Despite arriving sooner than expected and catching much of the American press off guard, the June 28 hand-over of sovereignty in Iraq was trumpeted as a momentous event. That night CNN devoted its entire prime-time lineup to analyzing the brief, 15-minute ceremony in Baghdad. Fox News cheered it as "a day that will go down in history." Newspapers the next morning were clogged with reports from Iraq and speculation about what the transfer of political power would mean for the rebuilding of Iraq, as well as for the 140,000 U.S. troops serving there.
The hand-over, though, has done very little to change things for the better in Iraq. In the past six weeks, the country has been gripped in escalating violence, forcing some coalition countries and private contractors to flee for safety. Kidnappings by insurgents have multiplied, as have assassinations, while electricity still remains in short supply. Iraq's national conference -- critical to the eventual implementation of free elections -- has been postponed, and U.S. soldiers continue to die.
"On June 28, my feeling was nothing was going to change because of the hand-over," says Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There were still going to be car bombings and U.S. soldiers being killed, and that's exactly what's happened. Nothing has changed."
But one thing did change: U.S. press coverage of Iraq. The hand-over marked a turning point in the level and intensity of media interest, which sharply decreased, particularly on the 24-hour cable news channels. "Clearly the volume in press coverage has gone way down," says Cook. "'Sleepy' is a good word to describe it. The coverage doesn't compare with anything we'd seen during the previous 12 months from Iraq. The drop-off has been noticeable."
"From the very beginning this has been an administration that wanted to hide the toll of the war -- and the media have been absolutely complicit in that," says Nancy Lessin, co-founder of the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out. Lessin's stepson, a Marine, served in Iraq during the spring of 2003. "In April of this year, violence in Iraq was up and it was hard to keep the war off the front pages. But as soon as possible the pictures changed. Since June 28, [the war has] been off the front pages again."
More recently, a week's worth of fierce fighting in Najaf between coalition forces and militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army has begun to bring Iraq back into focus. And if U.S. forces unleash a frontal assault there, Iraq will once again dominate the headlines, as it so often has in the past 18 months. "We're still interested in the story. We're on the air every night about Iraq," says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news at CBS. "But what's happened is, interest in the political scene has increased. News always ebbs and flows, and at times it may appear Iraq is taking a back seat to politics because that's what's in the news right now."
Following the ebb-and-flow theory, Iraq is likely to return to the media forefront, however temporarily, when the one thousandth U.S. soldier dies in Iraq. Based on the current fatality rate, that somber event could happen as soon as late September.
Still, considered as a whole from July 1 to the present, coverage of Iraq seems to have diminished. "It's incredible how the press has veered away from Iraq" since June 28, says Peter Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution. Last week "six U.S. soldiers were killed in 24 hours, and there was nothing. If you're President Bush and you see headlines about Martha Stewart and Laci Peterson, you've got to count yourself lucky, because that means the focus is no longer on Iraq."
The physical danger reporters face inside Iraq has clearly curbed their efforts to report more. And for editors and producers back in America, trying to find a way to make the repetitive nature of the events in Iraq compelling remains a challenge. "One can imagine editors saying, 'Gee, we just did a roadside bombing story yesterday,'" says Singer. "But that's how an insurgency works; it's the same attack over and over."
That fatigue among members of the press corps makes it less likely that the daily violence in Iraq will be considered newsworthy. "I covered the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August of 2003, and that was a shock," says Ken Dilanian, a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who has spent several months reporting from Iraq in the past year. "As I recall, CNN broke into its regular programming live and stayed with it all day. That was with 24 people dead. Nowadays that happens every week, and it's on Page A14."
Press fatigue "was bound to set in," agrees Cook. "But it is uncanny how it occurred right after the change in sovereignty on June 28."
The media's shift away from Iraq is good news for the White House, which has watched American sentiment turn decisively against the war and specifically against President Bush's handling of the ongoing military effort. "Without question, the Bush administration is better off with no news from Iraq," says Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who served in Baghdad as an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority last spring.
