How the press spent its summer vacation

by Eric Boehlert

News that Katie Couric would anchor the CBS Evening News from Baghdad this week created a major media splash. After earlier suggesting that type of assignment would be too treacherous for a single mother of two, Couric did an about-face. She stressed that as a journalist she wanted to get a better sense, a firsthand account, of how events were unfolding inside Iraq; to give the story more context.

It’s ironic because if CBS had simply aired more reporting from Iraq this summer instead of joining so many other news outlets in walking away from the story, then perhaps Couric wouldn’t have had to travel 8,000 miles to find out the facts on the ground.

Couric’s high-profile assignment helps underscore the shocking disconnect that has opened up between American news consumers and the mainstream media. The chasm revolves around the fact that public polling indicates consumers are starved for news from Iraq, yet over the summer the mainstream media, and particularly television outlets such as CBS, steadfastly refused to deliver it. The press has walked away from what most Americans claim is the day’s most important ongoing news event.

The media’s coverage from Iraq has naturally ebbed and flowed over the four-and-a-half years since the invasion. And escalating security concerns in Iraq have made it both more difficult and more expensive for news organization to operate there.

But the pullback we’ve seen this summer, the chronic dearth of on-the-ground reporting, likely marks a new low of the entire campaign. It’s gotten to the point where even monstrous acts of destruction cannot wake the press from its self-induced slumber. Just recall the events of August 14.

That’s when witnesses to the four synchronized suicide truck bombs that detonated in northern Iraq on that day described the collective devastation unleashed to being like an earthquake, or even the site of a nuclear bomb explosion; the destruction of one bomb site measured half a mile wide. A U.S. Army spokesman, after surveying the mass carnage from an attack that targeted Yazidis, an ancient religious community, called the event genocidal. Indeed, more than 500 Iraqis were killed, more than 1,500 were wounded, and 400 buildings were destroyed.

The bombings in the towns of Tal al-Azizziyah and Sheikh Khadar marked the deadliest attack of the entire Iraq war. In fact, with a death toll topping 500, the mid-August bombing ranks as the second deadliest terror strike ever recorded in modern times. Only the coordinated attacks on 9-11 have claimed more innocent lives. Yet the press failed to put the story in context.

Early news dispatches about the attacks (which pegged the early death toll at a smaller, but still remarkable, 175) were posted around 6 p.m. ET on August 14. Yet that night on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, the hour-long news program that airs at 10 p.m., the carnage from Iraq garnered just a brief report, and that was relegated to the “360 Bulletin,” halfway through the program; a report on a playground catching on fire due to spontaneous combustion of decomposing wood chips was given slightly more airtime and, unlike the suicide bombings, prompted a reaction from host Cooper himself: “That’s incredible. I never heard of that.” Less surprising was the fact that a pro-Bush outlet such as The Drudge Report, as late as 10:30 p.m. that night, was ignoring the massive blast headline, or that Fox News gave the gruesome attack just three mentions all evening.

The next day, as noted by the Columbia Journalism Review, the story was placed on A6 in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and Page 4 of USA Today. On that evening’s NBC Nightly News, the historic massacre from Iraq was not even tapped as the day’s most important story. (Ongoing mortgage woes led the broadcast that night.)

The media’s tepid response to the cataclysmic event was telling. It simply underscored how Iraq fatigue afflicts American newsrooms — but not American households.

That Americans are obsessed about Iraq is no surprise. Polling has consistently shown they think the war is far and away the single most important issue facing the country. And it wasn’t like there was no news happening in Iraq between June and August; the months formed the deadliest summer of the war for U.S. military men and women. To say nothing of the approximately 5,000 Iraqi civilians killed this summer.

Politically, the drastic news withdrawal from Iraq carries deep implications, with the debate about America’s role in Iraq due to become even more heated next week as Gen. David H. Petraeus testifies before Congress and the White House produces its report on the status in Iraq. But how are Americans supposed to make informed decisions about this country’s future role in Iraq if the mainstream media won’t inform the public?

Also, no news from Iraq has usually meant good news for the Bush White House; whenever Iraq has faded from view in recent years, Bush and his policies often received a bump in the polls. For instance, in July, the results from a CBS/New York Times poll raised eyebrows when it found that support for the invasion of Iraq — which for years had been tumbling — suddenly experienced an uptick, from 35 to 42 percent.

What’s telling is that during the month of July, much of the mainstream media effectively boycotted news from Iraq. Despite sky-high interest among news consumers, stories about the situation in Iraq represented just four percent of the mainstream media’s reporting for the month, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index. The index catalogs how much time and space 48 major news outlets devote to various topics each week. The index is broken down by medium: radio, newspapers, online, cable, and network television. (Click here to the see the news outlets monitored by the Coverage Index.)

