The Iraq War on Cable TV
CNN and MSNBC vs. The Fox News Channel
By Megan McCormack, Scott Whitlock and Rich Noyes
The Media Research Center
Executive Summary |
Generally, journalists hate it when anyone,
especially a non-journalist, accuses the media elite of tilting towards liberals
and against conservatives. CBS’s Mike Wallace has called claims of liberal bias
"damned foolishness," while his former colleague Dan Rather has sounded
downright conspiratorial on the subject: "Those people are trying to create such
a perception because they’re trying to force you to report the news the way they
want you to report it....I am not going to be cowed by anybody’s special
political agenda — inside, outside, upside, downside."
But many journalists have become quite
comfortable alleging bias at one news outlet, the 10-year old Fox News Channel.
MSNBC prime time anchor Keith Olbermann routinely lambastes his higher-rated
competition, slamming FNC as "a propaganda company so blatant that Tokyo Rose
would’ve quit." CNN commentator Jack Cafferty drips with similar disdain for
what he calls "the F-word network."
And the same Dan Rather who argues that
discussions of liberal bias are dastardly attempts at intimidation has no
problem suggesting the journalists at FNC have a conservative bias. Just last
month, Rather declared on HBO’s Real Time: "Fox News operates in at least
a different way than every other news organization I know. They have their
talking points....We know they get their talking points from the White
House....I think it’s pretty clear that they had wished the [2006 congressional]
election had gone another way."
A survey conducted by the
Pew Research Center for The People & The Press in May 2004 quantified
national journalists’ attitudes about liberal and conservative media bias. The
survey found that while a large majority of national journalists (62%) could not
or would not name any national news organization they thought "especially
liberal" in its coverage, most of that same group (82%) had no misgivings about
designating an "especially conservative" news outlet, with 69 percent singling
out the Fox News Channel (followed distantly by the Wall Street Journal
and the Washington Times, named by eight and nine percent of journalists,
"The single news outlet that strikes most
journalists as taking a particular ideological stance — either liberal or
conservative — is Fox News Channel," Pew reported. Very few journalists
suggested a bias at the other networks, according to Pew. Only two percent of
reporters suggested CNN, ABC, CBS, or NPR were liberal; just one percent named
So how does the Fox News Channel compare to its
cable news competitors? Or do liberal journalists’ complaints reveal more about
their ideological preferences than the professionalism of FNC’s correspondents?
As even casual viewers of cable news know, all
three networks feature personality-driven prime time programs where the hosts
rarely conceal their opinions. But while most viewers would expect to be
confronted with opinions in such a talk show format, they would presumably
expect more neutrality and objectivity when it comes to the kind of traditional
news reporting that is a staple of cable’s daytime programming.
For this study, a team of MRC analysts examined
FNC, CNN, and MSNBC’s daytime news coverage of the war in Iraq during a crucial
period in the late spring and early summer of 2006. Without question, the
fighting in Iraq has been one of the biggest news stories of the past several
MRC study of broadcast evening news coverage in 2005 found that ABC, CBS and
NBC stressed negative and pessimistic themes in their coverage of Iraq, a dour
drumbeat that has undoubtedly been a factor in declining public support for the
This study was designed to compare the news
coverage of the three cable networks, and our researchers did find significant
differences in the tone and agenda of the Iraq news each of the cable news
networks produced during this period. CNN and MSNBC resembled the big broadcast
networks, emphasizing a bad news agenda of U.S. misdeeds and mistakes. Contrary
to what some critics might have expected, FNC also emphasized downbeat news from
Iraq, but was better able to balance the bad news with more optimistic news of
U.S. achievements in Iraq.
