September 17, 2007

With Petraeus as Star, Iraq Debate has its Biggest Week

PEJ News Coverage Index Sept. 9 - 14, 2007

For months, expectations built around General David Petraeus’ September progress report on the Iraq war. The moment was billed, at least by some, to be a turning point in the struggle over war policy raging between the Democratic-led Congress and the Bush White House.

And by sheer numbers, the event was indeed big. The debate over the war last week commanded more inches of newsprint and more time on TV than any week so far in 2007.

Yet after the House and Senate testimony by Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, as well as a prime-time address by President Bush, some media post-mortems wondered what—if anything—had changed in the battle for control over the war.

A primary outcome appeared to be the administration getting “more time,” to pursue its policy, USA Today declared. The Washington Post reported that “what seems increasingly clear is that Washington will remain locked in an endless war over Iraq…” Said former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta: “The headline for the last week is that the war is pretty much going to be on a stay-the-course path…”

Why the long-awaited September status report on the war did not seem to prove the turning point once anticipated offers something of a lesson about the media culture today, about the art of communications, the behavior of the media, and the complexity of the war.

In retrospect, four elements seemed to help turn the event into something less dramatic. First, much of what occurred last week had already been foreshadowed, or leaked, by partisans on all sides. Second, the Administration’s placing of so much emphasis on a highly respected general in the field made challenging him, or debating the policy, more difficult last week. Third, much of the press coverage of last week’s testimony featured words like “withdrawal” and “cutbacks” rather than Petraeus’ determination to continue present policy and eschew any major reductions. And finally, the press itself offered some enterprise reporting on the eve of the testimony, which highlighted the complexities of the situation.

None of this means the story was ignored. When the week was over, the Iraq policy debate filled 36% of the newshole, as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index for Sept. 9-14, a universe that includes newspapers, web sites, TV newscasts and radio talk and news. That marked the biggest week of coverage of that subject in 2007, eclipsing the previous high of 34% from Jan. 7-12 when Bush announced the “surge” in the first place.

That number is so high it means the policy debate over the war last week was the second-biggest story of the year to date, behind only the Virginia Tech massacre, which accounted for 51% of the newshole from April 15-20.

Indeed, when combined with the second-biggest story of last week, coverage of events on the ground in Iraq, the war filled 42% of the newshole in PEJ’s Index. That was the heaviest week of overall Iraq coverage in 2007.

Iraq loomed so large last week that only two other stories filled more than 2% of the newshole. The 9/11 commemorations were the third-biggest story (5%) and the 2008 presidential campaign was next, also at 5%. The fifth-biggest story (2%) was the investigation surrounding Madeleine McCann, the four-year-old UK girl who went missing in Portugal in early May.

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.)

But it was what did not happen, amid all this attention—and why—that may be the most revealing feature of the week.

One unmistakable element was the degree to which so much of what occurred last week was already foreshadowed and even already debated in earlier leaks, comments and appearances by partisans and activists on all sides.

For much of the year, the debate over Iraq strategy—triggered in earnest by Bush’s Jan. 10 surge speech a week after the Democrats had taken over Congress—has been a leading story. For the first three months of 2007, it was the top subject in the News Coverage Index. It slumped to third place during the second quarter of 2007, falling off after a May 24 Congressional vote to fund the war without including timetables, something that was seen as a major White House victory.

But as the date of the Petraeus report drew near, coverage of the policy debate began to spike again. In the week of Sept 2-7, the scrambling to influence Washington in advance of Petraeus’ appearance was newsworthy enough to make the policy debate the leading story, at 17%. On the one hand, there was major coverage of Bush’s secret trip to al-Anbar province to tout one of America’s tactical successes on the ground. At the same time, anti-war politicians embraced the release of a highly-publicized General Accountability Office report that painted a bleak picture of progress in Iraq. All this skirmishing functioned as a preview that drained some of the suspense out of last week’s hearings while familiarizing Americans with arguments they would hear from both sides.

Another element that influenced the outcome of the coverage last week was the degree to which General Petraeus, with the unmistakable help the President himself, became the embodiment in the press of the current Iraq strategy.

The Sept. 17 Time magazine—which asked the $64,000 question about Iraq, “How Much Longer?”—splashed the image of General Petraeus on the cover. On the Sept. 13 edition of PBS’s NewsHour, correspondent Margaret Warner asked whether there had ever been “a battlefield general who played such a pivotal role for his president as General Petraeus did this week?” “Frankly, no,” responded Thomas Keaney of Johns Hopkins University, noting that in this case, “General Petraeus actually becomes the voice” of administration strategy.

