Analysis: Media Coverage Of The Debate About War With Iraq

All Things Considered: October 18, 2002

Coverage of Iraq


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm John Ydstie.


And I'm Jacki Lyden.

What you're about to hear is a report on the run-up to a possible war with Iraq. As regular listeners will know, that's hardly unusual. Over the past five weeks, the Iraq question has been raised and discussed and argued on the NPR airwaves 188 times. Other major news organizations have devoted similar large resources and time to covering the story. But are we all getting it right? NPR's Elizabeth Blair asks whether the reporting has been unbalanced and whether the media are doing a good enough job seeking out multiple perspectives in the Iraq debate.


There's criticism from the right and criticism from the left. In the forthcoming edition of the liberal magazine The Nation, columnist Katha Pollitt chastises the mainstream press for underreporting anti-war protests and peace marches.

Ms. KATHA POLLITT (The Nation): There was a huge demonstration in London, the biggest peace demonstration in a generation--250 to 400,000 people. This got passing mention in The Washington Post, a tiny article in The New York Times and coverage was lavished on a London demonstration that same week in favor of fox hunting, which got a 1,300-word article in The Washington Post, a story and an Op-Ed in The New York Times. Now which is more important? I mean, if you're a fox, fox hunting. If you're a human being, I think war.

BLAIR: In fact, The Washington Post did run a front-page article that mentioned the London demonstration and an even larger demonstration in Italy. But that was two days after the events. In a recent column, even the Post's ombudsman agreed it was a mistake not to cover them when they happened.

While some critics say the mainstream media have neglected the anti-war movement, others accuse it of doing just the opposite. In The Washington Post, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer accused The New York Times of partisan journalism in its crusade against the war with Iraq. An Op-Ed piece in The Weekly Standard said the bias of The Times colors not just editorials but practically every news story.

So what does it mean when a newspaper is criticized by both liberals and conservatives?

Mr. REM REIDER (American Journalism Review): The smug answer is to say, `Well, if everybody is mad at us, we must be doing a good job.'

BLAIR: Rem Reider is senior editor of the American Journalism Review.

Mr. REIDER: Sometimes that is the case, but it's not a guarantee of that at all. Maybe it means that you're missing from all directions.

BLAIR: Reider believes the mainstream media have more or less done a good job covering the debate surrounding Iraq, especially at the beginning when the president seemed to favor unilateral action without any new resolution of support from Congress or the UN.

Mr. REIDER: It's at that time that the press has to not take sides, but to aggressively raise questions. And in fact, I think, a lot of the discussion in the press pushed the administration to go to Congress to get approval, to go to the UN. So I think that's an example of a very constructive role for the press to play.

BLAIR: There is some evidence that the majority of views presented in the media have been critical of the president's position on Iraq. The Center for Media and Public Affairs, a non-partisan group that monitors press coverage, recently conducted a study of coverage of Iraq by the three broadcast television networks and The New York Times. After literally going soundbite by soundbite and quote by quote, the study found that 72 percent of the overall coverage was critical of the administration's stance on Iraq. Robert Lichter is the center's director.

Mr. ROBERT LICHTER (Center for Media and Public Affairs): In an age when politicians can use the media to get their message out, I think journalists often take it upon themselves to become the voice of the loyal opposition, to make sure that contradictory views come out.

BLAIR: But Lichter notes that most of the dissenting views have come from politicians and political insiders. The contradictory views of citizens groups and organizations have received far less coverage. That's been a problem for Carol Fouke, media relations director for the National Council of Churches. She says they've had a hard time getting their message to the administration and the public that they don't want war with Iraq. While most of the calls she's received from journalists recently have been questions about this story, she still feels their message is getting drowned out.

Ms. CAROL FOUKE (National Council of Churches): The White House, the Pentagon have enormous public information budgets. We have a very small one, and in fact, we have one person who's dedicated to the staff work on media relations compared to hundreds in the White House and Pentagon. So there's kind of a David vs. Goliath here; it's a kind of a tired metaphor, but David's voice is important, especially in pluralistic society.

BLAIR: And this is where some critics believe the media have fallen short. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says it's easier to cover what's happening inside the Beltway than to cover what's happening across the country. He says there are several reasons for that--talking heads coverage has taken the place of much reporting, individuals who might hold a different view aren't always organized, and because of a phenomenon known as the spiral of silence.

Mr. TOM ROSENSTIEL (Project for Excellence in Journalism): Which is that when citizens feel that the media is covering a debate one way and that everyone seems to be thinking one way, if they disagree with that, they tend to go silent; they tend to recede. And so the less popular side of the debate is literally harder to hear because people are not articulating it even though they're feeling it. Richard Nixon himself knew about this when he coined the term `the silent majority' when all of the media and much of the population had turned against the war in Vietnam and people who still supported it were keeping silent.

BLAIR: There is as much diversity of opinion about the quality of coverage of a possible war with Iraq as there is about the Iraq story itself. In the coming weeks, there will be more opportunities for the media to capture the evolving national debate. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal Washington think tank, more than 250 anti-war events are planned. A national march is scheduled in Washington on October 26th, and a demonstration in front of the White House is planned for January 18th, 2003. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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