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The Failure Of US Media

War-protest coverage now in the forefront Some find the media's attention too little, too late

Of 414 stories on the Iraqi question that aired on NBC, ABC and CBS from Sept. 14 to Feb. 7, Tyndall says that the vast majority originated from the White House, Pentagon and State Department. Only 34 stories originated from elsewhere in the country.

By Peter Johnson

Did the media stumble by downplaying opposition to war with Saddam Hussein until the U.S. government's confrontation with Germany and France and worldwide protests gave them no choice?

Or was opposition to a war a gradual process that came to a head only recently, prompting widespread media coverage?

That issue is now being debated in media circles.

Cable news has ''acted as if the decision to invade Iraq has already been made, and have in effect seen it as their job to prepare the American public for the coming war,'' New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote last week. ''Some media outlets -- operating in an environment in which anyone who questions the administration's foreign policy is accused of being unpatriotic -- have taken it as their assignment to sell the war, not to present a mix of information that might call the justification for war into question.''

Says Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher: ''The press woefully underplayed the anti-war movement until recently. Now coverage is growing, of the large marches at least. But I still don't see the kind of regular day-to-day coverage that was common during, say, the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s. That's the true test of taking dissent seriously.''

Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs says it might have been difficult for the media to gauge how Americans felt until just recently, when organized protests began.

''The media are better covering events than ideas,'' he says. ''You can see what people think from the polls, but you can't really see what drives them unless you see people marching in the street. There's a difference between 'opposition' and 'an opposition.' ''

And polls have consistently shown support for President Bush's stand on Iraq. From September to now, CBS News has found that nearly two-thirds of Americans support military action to remove Saddam from power. But six in 10 Americans oppose U.S. military action without allied or U.N. support.

Democrats also have largely been supportive of Bush since last September, when he called on the United Nations to authorize weapons inspections in Iraq. That left the media without an obvious Democratic-Republican fight to cover in Congress.

The media also fell down, says Harvard media analyst Alex Jones, in not paying closer attention to strong anti-war sentiment in Europe, which eventually came to a head at the United Nations.

''That came as a big shock to most Americans,'' he says. ''But this was something the American media should have been on top of.''

Last week's peace marches made front-page news in many cities, including New York, Baltimore, Denver, San Antonio, Seattle, San Francisco and Atlanta.

Too much too late, says Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. ''There's no reason it should take that much organization and demonstration for the peace theme to loom larger in the press as a parallel theme when the country moved closer to war.''

The media, news analyst Andrew Tyndall says, rightly covered the buildup to war with their reporting from the White House, Pentagon and State Department. But in doing so, they may have helped make the administration's arguments ''more bellicose than they were'' while ignoring smaller, grass-roots opposition to Bush's plan or individual opposition that can be found only by going into the field.

Tyndall says that until the peace demonstrations, the Big Three networks concentrated heavily on the Bush administration.

Of 414 stories on the Iraqi question that aired on NBC, ABC and CBS from Sept. 14 to Feb. 7, Tyndall says that the vast majority originated from the White House, Pentagon and State Department. Only 34 stories originated from elsewhere in the country, he says.

Similarly, a check of major newspapers around the country from September to February found only 268 stories devoted to peace initiatives or to opposition to the war, a small fraction of the total number.

''Most editors and reporters think the diplomatic story -- the great power narrative -- is more real,'' NYU's Rosen says. ''And people who move into the White House know how to dominate the news agenda.''

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has held frequent media briefings at the White House, Pentagon and State Department, which are easy for news outlets to cover.

But Tyndall says major media organizations have ''a penchant for inside-the-Beltway policy coverage, where policy is made by elected officials and think tanks,'' and the opinions of ordinary Americans often fall by the wayside.

CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson disagrees. From covering what students are saying on college campuses to addressing issues of war and peace on TalkBack Live, ''I think we have offered our viewers a diversity of viewpoints for months now.''

Marcy McGinnis, who heads news coverage for CBS News, also disagrees with Tyndall.

''The best indicator of how a news organization covers a story is the content of the coverage, not the dateline,'' McGinnis says. ''We've conducted nine polls in the past five months on how Americans in all parts of the country are feeling about the Iraq issue, every one of which was reported on The CBS Evening News and on many occasions, in a piece with a Washington or New York dateline.''

No doubt true, Tyndall says, but he says his dateline analysis indicates where the networks' priorities have been on the Iraq story. ''This was a Washington-driven story. It has not been a heartland story. It has been an inside-the-Beltway story.''

Copyright 2002 USA TODAY


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