CNN & MSNBC’s Bad
Our study of cable news coverage looked at all
Iraq stories aired during a ten-week period, from May 15 through July 21, a
period that included both "bad news" developments for the U.S. mission in Iraq
(notably heavy coverage of accusations of military misconduct surrounding the
November 2005 killing of a number of Iraqi civilians in Haditha) and "good news"
as well, such as the June 8 announcement of the successful airstrike that killed
the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
For each network, our analysts examined both the
10am and 2pm EDT hours of live weekday news coverage, or 100 hours of news
coverage for each network. It is during these daytime hours that all three cable
networks offer similar programming that most closely resembles a traditional
newscast, heavy on ostensibly neutral field reports with little overt commentary
from the anchors. FNC’s Fox News Live aired at both 10am and 2pm, as did
MSNBC Live. CNN’s morning news program was called CNN Live Today,
while their afternoon show was called Live From.... (Since the end of our
study period, both shows have been replaced by a live news program called CNN
Our analysts found a total of 721 items on Iraq,
including field reports, interviews, breaking news events and brief items read
by the news anchors. All three networks aired approximately the same number of
stories: CNN showed 246 Iraq stories totaling 10 hours, 42 minutes of coverage,
followed closely by FNC (244 stories; 10 hours, 32 minutes) and MSNBC (231
stories; 9 hours, 19 minutes).
Interestingly, all three networks ran
significantly more Iraq war news during their 10am hour (a total of 19 hours, 37
minutes) than during the 2pm hours (10 hours, 55 minutes), when all three cable
networks featured heavier coverage of domestic news.
amount of coverage given to the Iraq war depended on the ebb and flow of events
in Iraq itself as well as the need to cover any major developments in the rest
of the world. Media attention on the conflict increased in late May as the
networks focused on a Time magazine report accusing a group of U.S.
Marines of killing Iraqi civilians in Haditha; the May 29 wounding of CBS News
reporter Kimberly Dozier and the death of her crew also garnered heavy coverage.
Coverage of the war peaked in early June, following the successful strike
against terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and President Bush’s surprise June
13 trip to Baghdad to meet with the newly-established elected government. In
mid-June, the kidnapping and killing of two U.S. soldiers also drew relatively
As other world events competed for attention, however, cable news producers
pushed the Iraq war to the sidelines. From late June through the end of the
study period, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drew heavy cable news coverage,
particularly after the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah kidnapped two
Israeli soldiers on July 12. The first week of July also saw heavy cable news
attention to another threat to peace, North Korea’s testing of several missiles
in defiance of the international community.
All three networks emphasized insurgent attacks
against U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, a topic that accounted for fully 35
percent of all Iraq stories. CNN gave slightly more coverage to these attacks
(96 stories, or 39% of coverage) than either MSNBC (86 stories, 37%) or FNC (79
stories, 32%), but the differences do not appear especially significant.
Apart from the drumbeat of daily attacks, the
news agendas of the three cable networks diverged. CNN and MSNBC devoted more
resources to covering stories that reflected poorly on the U.S. mission in Iraq,
while FNC aired more stories about U.S. achievements in Iraq than either of its
CNN and MSNBC, for example,
focused extensively on allegations of misconduct by U.S. forces in Iraq —
principally a November 2005 incident in Haditha in which a group of U.S. Marines
are alleged to have attacked and killed perhaps 24 unarmed civilians after a
roadside explosive killed a Marine in their unit. The story received renewed
focus in May after anti-war Congressman John Murtha held a news conference in
which he alleged the Marines "killed innocent civilians in cold blood." At the
time, the incident was still being investigated by the military; as of early
December, no charges had actually been filed against any of the Marines
FNC made sure viewers knew about the
allegations, broadcasting a total of 12 stories on Haditha and other allegations
of U.S. military misconduct. But MSNBC and CNN pursued those same stories much
more aggressively. MSNBC aired a total of 36 stories on alleged U.S. misconduct,
three times as much coverage as the Fox News Channel, while CNN’s coverage was
an astounding five times greater (59 stories).
CNN and MSNBC’s
coverage took on the characteristics of a feeding frenzy, with the U.S. troops
presumed guilty. CNN anchor Tony Harris echoed Murtha’s inflammatory charges
during a May 30 report: "Men, women and children, gunned down in cold blood.
That’s the allegation....U.S. Marines are suspected of killing two dozen unarmed
civilians, accusations of a cover-up also a part of the mix. Democratic
Congressman John Murtha has been briefed on what happened....Murtha calls the
alleged atrocity as bad as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, if not worse."
