The major print and broadcast media coverage of the Iraq War focused overwhelmingly on stories depicting the U.S. military negatively; stories emphasizing American troop casualties as well as Iraqi civilian casualties; and stories suggesting that the U.S. was hopelessly stuck in the quagmire of an unwinnable war. When the Center for Media and Public Affairs made a nonpartisan evaluation of network news broadcasts in the United States, it found that during the active phase of the war against Saddam Hussein, 51% of all reports about the conflict were negative. Six months after the land battle had ended, 77% of the reports were negative. During the 2004 general election season, 89% were negative. By the spring of 2006, 94% were negative. This decline in media support was much more precipitous than what had occurred during the U.S. wars in Korea or Vietnam.
According to the Media Research Center (MRC), between January 1 and September 30, 2005, a total of 1,388 Iraq War stories were broadcast on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, and the NBC Nightly News. The MRC found that:
Network coverage was overwhelmingly pessimistic: 848 of the 1,388 stories (61%) focused on negative topics or presented a pessimistic analysis of the war situation, four times as many as featured U.S. or Iraqi achievements or offered an optimistic assessment (211 stories, or 15%).
News about the war grew increasingly negative over time: In January and February of 2005, some 21% of all network stories struck a hopeful note, while just over half presented a negative slant on the situation. By August and September of 2005, positive stories about the Iraq War had fallen to a mere 7%, while the percentage of bad news stories had swelled to 73% -- a ten-to-one disparity.
Terrorist attacks were the centerpiece of TV’s war news: Forty percent of network evening news stories (564) featured car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, or other attacks launched by the terrorists against the Iraqi people or coalition forces, more than any other topic.
Even coverage of the Iraqi political process was decidedly negative: More stories (124) focused on shortcomings in Iraq’s political process — the danger of bloodshed during the January 2005 elections, political infighting among politicians, and fears that the new Iraqi constitution might spur more civil strife — than found optimism in the Iraqi people’s historic march to democracy (92 stories). One-third of those optimistic stories (32) appeared on just two nights — January 30 and 31, immediately after Iraq’s first successful elections.
Few stories focused on the heroism or generous actions of American soldiers: Only 8 stories were devoted to recounting episodes of heroism or valor by U.S. troops, and another 9 stories featured instances of soldiers reaching out to help the Iraqi people. By contrast, 79 stories focused on allegations of combat mistakes or outright misconduct on the part of American military personnel.
A subsequent MRC analysis found that 324 additional Iraq War-related stories aired on the three evening network newscasts between October 1 and November 30 of 2005. Only 34 of those stories (10%) were positive or optimistic about the Iraq mission, compared to 200 (62%) that emphasized negativity or pessimism -- a six-to-one disparity. (The remaining 90 stories were neutral.) Only 5 of the October-November stories focused on American soldiers’ heroism, while nearly four times as many (19) focused on allegations of U.S. wrongdoing, including the accidental killing of civilians and claims of prisoner mistreatment.
The media also ran stories about a number of key items closely linked to the overall war on terror and tangentially related to the Iraq War. In December 2005, for instance, TheNew York Times ran a front-page story about President Bush having allowed, without court warrants, electronic monitoring of phone calls between overseas terrorists and people inside the United States. On the heels of this, the Times reported that the FBI had been conducting a top-secret program to monitor radiation levels around U.S. Muslim sites, including mosques. And then both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran stories about America's effort to monitor foreign banking transactions in order to frustrate terrorist plans. Virtually every government official consulted on these matters urged that the press not run the stories because they would endanger secret and important tasks related to the war effort and to American national security. The media ran the stories anyway.
In 2006, the media's attraction to bad news about American troops focused on an investigation into a possible Marine killing of innocent, unarmed civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. The story of a Pentagon probe into the alleged incident broke in March of that year, but NBC began a feeding frenzy on May 17, when anchor Brian Williams announced that anti-war Congressman John Murtha was “in the news again, and in a big way, accusing eight U.S. Marines of killing innocent civilians in cold blood.” MRC's Rich Noyes found that between May 17 and June 13, the three major television networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) aired 99 stories or segments suggesting U.S. military misconduct — three and a half hours of coverage in three weeks. By contrast, during the nearly five years that had elapsed since the war on terror began in 2001, those same three networks had devoted a grand total of just 52 minutes to the heroic deeds of the members of the U.S. military who had received the Medal of Honor, the highest recognition for bravery in combat.
Notably, by June 2008 it had become apparent that Congressman Murtha's allegations against the eight Marines were entirely unfounded. Charges against six of the eight had been dismissed, while a seventh had been acquitted. Moreover, two of the Marines filed defamation and slandersuits against Murtha. The media gave these developments sparse coverage.