To put that miniscule 4 percent into perspective: For the month of July, coverage of the fledgling 2008 presidential campaign received nearly three times as much mainstream media news attention as did the unfolding war in Iraq that claimed 79 American lives in July.

In fact, in July Iraq itself rarely ranked among the week’s five most-covered stories. And if it weren’t for the more robust Iraq reporting that appeared in newspapers and online, events in Iraq probably wouldn’t have even ranked among the 10 most-covered stories during the month of July. That’s because network and cable television, by contrast, were virtually oblivious to the story.

For instance, over the last seven weeks ABC’s Nightline, the network’s signature, long-form news program, did not air a single substantive report about Iraq. Not one among the 100-plus news segments the program aired during the stretch was about the situation in Iraq. (That, according to a search of Nightline‘s transcripts via Nexis.) For instance, on the night after the mammoth suicide bomb blasts in Iraq on August 14, Nightline aired reports about a Mexican stem cell doctor, lullaby singer Lori McKenna, and soccer star David Beckham. That week, Nightline did two separate reports about the earthquake in Peru that killed approximately 500 civilians. But nothing that week from Nightline about the suicide blasts in Iraq that also killed approximately 500 civilians.

Instead of Iraq, here are some of the news stories Nightline staffers devoted time and energy to during that seven-week summer span:

  • The popularity of organic pet food.
  • The favorite songs of Pete Wentz, bassist for the pop/rock band Fall Out Boy.
  • The folding of supermarket tabloid, The Weekly World News.
  • The rise of urban McMansions.
  • The death of the postcard.
  • The commercial battle between Barbie and Bratz dolls.
  • The nerd stars of the movie Superbad.

News consumers remained starved for reports from Iraq

The media’s dramatic news withdrawal from Iraq might be justified, on some level, if evidence showed that Americans had grown bored of the war in Iraq. Journalism is a public service but it’s also a business and editors and producers are always trying to find the right mix of news that consumers need and news they want to have. If Americans were zoning out Iraq, then why should news outlets try to force-feed updates to news consumers?

But the truth is Americans are borderline obsessed with news from Iraq. And it’s the mainstream media that’s abdicated their news gathering responsibility.

That stunning disconnect becomes obvious when comparing the PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index with the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’ weekly News Interest Index, a survey “aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.” Pew asks 1,000 adults which story in the news they are following “very closely” that week. The two weekly surveys simultaneously gage which stories news consumers are paying very close attention to and which stories news editors and producers are paying close attention to (i.e. which stories they’re covering).

As I mentioned, the disconnect is absolutely shocking when it comes to the situation in Iraq, which as a news story consistently ranked near the top of the News Interest Index this summer, while simultaneously ranking near the bottom of the News Coverage Index.

For instance, at the outset of the summer for the work week of June 24-29, 32 percent of adults were following the situation in Iraq “very closely,” but the story represented only 4 percent of that week’s news hole — a 28-point gap. That same trend played out all summer, with that gap often ballooning:

% following situation in Iraq “very closely”

% of national news hole devoted to Iraq war

% Gap

July 1-6




July 8-13




July 15-20




July 22-27




July 29-August 3




August 5-10




August 12-17




August 19-24




On average during the summer, 31 percent paid very close attention to the situation in Iraq, making it far and away the hottest news topic throughout the season. Yet on average, the situation in Iraq represented just 4.5 percent of the overall news coverage. No other story, as tracked by the News Interest Index and the News Coverage Index, produced such a consistently wide disparity between June and September.

In other words, week after week a clear plurality of Americans said the situation in Iraq was a story they followed very closely. Yet week after the week much of the mainstream press responded with a so-what shoulder shrug.

And nobody was shrugging their shoulders more often than television news producers, who all but gave up covering the war in Iraq this summer. For the week of August 5-10, for instance, when news consumer interest in Iraq peaked at 36 percent, the story didn’t even represent 3 percent of cable television’s news hole.

Or this: In the second quarter of 2007 (the most recent quarterly data available from PEJ), MSNBC devoted just 1.5 percent of its overall news coverage to documenting events in Iraq.

But hey, now that Katie Couric has rediscovered Iraq, perhaps the rest of the press will follow.

A footnote: For those who wade through the News Coverage Index data, you’ll note a category dubbed “Iraq Policy” which has received lots of mainstream media attention this summer, often topping the News Coverage Index. But that’s not to be confused with reporting about the Iraq war itself. Reports about the Beltway debate over Iraq policy are much different than reports about the situation in Iraq. The policy debate has mostly been covered as a horserace: Do Democrats have the votes to end the war? Can Bush still keep anxious Republicans in line? It’s what the Beltway press loves to obsess over — who’s up, who’s down, and what the 2008 implications are. Americans, though, are more interested in a war, now in its 53rd month, being waged in the Persian Gulf that has claimed nearly 4,000 American lives and is costing the U.S. Treasury $1 billion each week to fight.

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