking before a supportive audience of veterans, Mr. Bush found a comparison to Vietnam he embraced,” declared ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz on August 22. The newscast then aired a clip of the President warning that the “price of America’s withdrawal [from Southeast Asia] was paid by millions of innocent citizens,” including those slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

By injecting the V-word into the debate over strategy in Iraq, Bush not only triggered memories of America’s most controversial war (at least before the conflict in Iraq). He also generated a heated response from several quarters, including opponents of his Iraq strategy.

The Vietnam analogy “just doesn’t make any historical sense to me,” historian Robert Dallek declared on the ABC newscast. The New York Times quoted 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s statement that “invoking the tragedy of Vietnam to defend the failed policy in Iraq is as irresponsible as it is ignorant of the realities of both of those wars.”

The President’s Vietnam comparison was only one factor that helped propel coverage of the debate over Iraq policy last week after a summer in which the subject had been noticeably more muted.

The Aug. 23 release of a National Intelligence Estimate—an important precursor of the Iraq progress report to be delivered by General David Petraeus next month—painted a mixed picture. It documented some progress on the ground in Iraq while still warning that “Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively.” On that same day, Republican Senator John Warner, a crucial voice on military matters, generated major headlines by calling on the President to start drawing down troops in Iraq.

All those developments helped make the policy debate over Iraq the top story in the media last week, as measured by PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index August 19-24. All told the argument over Iraq filled 12% of the newshole in the Index, which includes four dozen different news outlets from different media sectors. The debate over war strategy led only in one media sector (17% in cable), but it finished second in radio (16%), second in newspapers (8%), third on network TV (9%), and fourth online (7%).

This marked the first time since the week of the infamous July 17 Senate “slumber party”—when Democrats forced an all-night debate on the war—that the topic was the top story in the media. The subject received double the percentage of coverage last week that it generated (6%) in the period from May 20- Aug. 24. (That coverage slowed after a crucial May 24 Congressional vote funded the war without imposing withdrawal timetables, an outcome widely viewed as a major victory for the administration.)

The situation inside Iraq itself, by comparison, was the fifth-biggest story (5%) last week, with much of the coverage focused on the 14 U.S. troops killed in a Black Hawk helicopter crash on Aug. 22. The 2008 presidential campaign, which featured a Democratic debate in Iowa, was the third biggest story at 7%. And the wrath of nature filled out the other two top-five slots, with Hurricane Dean finishing second at 8% and the storms and flooding that pounded Texas and the Midwest coming in No. 4 at 7%.

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.)

While the warm weather months may conjure up thoughts of long days, ice cream, and beaches, the news menu this summer has had more than its share of tragedies, disasters and scares. And these did not include such media perennials as shark attacks and West Nile virus. After the London car bomb plot was discovered on June 29, terrorism (and terrorism jitters) was a top-five story for the next five weeks. The tragic Utah mine cave in (No. 9 last week at 3%) has spent the past three weeks on the top-10 list. And the deadly August 1 collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis was the fourth-biggest story of the year so far.

This past week, the human tragedies came in the form of deadly storms in Mexico, the Southwest and the Midwest. And they illustrated just how aggressive television has become at covering mega-weather events.

Storms that struck Texas and Oklahoma and the flooding in the Midwest became the leading network TV story last week (15%), and the powerful Category Five Caribbean Hurricane Dean was No. 2 (13%), meaning together they made up more than a quarter of airtime. (The hurricane and the U.S. storms also filled 24% of the online newshole last week. Compare that to the 3% of front-page newspaper coverage that the two stories accounted for.)

On cable, Dean was the second biggest story last week (11%) while the Midwest flooding finished fifth at 7%.

On his Aug. 20 show, CNN’s Anderson Cooper—famous for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina—“tossed” to correspondent Gary Tuchman, standing in a red rain slicker, in Tulum Mexico. “They are battening down the hatches in this small town of 10,000 people,” Tuckman reported. An MSNBC correspondent in Mexico grabbed a coconut to warn viewers that the usually innocuous fruit could become a deadly projectile in a hurricane.

The devastating weather led the Aug. 24 CBS evening newscast, with meteorologist Dave Price telling anchor Katie Couric that the problem was caused “by a collision of two huge air masses.”

Interestingly, one story that some thought might have become bigger did not. The continuing saga of Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and his dog fighting enterprise finished as the seventh biggest story last week, and that was its biggest week to date (4% of the newshole). The big news was Vick’s plea agreement and his suspension from the National Football League. Much of the coverage has revolved around the unusual nature of the crime itself and speculation about Vick’s professional future.

Why the story has not generated more attention so far is difficult to answer. There are no sympathetic figures in this case as there often are in stories that generate big play. But some of the coverage has tried to make larger social connections here, raising the touchy subject of race.

In a story from Atlanta posted on CNN.com last week, a Vick supporter blamed the vigorous prosecution on racism and several civil rights leaders expressed support for a man who has been widely vilified for his participation in an inhumane enterprise.

“I don’t condone it at all,” said one Atlanta barber. “But the punishment is too severe. [They’re ruining] a man’s career.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: CNN aired special documentaries during the evenings of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week. We did not include these specials in our week's sample, however we did include the news programs before or after these specials even if those shows did not fall into our normal rotation of programs.