Is the Media Being Fair in Iraq?

The Bush administration has complained about the tenor of media coverage of the war in Iraq ever since the April 2003 looting that followed the fall of Baghdad. Ambassador Paul Bremer criticized the media frequently during the first year of the U.S. presence in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney have often asserted that the media have a proclivity to overemphasize violence and to dwell on negative news stories. The complaint that the public hears only the bad news has become increasingly prevalent among members of the U.S. armed forces as well.1 This problem is potentially serious. Many critics of the media believe that negative coverage could cost the United States the war. By their reasoning, the United States could fail in Iraq only if our national resolve falters, which could only happen if the American public gets an unfairly pessimistic view of the situation as a result of the media’s fixation on violence and other bad news. If the United States and its coalition partners do not prevail, however, the failure will most likely result from events on the ground there, not from an untimely wavering of domestic political support. In fact, more than three years into the campaign, the U.S. body politic remains surprisingly tolerant of the mission in Iraq and, in general, resists calls for immediate withdrawal, despite far more bad news than anyone in the administration forecast or even thought possible when the war was first sold to the nation and launched. Given the facts, the U.S. public’s view of the situation in Iraq is arguably just about where it should be. The public is exceptionally impressed by U.S. troops but depressed about the general lack of significant progress on the ground. They are upset, moreover, with the Bush administration for overpromising and underpreparing in regard to the war.

 It seems that the people of the United States remain committed to the effort in Iraq, having reelected in 2004 the president who took them to war, because all of the alternatives look worse. Indeed, even as President George W. Bush’s personal popularity among the U.S. population has declined to well below 40 percent, a Pew poll conducted in the spring of 2006 found that 54 percent of U.S. citizens still expected some level of success in establishing a democracy in Iraq.2 If the media are so consistently reporting only bad news and creating an image of a failure in the works, it is not clear on what information this 54 percent is basing its guarded optimism.