COMMENTS: Network News Conforms to McCain’s Iraq Doctrine

The Iraq War has been virtually purged from the agenda of the mainstream media. It has been like turning off a light switch. A Tyndall Report analysis of the most mainstream of the MSM--the half-hour evening newscasts of the broadcast television networks--shows that the conflict in Iraq now attracts an average of less than six minutes of coverage each week on all three network newscasts, ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News, combined. Call it the McCain Doctrine as applied to the news assignment desk.

Covering Iraq is an expensive, dangerous, unpleasant business for the network news divisions. Yet worse, it is a topic that is unpopular with their audience. The networks have no short-term commercial reason to treat the Iraq War as a major news story. Their only incentive for delivering such ugly, intractable information, in spite of their audiences' desires, is to maintain a long-term reputation for journalistic integrity by doing so.

And to their credit, that is what the television networks did for almost five years. NBC's David Bloom died in Iraq. ABC's Bob Woodruff almost had his brains blown out. CBS' Kimberly Dozier almost had her legs blown off. Yet from 2003 through 2007 the three newscasts combined to file a total of 6061 minutes on the Iraq War, more than 100 hours of video journalism. The war ranked as Story of the Year in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007 (in 2005 Hurricane Katrina took top honors). Weekly totals each year from 2003 through 2007 averaged 31 minutes, 26, 17, 22 and 30--five times greater than what viewers now see.

Then, curiously, all that came to a screeching halt last September, when Gen David Petraeus testified to Congress that the so-called surge, the US troop reinforcement, had been accompanied by a moderation in Iraq's sectarian violence. President George Bush declared the build-up a success and announced a timetable for the surge to be reversed.

That was when that light was switched off. In the nine months since Petraeus testified, the three networks' nightly newscasts combined have devoted a total of 249 minutes to the Iraq War. That is an average of six minutes a week, in contrast to a 26 minute average for the entire previous five year period. CBS' top Baghdad correspondent Lara Logan has been reassigned to the DC bureau. NBC's man in Baghdad, Richard Engel is now on a book tour for his War Journal memoir. Of the networks' three top Iraq correspondents, only ABC's Terry McCarthy is still filing regularly. In June 2008, thanks to a trip to Afghanistan by NBC anchor Brian Williams, for the first month since the invasion of Iraq, the Afghan War (31 min v 12) was the more newsworthy of the two.

Network executives appear to agree with Republican Presidential candidate John McCain, who famously announced in his "maybe one hundred years" soundbite that Americans are not concerned about whether the US military occupies Iraq or not, but only if troops are "being injured or harmed or wounded or killed" there. It seems indisputable that this McCain Doctrine is being applied to the news agenda: "If GIs do not bleed, Iraq has no need to lead."

True, in the relative calm of the past nine months, the networks have switched somewhat in their treatment of Iraq, turning to non-combat stories such as the reviving economy and political reconciliation and humanitarian issues and the role of the Pentagon's civilian contractors to round out their coverage. Fully half of the three-network Iraq coverage (267 min out of 519) since Petraeus' testimony has been unrelated to the war. But this is no huge switch. In 2006, for example, non-combat coverage accounted for 44% of the total--and non-combat coverage of Iraq has also declined post-Petraeus (from 17 minutes per week in 2006 to six), just not as precipitously as war coverage. Yet there has been scant focus on diplomacy over permanent US military bases or leases for US-based oil conglomerates. The McCain Doctrine holds: those hundred-year issues do not create casualties so they do not create headlines.

The strongest counterargument against the McCain Doctrine is that the press of competing stories caused the precipitous decline in Iraq's status on the networks' news agenda, not a lack of interest. Exhibit A is the unprecedented appeal of Campaign 2008 during the first six months of this year. This primary season has surpassed each of the previous five election cycles by an order of magnitude.

So far this year, the three weekday network newscasts have devoted an astonishing 1912 minutes (ABC 615, CBS 630, NBC 667) to campaign coverage, that is an average of 74 minutes each week, more than ten times the attention paid to the Iraq War, fully 26% of the entire newshole. Compare that with the first six months of previous years in the Presidential cycle. Only 1988 was anywhere close (1304 min) from 1992 through 2004 those totals were 1180, 747, 799, 846. Thus the first six months of the Obama-Rodham Clinton-McCain game of Survivor was as newsworthy as 2000 and 2004 combined.

And it was not only the election. Economic hard times have also knocked war out of the headlines. The economy--rising oil prices, falling stock prices, rising food prices, falling housing prices, rising unemployment, falling economic growth--has been more newsworthy than at any year since the recession of 1990-1991. In an average twelve months, a total of 1418 minutes are devoted to the Economic beat. In the first six months of 2008, the economy has already amassed 1077 minutes, on track for the only 2000-plus year in the last two decades. For record, 1990 was the previous high with 1933 minutes.

So, yes, McCain's intuition about MSM news judgment seems right: as long as it is not lethal, the US military occupation of Iraq is not newsworthy. And yes, the networks justifiably stand accused of falling foul of crass commercial considerations in cutting back on coverage of an expensive and unattractive war as soon as Gen Petraeus seemed to offer them permission to do so.

But no, there has been a breathtaking half year of supercharged politics to cover that has sucked the oxygen out of all other stories--and one of the crucial issues at stake in Campaign 2008 happens to be Iraq War policy so, indirectly, the outcome of the election turns out to be crucially important for Iraq anyway. And no, the networks cannot be accused of abandoning Iraq for fluff, when the beat they turn to instead is a seriously ailing economy.

Let's all just hope for one thing. Let's hope that if, or when, the networks decide once more to ramp up their coverage of Iraq to saturation levels, the reason will not vindicate the McCain Doctrine--namely that their headlines consist of a renewal of unspeakable carnage there.


Sometimes the obvious answer is so simple it is rejected and we look for the devious and convoluted. The reason Iraq war minutes has dropped is that the United States is winning the war. But to see that, one has to admit the United States is winning the war, and MSM will never admit that. Therefore, McCain and Petraeus are assigned responsibility. My recollection is that MSM generally dismissed McCain and Petraeus on the two occasions mentioned in the piece.
Lindecke --

Another way to phrase your observation might be to say that "the way the MSM is admitting that the United States is winning the war is by treating it as less newsworthy."

Yet even if the United States is winning the war, it certainly has not won since President George Bush, the Commander in Chief, has pledged that victory would be accompanied by bringing the troops home. They are still deployed so, by definition, victory is not secured. During his father's Gulf War, the networks carried on covering the conflict with Iraq after victory until the troops were home so even victory has not always marked the end of coverage. When this President declared victory in 2003 in his Mission Accomplished speech the networks carried on covering Iraq despite his claim, so there is a track record of the MSM failing to factor in victory as guidance in earlier coverage.

So winning is not quite as automatic an explanation for the drop in coverage--which is why I pointed to the drop in casualties instead. As for McCain and Petraeus being dismissed back in September 2007, nothing could be further from the truth. Check out the videostreams for how the networks handled them here and here.


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