Now the administration is much more interested in ushering the war on terror back into the foreground, while shuffling Iraq into the background. "Terrorism news trumps Iraq news for Bush," says Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. The emphasis on terrorism news fits with Bush's poll results. Fifty-two percent of Americans approve of how Bush is handling the war on terror, compared with just 37 approving of his actions in Iraq, according to the latest CBS poll.
So far, the White House's choreography is working as planned, particularly on cable TV, which is feasting on fresh terror warnings at home while giving just token attention to Iraq. So are newspapers like the New York Post. On Aug. 7, under the banner headline "War on Terror," the Post spread 11 stories over five pages detailing the "Crackdown on Qaeda Creeps." The Post ran just a single article that day about the situation in Iraq. Readers might be getting the impression that Iraq is as irrelevant as Afghanistan has become.
Yet the diminished attention to Iraq has created an odd media disconnect. While most pundits agree Iraq will be a key issue in November, Americans are being exposed to less reporting and analysis about the war. "There's an inverse relationship in press coverage and the situation in Iraq," says Cook. "It's amazing; the press has grown weary of reporting the same story regardless of how important it is. It is the issue in the campaign."
For example, in the wake of the sovereignty hand-over, NBC's "Meet the Press" discussed Iraq in depth during its July 4 telecast, featuring Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who spent nearly 20 minutes on the topic. In the five weeks since that broadcast, however, the show has not once matched that degree of focus on Iraq. Instead, when the topic is addressed it's invariably in a domestic political context: How will Iraq affect the U.S. election? What's actually happening in Iraq has much less salience. (On the Aug. 8 broadcast of "Meet the Press," National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was asked 18 questions; only three were about Iraq, and none were related to current events there.)
Ironically, after the Democrats' convention in Boston, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert, suggesting it was the Democrats who were not anxious to raise the war issue, asserted that Iraq was "the 800-pound elephant in the room that people don't want to talk about." Yet it is "Meet the Press" itself, along with much more of the mainstream press, that has become increasingly fascinated with domestic politics and indifferent to the war.
The political ramifications of the media's recent sluggishness are significant because, aside from military families, most Americans don't have a direct connection with the war. How the press plays -- or downplays -- Iraq between now and November "will have a profound impact on the election," says Phil Trounstine, director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. "Less coverage would be good for the president," he observes.
A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press suggests a direct link between reporting on Iraq (or how people treat the news from Iraq) and Bush's political fortunes. During the month of June, just 39 percent of Americans paid very close attention to the news coming out of Iraq, the lowest rate for all of 2004. Over the same period, the survey found, Americans' opinion of Bush, as well as of the situation in Iraq, improved noticeably. On July 14, ABC News' the Note -- the online roundup of the day's must-reads for political junkies -- theorized: "The Bush campaign is counting on the continued absence of a drumbeat of bad news out of Iraq to improve right track/wrong track" polling numbers.
Was there really an absence of bad news from Iraq? Nearly three dozen G.I.'s were killed during the first two weeks of July. On that same July 14 day, Iraq erupted in a new wave of violence. A suicide attacker detonated a massive car bomb near the British Embassy, killing 11 and wounding 40. An insurgent group, probably led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, announced it had beheaded a Bulgarian hostage. Five Iraqis were killed and 21 insurgents were wounded in fierce fighting in the Iraqi city of Ramadi. Insurgents killed the governor of Mosul as he was driving in a convoy of vehicles. A gunman assassinated the director general of Iraq's Industry Ministry as he left his Baghdad home. Meanwhile, two G.I.'s were killed that day when their vehicle rolled over.
Few if any of those deadly incidents on July 14 received sustained cable news coverage in America; instead the congressional vote on same-sex marriage was the preferred topic of the day.
The next day, canvassing the media landscape for stories that might affect the November election, the Note made no reference to the carnage in Iraq. Since June 28, that has often been the case with the Note, which perhaps better than any other site accurately captures the shifting moods and priorities of Washington's political press corps. For instance, on July 22, the Note linked to 116 separate stories, drawn from 23 quasi-political categories (9/11 commission, national security, the economy, same-sex marriage, etc.). Not one of them had to do with events in Iraq. And that was just 24 hours after an audacious bombing by insurgents of a Baghdad police station, a deadly attack that was completely overshadowed on cable news outlets by the story that former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger had been under investigation -- for nearly six months -- for breaching protocol at the National Archives while reviewing documents in preparation for the 9/11 commission hearings.