None of that was by accident. According to a July Washington Post story, Bush had called Petraeus “my main man” and mentioned him at least 150 times in public remarks, And a new New York Times/CBS poll that asked who people trusted most to resolve the war found that 68% said military commanders compared to only 21% who said Congress and 5% who said the Bush administration. (In a display of mock reverence, anti-war comedian Bill Maher on HBO has begun calling the top commander in Iraq “Petraeus Maximus.”)

In Bush’s Sept. 13 speech to the nation, delivered after Petraeus’s testimony, the President waited only until the third paragraph to state that it was Petraeus and Crocker who “concluded that conditions in Iraq are improving, that we are seizing the initiative from the enemy, and that the troop surge is working.”

All that seemed to have made it more difficult for critics to use the media to challenge Bush policy. They were now challenging the respected commander in the field, the man with the most information. That may have become even more difficult to do after the liberal anti-war group MoveOn.org bought a full page ad in the New York Times last week attacking Petraeus as “General Betray Us.” The Beltway-based Politico online publication wrote of a “solidifying Beltway consensus” that the ad was a “blunder of the highest order” that made life more difficult for Democrats in Congress trying to stop the war.

When Petraeus finally did testify, much of the media coverage, in turn, focused on the troops he wanted to bring home, not the number of troops he wanted to remain in the field. To be sure, some of the message transmitted by media coverage of the Petraeus/Crocker visit to Congress was mixed. The Sept. 11 New York Times front-page headline declared, “Petraeus Warns Against Quick Pullback in Iraq,” while page 1 of that day’s Washington Post announced that “Petraeus Backs Initial Pullout.”

But more of the headlines, particularly those recounting the Sept. 10 House testimony, agreed with the Post, stressing the idea that troop levels in Iraq could return to somewhere near the pre-surge numbers next summer.

A PEJ check of about 80 newspapers on Sept. 11 that covered Petraeus’ testimony on page 1 found a solid majority of headlines (almost 50) focused on the idea of U.S. troops eventually heading home. Only about 15 of those headlines conveyed Petraeus’s message that the U.S. should be cautious about troop reductions, and give the surge more time.

One Sept 12 headline in The Day of New London Connecticut, “Bush supports Petraeus Pullout Plan,” stressed the troop withdrawal concept, focused on Petraeus as the author of the war strategy, and positioned Bush as following the advice of his soldier.

Finally, anyone looking for turning points in the media story line or in the war has to confront the fact that the situation on the ground is inherently complex. And that reality was reinforced last week by the fact that several news outlets tried to provide additional Iraq-related reporting to illuminate the debate—as if to say, they were not going to allow their audiences to be spun by political debate in Washington. They tried to use the moment for a spate of stories summarizing and taking stock of the situation.

Broadcasting from Baghdad on Sept. 10, CNN’s Anderson Cooper said Petraeus’s reports of reduced violence in Iraq are in part attributable to the 4 million displaced Iraqis and the “large scale…ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods” that have left “fewer people to kill in those neighborhoods.”

The next day, NPR’s Anne Garrels, also reporting from Baghdad, validated part of Petraeus’ testimony by reporting that the surge had made a difference now that U.S. troops were living among Iraqi civilians. “There are dramatic improvements here and this is a Sunni enclave,” she declared.

There were even a series of fresh polls that seemed to suggest some contradictory streams of public opinion.

The Times/CBS News poll found the public far more inclined to trust the military rather than the politicians, even as the top Iraq commander was in sync with the President over Iraq strategy. A Gallup Poll in the Sept. 10 USA Today found that even though 63% had confidence in the recommendations of General Petraeus, 60% favored a hard and fast timetable for withdrawal that he opposes.

All together, the week was a lesson in one of the features of the new media culture. In an age when information is so plentiful, clear and simple judgments can be harder than ever to make.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to the President's speech on Thursday, September 13, we included that evening's O'Reilly Factor in this week's sample instead of the typical rotation which would have included Thurday's Hannity and Colmes. Additionally, due to technical recording errors, this week's sample does not include CBS News radio headlines from 5 pm on Monday, September 10, and 9 am on Tuesday, September 11.