The Iraq War on Cable TV
CNN and MSNBC vs. The Fox News Channel
Full Report |
Journalists who act offended by even the mildest suggestions that the media
elite have a liberal bias have in recent years become vocal media critics
themselves, accusing the Fox News Channel (FNC) of skewing its news in a
conservative direction. While all three cable networks feature prime time
personalities who are rarely shy about making their opinions known, how does FNC
really compare with CNN and MSNBC when it comes to hard news reporting of a
major story like the Iraq war?
MRC analysts reviewed all three cable news networks’ reporting on Iraq during
a crucial ten weeks this year, from May 15 through July 21, a period that
included heavy news coverage of allegations of U.S. military misconduct at
Haditha as well as the successful air strike that eliminated al-Qaeda terrorist
leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Analysts looked at weekday coverage during the 10am
EDT and 2pm EDT hours, a time of day when FNC, CNN and MSNBC all emphasize
traditional news reporting from field correspondents, not opinionated talk
The results show clear editorial differences between the three cable
networks. CNN and MSNBC resemble the big broadcast networks, emphasizing a bad
news agenda of U.S. misdeeds and mistakes, while FNC was better able to balance
the bad news with news of U.S. achievements in Iraq. Key findings:
- FNC was the most balanced network. All three cable news networks
ran more stories reflecting bad news about the situation in Iraq than stories
about coalition achievements. But FNC was the most balanced, with 20 percent
of stories emphasizing optimism, compared with 30 percent that stressed
- CNN was the most pessimistic network. Fully three-fifths (60%) of
all CNN stories on the war emphasized setbacks, misdeeds or pessimism about
progress in Iraq, compared to just 10 percent that reported on achievements or
victories. MSNBC’s tilt was closer to CNN, with four times more bad news
stories (48%) than reports stressing good news (12%).
- CNN and MSNBC sensationalized charges of U.S. wrongdoing. While FNC
provided significant coverage to unproven claims of U.S. military misconduct
in Iraq (12 stories), the other networks took a much more sensational approach
to the story. MSNBC aired three times as much coverage of alleged misconduct
as FNC (36 stories), while CNN aired a whopping 59 stories — nearly five times
the coverage of FNC.
- Fox News Channel aired more stories about coalition success in Iraq.
FNC aired a total of 81 stories announcing coalition victories in Iraq,
nearly as many as MSNBC (47 stories) and CNN (41 stories) combined. During the
ten weeks of our study, most coverage of Iraq’s political process reflected
optimism about the democratically-elected government, a topic that FNC also
showcased more than either MSNBC or CNN (63 stories vs. 34 and 38
- Even on the best day, CNN and MSNBC found negative themes to promote.
While all three networks presented news of Zarqawi’s death as a victory
for the U.S. coalition, CNN chose that day to interview a Middle East
journalist who complained, "There’s no good news in Iraq. There’s no corner
that’s been turned, there’s no milestone....I just feel very depressed and
hopeless." Over on MSNBC, the network took time away from covering the
breaking news of Zarqawi’s death to feature positive profiles of United States
In 2005, MRC documented how ABC, CBS and NBC’s evening news coverage of Iraq
had consistently emphasized bad news topics — car bombings, kidnappings, U.S.
military casualties, etc. — while providing relatively little coverage to
positive developments, such as steps to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and
the landmark democratic elections held that year.
While the actual events that transpired during the 2006 study period are not
the same as those in 2005, CNN’s and MSNBC’s pessimistic coverage is a familiar
echo of the approach taken by their broadcasting brethren. FNC, in contrast,
offered decidedly more balanced coverage — disclosing the bad news, to be sure,
but also making sure viewers learned of U.S. and coalition achievements in Iraq.
Such an approach certainly sets the Fox News Channel apart from its broadcast
and cable competitors, whose more balanced approach may be preferable to
lopsidedly negative coverage that seems designed more to influence the course of
events than to merely report on them.