Three days later, CNN’s John Vause extended the indictment to all U.S. troops,
not just the few being investigated regarding Haditha: "There is a perception
that U.S. forces are brutal and are, at times, trigger happy."
Similarly, CNN and MSNBC were more likely than
FNC to highlight news of U.S. military casualties, including both the
announcement of new casualties and such media "milestones" as the 2,500th U.S.
combat death in mid-June. In the 50 weekdays we examined, CNN aired a total of
50 stories on the killing and wounding of U.S. forces — just slightly more than
MSNBC (44 stories) and exactly twice as many as FNC (25 stories).
Few stories about fallen soldiers were framed as
tributes to their bravery or sacrifice; most just noted the deaths of another
one, two or three soldiers without linking their deaths to any greater purpose.
Appearing during MSNBC’s live coverage on June 8, the day Zarqawi’s death was
announced, Hardball host Chris Matthews was especially bleak. "Americans
keep getting killed," he somberly noted, "and more Americans will be killed next
week and the week after and the week after and the week after. These casualties
keep coming and they keep hurting the people in this country."
CNN and MSNBC were also more likely than FNC to
air stories about the deaths of Iraqi civilians and other non-military
combatants, although the differences were modest. CNN ran 49 such stories,
compared to MSNBC’s 41 and FNC’s 35. As with stories about U.S. military
casualties, FNC could hardly be accused of censoring such material, as the
network aired dozens of reports about the dead and dying in Iraq. But CNN and
MSNBC both made the decision to air even more such reports than their cable news
Devoted More Time to Covering U.S. Achievements:
While CNN and MSNBC emphasized the negative news out of Iraq, FNC used its
airtime to highlight a decidedly more positive agenda. FNC aired 81 stories
relating news of coalition victories in Iraq, many following the June 8
announcement of the successful U.S. air strike that killed al-Qaeda in Iraq
leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. When it came to telling viewers about our
military’s successes, MSNBC’s 47 stories made them a distant second to FNC, with
CNN coming in dead last (41 stories).
Hours after Zarqawi’s death was announced, FNC
daytime anchor Martha MacCallum expressed what most Americans probably felt upon
hearing the news: "It is clearly a good day in this fight and in this effort."
Apart from Zarqawi’s demise, FNC featured many
other reports of successful U.S. and Iraqi-led military efforts to kill and
capture other insurgent leaders. Anchor Bob Sellers reported one such success on
July 7: "A key capture in the war on terror. Backed by U.S. aircraft, Iraqi
troops stormed a Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad and took out a militia
leader. At least 30 other terrorists were killed in that raid."
Fox was also more likely than CNN or MSNBC to
note the success of other (non-military) efforts in the campaign to bring peace
to Iraq. "A cash crunch putting a strain on al-Qaeda in Iraq. Former Deputy CIA
Director John McLaughlin telling the Senate Foreign Relations committee there is
evidence that the terror group no longer has control of its network," FNC anchor
Brigitte Quinn noted on June 19. "In a letter before he was killed, Zarqawi
pleaded for cash, writing that many of his lines of support have been cut off.
To cope, terrorists have had to resort to cash couriers who are being tracked by
intelligence agents." Only FNC viewers were told about McLaughlin’s upbeat
testimony, which was ignored by CNN and MSNBC.
When it came to coverage of Iraq’s political
process, FNC again led the way with 63 stories, a level that nearly doubled
MSNBC (38 stories) and CNN (34 stories). During the period our analysts examined
— which included the final formation of a permanent government headed by Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki and including representatives of all of Iraq’s major
groups — much of the coverage of Iraq’s politics (on all three networks) was
positive in tone. FNC anchor Brigitte Quinn gave voice to that optimism in a
June 8 report about the end of negotiations for the permanent Iraqi government,
calling it "a momentous occasion."