Television wasn't alone in downplaying the police station bombing story. While the Washington Times and the Washington Post both put the attack on Page 1, scores of major-market dailies, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arizona Republic, Denver Post, Hartford Courant, Indianapolis Star, New York Times and San Jose Mercury News, kept the story off the front page.
A recent check of the Note on Aug. 2 indicated more of the same: 83 story links in 15 categories, none of them dealing with Iraq. Yet voters are told by the press that come November, the issue of Iraq may very well decide the election.
After June 28, the line about there being "no bad news" from Iraq even seeped into reported pieces. On July 21, the New York Times, in a campaign trail dispatch, noted that one key factor that may work in Bush's favor in November is that "in Iraq, the transfer of sovereignty has led to some reduction in American casualties." But, in fact, nearly as many U.S. soldiers lost their lives in Iraq during the first half of July alone as did during the entire month of June. Of the 15 months since major combat ended, July ranks as the fourth deadliest for U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq. And if August's current fatality rate continues, it will easily claim more American lives than July did.
So why does the press act as if the hand-over of sovereignty has changed the situation on the ground? "It seems the mainstream press has bought in to the White House line about June 28 -- 'OK, we're in a new phase,'" says Lessin of Military Families Speak Out. "But we still have 138,000 troops there and are occupying a country. It hasn't changed. If it has changed, it's increased the violence in many areas. Then again, the press has [always] been in the lap of the administration, and once again it's playing its role of lapdog."
CBS News executive McGinnis denies that charge. "We have 22 minutes [on the "CBS Evening News"] and we pick and choose the stories each night. We make subjective editorial choices every single day, and we're not making them on how to help or hurt George Bush or John Kerry. The decisions [about Iraq] are based on what's happening in Iraq that day."
Of course, major news organizations are still covering Iraq and spending extraordinary resources -- both human and financial -- to keep Americans informed. The major dailies, as well as the nightly network news broadcasts, still dutifully report the developments in Iraq. On Aug. 6, for instance, USA Today ran a long Page 1 account about new fighting in Iraq, while "NBC Nightly News" opened its broadcast with a similar report.
But since the hand-over in Iraq, a certain intensity, or urgency, has been missing from the coverage -- a reluctance to go beyond the day's random bombings, kidnappings and shootings.
To be sure, the 24-hour cable shows are the news outlets that have ratcheted down their Iraq reporting the most over the past six weeks. That became glaringly obvious during the Democratic National Convention in Boston, where many pundits and producers spent much of the time ignoring the politics and bemoaning how little actual news there was to report. Yet here's a small sampling of what happened in Iraq that same week, little of which was deemed newsworthy enough to seriously interrupt the endless, repetitive cable TV discussion about swing voters and Teresa Heinz Kerry's "shove it" remark:
Experts say that week was typical of the chaos that has transpired in Iraq this summer, with or without the spotlight of the U.S. press shining on the region. "Iraq remains very much in the balance. That's the only fair assessment you can make right now," says Brookings' Singer.
"I've talked to friends who served in the CPA, and I don't know anybody with on-the-ground experience in Iraq who doesn't think the situation there isn't completely screwed up," adds Cook.
"Iraqis are so embittered and [have] completely lost any faith in us, even the most pro-American Iraqis," says the Philadelphia Inquirer's Dilanian, who says he has had a profound change of heart on the topic. Last April, fresh from reporting in Iraq, an optimistic Dilanian wrote that the press was ignoring improvements in Iraq and underplaying the chance for a real turnaround. In late June he returned to Baghdad to cover the sovereignty hand-over. Summing up his new grim impressions in an Aug. 1 article, Dilanian admitted his earlier prediction was wrong and wrote, "The situation in Iraq right now is not as bad as the news media are portraying it to be. It's worse. Most Iraqis aren't seeing the improvements they had hoped for, and they're not blaming the guerrillas -- they're blaming the Americans. Sovereignty seems to have had zero effect on this equation."
That's the key story many American news outlets have missed since June 28.