December 10, 2007

A Nuclear Surprise Puts Iran in the News

PEJ News Coverage Index December 2 - 7, 2007

On January 10, 2007 when President Bush made his crucial “surge” speech committing about 22,000 more troops to Iraq, he also included a warning to Iran. Noting that the country was providing “material support for attacks on American troops,” he vowed to “destroy” the networks aiding our “enemies in Iraq.”

At the time, the media were consumed by the news that the U.S. would be sending more troops into Iraq. And for the week of Jan. 7-12, the surge speech helped make the Washington-based policy debate over Iraq the biggest story, by far, in the country. Bush’s warning to Iran largely escaped the attention of journalists.

As the year went on, and Congress and the White House battled for control of war policy, the debate over Iraq remained a top story. So far in 2007, it has filled about 8% of the newshole according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, making it the second-biggest story behind the presidential campaign. And even as tensions have mounted between the U.S. and Iran—over Iraq and Tehran’s nuclear program—that subject has been dwarfed by the Iraq debate. Thus far in 2007, the conflict with Iran has accounted for only 2% of the NCI newshole.

But last week, in a sign of how circumstances and geopolitical threats have changed, a surprising new assessment of Iran’s nuclear program was the second-biggest story of the week, filling 11% of the newshole from Dec. 2-7. For the same week, coverage of the policy debate over Iraq, a conflict that has seen a recent drop-off in violence, fell to only 2% of the newshole.

“U.S. Intelligence reversed itself today on Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” declared anchor Jim Lehrer in the opening moments of the Dec. 3 PBS NewsHour. The new National Intelligence Estimate—which seemed to allay fears about the near-term need for military action against Iran—concluded that Tehran had stopped work on a nuclear weapons program in 2003 and seemed “less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.”

While making clear that Iran’s intentions were still unclear, the report not only overrode previous intelligence that Iran was “determined to develop nuclear weapons.” It also appeared to challenge some of the more dire warnings about Iran’s capabilities and intentions emanating from the administration.

“Report contradicts Bush on Iran nuclear program,” declared the headline on a Reuters story posted on Yahoo! News on Dec. 3. A Dec. 3 New York Times story ventured that “the conclusions of the new assessment are likely to reshape the final year of the Bush administration, which has made halting Iran’s nuclear program a cornerstone of its foreign policy.”

The report was enough to vault the U.S. conflict with Iran into second place last week behind the 2008 Presidential campaign, which filled 19% of the newshole and was the No.1 story for the fifth time in the last six weeks. (Some of the campaign coverage included the candidates’ response to the new intelligence on Iran.) Much of the presidential coverage last week also involved skirmishing in advance of the Iowa caucuses as well as Mitt Romney’s high-stakes Dec. 6 speech designed to reassure voters about his Mormon religion.

The third-biggest story of the week (at 7%) was the Dec. 5 shooting spree at the Omaha Nebraska mall that left nine people, including the teenage shooter, dead. The story was bigger on network TV (15%) than on cable (6%) thanks in part to a good deal of morning show coverage on the troubled life of the shooter, Robert Hawkins. The fourth-biggest story (at 6%) was the U.S. economy with the big news centering on the President’s plan to protect some homeowners from foreclosures. Next came domestic terrorism (5%), a good portion of which was consumed with the news that the CIA had destroyed tapes of interrogations of terror suspects.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See 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.)

Last week’s intelligence report about Iran’s nuclear program comes as Iraq casualty counts drop and the public’s attention to the conflict there seems to be waning. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found the percentage of those saying they followed news about Iraq very closely dropped from about 40% in 2006 and early 2007 to about 30% in the second half of 2007. And a recent story in Politico.com declared that “Congressional Democrats are reporting a striking change in districts across the country: Voters are shifting their attention away from the Iraq war.”

Recent media coverage of the policy debate in Iraq is also down. This week’s 2% newshole figure is in keeping with a recent trend. Since Sept. 16, the week after General David Petraeus’ Iraq war report to Congress generated massive media attention, the policy debate has registered only at 3% of the newshole, putting it behind such stories as the California wildfires and unrest in Pakistan.

Even as Iraq seemed to recede as a news story, some of the media began wondering whether Iran would become a target for U.S. military action. Last month, the news digest magazine, The Week, featured a cover headline “Next stop, Iran: Is the White House war talk a bluff?” with a cartoon of Vice-President Dick Cheney sitting astride a bomb. (That image was a play on a famous scene in the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove.”)

“My God, I thought we were heading toward war in Iran and now it looks like we’re going to be able to avoid it…” declared MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews, referring to the new intelligence report, on his Dec. 4 show. His guest, NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, said the White House had not ruled out military action against Iran, but in light of the new findings, the President “has no pretext…has no ability to do any kind of military action” unless Iran attacks the U.S.

Still, the release of the report is not likely to resolve opposing views of how to handle the threat posed by Iran. On Bill O’Reilly’s Dec. 4 Fox News Channel show, former UN Ambassador John Bolton expressed serious doubts about the accuracy of the findings, warning that “my judgment is here that policy biases have crept into the so-called intelligence analysis.”

Nor is it likely, at least for now, to change the words coming out of Washington and Tehran.

On Dec. 5, ABC’s Good Morning America reported that, “Iran’s president is declaring victory this morning,” telling his citizens that “the U.S. report should deal a final blow to those who claim Iran has nuclear ambitions.”

But the Dec. 5 New York Times account summed up the official U.S. response, repeating President Bush’s warning that, “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous, if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” The President, the story added, “appeared to rule out any new diplomatic initiative with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: On the evenings of Thursday, December 6, and Friday, December 7, CNN aired two special programs in place of their regular programming. For both those evenings, we included Lou Dobbs Tonight and the Situation Room in our sample instead of the special programs.