The trends that our analysts discovered during
the ten weeks we examined are clear: CNN and MSNBC gravitated toward major "bad
news" topics such as military and civilian casualties and allegations of U.S.
misconduct, while FNC emphasized "good news" topics such as U.S. military
achievements and the creation of a permanent, representative,
democratically-elected Iraqi government. That is not to say that FNC never
mentioned any of the terrible things that were happening in Iraq (they did), or
that CNN and MSNBC never revealed the accomplishments of the U.S.-led coalition
(they did). But both CNN and MSNBC systematically chose to emphasize news
stories and topics that reflected poorly on the U.S. mission in Iraq, while FNC
made it a point to also tell viewers about the positive developments in the war.
Tone: Fair &
Balanced FNC vs. Pessimistic CNN and MSNBC
In addition to examining each networks’ news
agenda, our analysts also looked at the tone of each news item on the Iraq war.
For much of the past three years, journalists have been criticized for unduly
emphasizing the setbacks and losses of the Iraq war and paying less attention to
accomplishments and progress; by so emphasizing the bad news coming out of Iraq,
critics charge, the media have served to demoralize the public and build
sentiment for a withdrawal from Iraq without regard to the effect this might
have on the overall War on Terror. The argument is not that the media’s
day-to-day reporting is inaccurate or untruthful, but that journalists’
predisposition to publicize bad news has skewed the public’s overall perception
of the Iraq war.
So, as we did in our study of broadcast news in
2005, our analysts looked at how many stories focused on positive developments
(such as reports of U.S. and coalition achievements and progress on the
political front) or negative developments (including reports of insurgent
attacks and incidents of U.S. military misconduct). To be labeled a "positive"
report, the amount of optimistic or upbeat news contained in the story had to
exceed negative or pessimistic news by at least a three-to-two margin.
Conversely, a news story was considered "negative" when there was a three-to-two
margin in favor of pessimistic news. All other stories were categorized as
all three networks were reporting on the same day-to-day developments, the
difference in tone is fairly remarkable. As the chart shows, both CNN and MSNBC
emphasized news that carried a pessimistic or downbeat spin. On MSNBC, negative
news overwhelmed positive stories by a four-to-one margin, while on CNN the
disparity was a whopping six-to-one.
Over on the Fox News Channel, the number of
pessimistic stories (75, or 30% of FNC’s total coverage) was greater than that
of optimistic or positive stories (48, or 20%), but the end result is much more
balanced coverage than was found at either of its cable competitors. FNC also
had the highest number of neutral stories (123), significantly more than either
MSNBC (91) or CNN (73).
The differences in tone are
strongly related to the differences in the networks’ choice of news topics (as
discussed in the previous section). Both MSNBC and CNN aired much heavier
coverage of the allegations of U.S. troop misconduct in late May, which helped
tilt their overall coverage in a heavily pessimistic direction. In the case of
the Haditha allegations, reporters seemed to presume guilt despite the lack of
any official report. On the last day of May, CNN’s Iraq reporter Arwa Damon
framed the options this way: "Twenty-four Iraqi civilians killed in a bloody
rampage allegedly by Marines. Among the dead, women and children. Was it a
rampage fueled by rage? An unprovoked massacre?"
The day before, MSNBC invited viewers to voice
their outrage, as anchor Chris Jansing posed her network’s Question of the Day:
"Based on what you know, do you think there’s any justification for what
happened in Haditha?"
On May 26, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips echoed
Democratic war critics like Congressman John Murtha, who argued that the Haditha
incident was part of a larger pattern of eroding military discipline after three
years of ugly fighting: "Some critics have come forward and said, look, this is
just one more reason troops have to come home. They’ve been there too long.
They’re becoming insensitive to the fight over there, and this is what
happens....[People] start to fall apart emotionally, psychologically."
Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre seemed to
agree with Phillips’ assumption: "The accounts of this house-to-house search
for, apparently searching for one of the bombers who killed one of their own
Marines, gives all the impression that it was almost like they were on a — they
were looking for revenge." But McIntyre quickly added: "But, again, we just want
to say the investigation is not complete."
