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Wednesday, June 4, 2008
MRC vs. Real Journalists on Decreased Iraq War Coverage
Topic: Media Research Center

One major trope of the Media Research Center is to portray media coverage of the Iraq war as liberally biased. We've previously noted that the MRC's examinations of Iraq war coverage are overly focused on the broadcast networks (a frequent MRC target) and make a point to exclude Fox News (unless it can spin Fox's coverage as "fair and balanced").

One recent example of a flawed MRC examination is a Feb. 28 "Media Reality Check" by Rich Noyes claiming that "[w]hen U.S. casualties began to steadily decline, TV coverage of Iraq dramatically decreased" on the TV networks. That study excluded cable news coverage, uncritically repeated Bush administration talking points claiming that "the President’s surge strategy is well on its way to succeeding," and never proved that correlation equals causation (a common logical fallacy) in this instance -- that the only reason war coverage declined was because U.S. casualties did. Despite that, Brent Baker referenced the study in a June 3 MRC CyberAlert.

Meanwhile, someone without an obvious partisan axe to grind took a look at the same issue of declining news coverage of the war and, unsurprisingly, came to a dramatically different conclusion. In an article in the latest issue of the American Journalism Review, Sherry Ricchiardi actually went out and talked to newspaper and TV news officials (what a concept) and found:

Why the dramatic drop-off? Gatekeepers offer a variety of reasons, from the enormous danger for journalists on the ground in Iraq (see "Obstructed View," April/May 2007) to plunging newsroom budgets and shrinking news space. Competing megastories on the home front like the presidential primaries and the sagging economy figure into the equation. So does the exorbitant cost of keeping correspondents in Baghdad.

No one questioned the importance of a grueling war gone sour or the looming consequences for the United States and the Middle East. Instead, newsroom managers talked about the realities of life in a rapidly changing media market, including smaller newsholes and, for many, a laser-beam focus on local issues and events.

Ricchiardi found that, despite the MRC's suggestion that only Fox News is adequately covering the war, its airtime is getting cut back as well:

John Stack, Fox News Channel's vice president for newsgathering, has no qualms about allotting more airtime to the presidential campaign than to Iraq. "This is a very big story playing out on the screen every night... The time devoted to news is finite," Stack says. "It's a matter of shifting to another story of national interest."

Indeed, Fox News has devoted less airtime on the war in Iraq in recent months than rival cable networks CNN and MSNBC, according to the The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of the News Media 2008 report -- another rpresumed reason the MRC doesn't want to focus too much on cable news.

The Bush administration plays a role as well, according to Ricchiardi:

Americans might care if they could witness more of the human toll. That's the approach the Washington Post's Dana Milbank took in an April 24 piece titled, "What the Family Would Let You See, the Pentagon Obstructs."

When Lt. Col. Billy Hall was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in April, his family gave the media permission to cover the ceremony — he is among the highest-ranking officers to be killed in Iraq. But, according to Milbank, the military did everything it could to keep the journalists away, isolating them some 50 yards away behind a yellow rope.

The "de facto ban on media at Arlington funerals fits neatly" with White House efforts "to sanitize the war in Iraq," and that, in turn, has helped keep the bloodshed out of the public's mind, Milbank wrote in his Washington Sketch feature.

Will the MRC address an examination of Iraq war news coverage based on facts instead of partisan speculation? Don't count on it.

UPDATE: Oops! Forgot to link to the AJR article. It's there now. 

Posted by Terry K. at 1:40 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, June 30, 2008 11:00 PM EDT

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