In fact, according to research conducted by
University of Minnesota professor Colin Kahl during a fellowship with the
Council on Foreign Relations, the truth is that U.S. forces have done an
excellent job of avoiding civilian casualties and have gotten better, not worse,
over the course of the war.
Writing in the policy magazine Foreign Affairs, Kahl noted that
"despite some dark spots on its record, the U.S. military has done a better job
of respecting noncombatant immunity in Iraq than is commonly believed....U.S.
compliance with noncombatant immunity in Iraq is relatively high by historical
standards...[and] has been improving since the beginning of the war."
three cable networks ran the greatest number of positive stories during the
first and second weeks of June, coinciding with Zarqawi’s death and President
Bush’s trip to Baghdad to meet with Prime Minister Maliki and his newly-formed
government. While all three networks generally treated Zarqawi’s elimination as
a success for the coalition, FNC’s coverage was the most enthusiastic. Anchor
Jon Scott began the 10am hour by touting "news that the most-wanted man in Iraq
has been killed in a U.S. air strike, in what turned out to be an unsafe
house for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." Scott asked lead-off guest Senator John McCain:
"Is this a sign that patience and perseverance pays off?"
After his interview with McCain, Scott turned to
co-anchor Brigitte Quinn: "It’s nice to have some good news to report out of
Iraq." Quinn agreed: "Yeah, it sure is, Jon."
A few minutes
later, Baghdad correspondent Andrew Stack recounted how news of Zarqawi’s death
"definitely affected us here personally," recounting how a triple car bombing —
plotted and carried out by Zarqawi’s group months earlier — had damaged FNC’s
offices in Iraq. "We didn’t have any injuries or deaths on our staff, but there
were 17 people killed that night, and it’s something none of us will ever
forget," Stack related. "And so this morning when we heard about this, you can
bet a lot of us were pretty happy to see Zarqawi gone."
Over on CNN that same day, while the anchors and
reporters generally heralded the successful strike on Zarqawi as good news, the
network introduced some decidedly pessimistic themes. Afternoon anchor Kyra
Phillips brought aboard journalist and author Nir Rosen, and asked him whether
he thought Zarqawi’s death would make much of a difference: "From what I
understand, you think we’re going a bit overboard with this coverage and he’s
not as big a fish as everyone is making him out to be?" Rosen agreed, then
launched into a deeply pessimistic analysis after Phillips asked him about the
formation of the new government:
There’s no good news in Iraq. There’s
no corner that’s been turned, there’s no milestone. The civil war began
intensively in 2005, and it’s continuing. This ethnic cleansing, Sunnis from
Shia neighborhoods, Shias being expelled from Sunni neighborhoods, dead bodies
on the street every day, tortured and killed because they’re Sunni or because
they’re Shia. Events inside the Green Zone just don’t really matter....The
Green Zone is just a theater for people outside of Iraq. The militias are on
the street in Iraq. They are the ones killing each other every day. And I just
feel very depressed and hopeless. I think the civil war is going to intensify.
While most Americans were presumably taking a
moment to celebrate the death of Zarqawi, or at least appreciate the efforts of
the U.S. military in eliminating the vicious terrorist, CNN and MSNBC continued
with their more pessimistic agenda. CNN featured two reports on the already
much-covered Haditha allegations; a piece by senior correspondent John Roberts
closed with a hyperbolic quote from Dartmouth College’s Aine Donovan: "If
Haditha proves true, it will be, unfortunately and very sadly, the most
memorable episode of this war."
Over on MSNBC, the network took time away from
covering the breaking news of Zarqawi’s death to feature positive profiles of
United States military deserters, highlighting their claims that the Iraq war is
immoral. Anchor Melissa Stark attempted to smoothly transition between the
contrary subjects: "On this very successful day for the U.S. military with the
killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one U.S. soldier is refusing to deploy to Iraq.
Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada believes the Iraq war is morally wrong and a
breach of American law." Reporter Tim Haas claimed Watada has "become the new
face of the anti-war movement."
few minutes later, Stark introduced another segment on another American soldier
who refused to fight for his country: "Marine reservist Stephen Funk was the
first U.S. serviceman to object to the Iraq war. He explained his decision to
NBC’s Matt Lauer shortly after the war began." A clip of Funk’s earlier
appearance on NBC’s Today program showed Funk rationalizing his conduct:
"It isn’t moral to kill someone just because you signed a contract to....In the
Gulf, in the last Gulf War, there was only 111 conscientious objectors. And
before that, there, in the Vietnam War, there were 200,000. So a lot of people
in this generation don’t know this is an actual option and I’m just trying to
When they got through flaunting
Funk, MSNBC offered up reports on Gulf War deserters and Vietnam protests,
bringing to four the number of reports on anti-military activities aired on the
morning that was crowded with news of a U.S. military success.
Five days after Zarqawi’s death was announced,
President Bush surprised the media by arriving in Baghdad for a meeting with
Prime Minister Maliki that was originally supposed to have been conducted via a
teleconference. The President’s presence in Iraq meant more coverage than would
otherwise have been expected, although the tone was split between the three
networks. FNC reporter Malini Bawa argued that the President’s trip would help
the situation: "The visit of President Bush certainly tends to lend some
legitimacy and some momentum to his [Maliki’s] new government."
Over on MSNBC, however, reporter Andrea Mitchell
argued the opposite, telling anchor Contessa Brewer during the 2pm hour of
MSNBC Live that the visit could undermine the new Iraqi Prime Minister:
"While it could help him with his own supporters, it could also backfire, of
course, with those who view the American presence as interference with the
domestic affairs in Iraq. Of course, those who are anti-American view the
President very negatively, so it could undercut his credibility there as well.
So, it remains to be seen."
As for CNN, 10am anchor Daryn Kagan asked
correspondent Aneesh Raman what he thought the visit would mean to everyday
Iraqis. Raman was pessimistic: "I think very little. This visit to the average
Iraqi will perhaps signal that maybe there’s something in terms of momentum that
clearly President Bush is trying to seize upon....But for the average Iraqi, and
I’ve seen it over the time period that I was there, that the confidence in the
government has eroded and legitimately so."
The key difference between the networks: CNN and
MSNBC were eager to devote dozens of stories to sifting through the details of
bad news stories like Haditha, but were quick to move beyond stories about U.S.
and coalition achievements. FNC, in contrast, provided more level-headed
coverage of the bad news that invariably arose, and seemed unembarrassed to
cheer U.S. victories such as the killing of one of the single worst enemies the
U.S. has faced, terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In mid-November 2006, CNN polled Americans to
find out if they still thought the U.S. "can win" the war in Iraq. Even amid all
of the bad news, a majority (54%) said they still thought victory was possible,
although the same poll found 56 percent predicted the U.S. "will not win" in
Iraq. In other words, while most of us think our country has the inherent
capacity to prevail in Iraq, our citizens are not optimistic that such a victory
will ever be realized.
The pessimistic reporting of the past few years
has helped move the debate over Iraq from "How do we win?" to "How do we get
out?" Network reporters have focused on the discouragingly brutal realities of
war, but have spent relatively little air time analyzing the consequences of
U.S. forces leaving Iraq before even the basic goals of stability and
self-defense have been realized. TV news viewers (apart from those who regularly
watch FNC) could be forgiven if they believe the American military’s role in
Iraq has been primarily destructive, since journalists have focused most
of their energy detailing the awfulness of what is happening now. Rarely
mentioned is the fact that U.S. soldiers remain a key bulwark preventing even
greater chaos and violence, and that it is their bravery that prevents Iraq from
falling prey to the car bombers and terrorists.
There’s no doubt that the Fox News Channel
offered viewers a different editorial approach than that found at CNN and MSNBC
— or ABC, CBS and NBC, for that matter. FNC’s reporters certainly presented
their fair share of bad news about Iraq, but did a better job of balancing the
setbacks and difficulties with proper acknowledgment of U.S. achievements in
Iraq. Given the stakes of the war in Iraq, such a balanced approach seems
preferable to lopsidedly negative coverage that seems designed more to influence
the course of events than to merely report on them.
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