FAIR study finds democracy poorly served by war coverage
Since the invasion of Iraq began in March, official voices have dominated U.S. network newscasts, while opponents of the war have been notably underrepresented, according to a study by FAIR.
Starting the day after the bombing of Iraq began on March 19, the three-week study (3/20/03-4/9/03) looked at 1,617 on-camera sources appearing in stories about Iraq on the evening newscasts of six television networks and news channels. The news programs studied were ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Reports, Fox’s Special Report with Brit Hume, and PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. [The study was conducted using Nexis database transcripts. At publication time, transcripts for six World News Tonight dates and two NewsHour dates were unavailable.]
Sources were coded by name, occupation, nationality, position on the war and the network on which they appeared. Sources were categorized as having a position on the war if they expressed a policy opinion on the news shows studied, were currently affiliated with governments or institutions that took a position on the war, or otherwise took a prominent stance. For instance, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a hired military analyst for CNN, was not categorized as pro-war; we could find no evidence he endorsed the invasion or was affiliated with a group supporting the war. However, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC analyst, was classified as pro-war as a board member of the Committee for a Free Iraq, a pro-war group.
Nearly two thirds of all sources, 64 percent, were pro-war, while 71 percent of U.S. guests favored the war. Anti-war voices were 10 percent of all sources, but just 6 percent of non-Iraqi sources and 3 percent of U.S. sources. Thus viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1.
The official story
Official voices, including current and former government employees, whether civilian or military, dominated network newscasts, accounting for 63 percent of overall sources. Current and former U.S. officials alone provided more than half (52 percent) of all sources; adding officials from Britain, chief ally in the invasion of Iraq, brought the total to 57 percent.
Looking at U.S. sources, which made up 76 percent of total sources, more than two out of three (68 percent) were either current or former officials. The percentage of U.S. sources who were officials varied from network to network, ranging from 75 percent at CBS to 60 percent at NBC.
In the category of U.S. officials, military voices overwhelmed civilians by a two-to-one margin, providing 68 percent of U.S. official sources and nearly half (47 percent) of all U.S. sources. This predominance reflected the networks focus on information from journalists embedded with troops, or provided at military briefings, and the analysis of such by paid former military officials.
Former military personnel, who often appeared in longer-format, in-studio interviews, rather than in soundbites, characteristically offered technical commentary supportive of U.S. military efforts. In a typical comment, retired general (and CNN consultant) Wesley Clark told Wolf Blitzer on April 6: “Well, the United States has very, very important technological advantages. Unlike previous efforts in urban combat, we control the skies.” Analysis by these paid military commentators often blended into cheerleading, as with Clark’s comment from the same interview: “First of all, I think the troops and all the people over there, the commanders, have done an absolutely superb job, a sensational job. And I think the results speak for themselves.”
Though some of these analysts criticized military planning, and were attacked for doing so by the administration and its allies (New York Times, 3/31/03), the rare criticisms were clearly motivated by a desire to see U.S. military efforts succeed. For instance, while NBC’s hired analyst, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, said he expected the U.S. to prevail in the war, he worried that there weren’t sufficient ground troops in place for an expected battle for the city of Baghdad (3/25/03): “We have no business taking on that mission unless we’re prepared to decisively employ combat power.”
Of a total of 840 U.S. sources who are current or former government or military officials, only four were identified as holding anti-war opinions–Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.V.), Rep. Pete Stark (D.-Calif.) and two appearances by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio). Byrd was featured on PBS, with Stark and Kucinich appearing on Fox News.
Among British news sources, 95 percent were government or military officials; the remaining 5 percent, four individuals, were all journalists. More than a third of the British public was opposed to the war at the time of this study, according to a Guardian/ICM poll (4/1/03), but no British anti-war voices were carried by these six news shows.
Iraq provided the only exception to the rule that official sources dominate the news. Iraqis made 200 appearances on the news shows during the study period, but less than a third of these (32 percent) were official sources. Interviews with persons on the street made up the largest category of Iraqi sources, with 62 percent of overall Iraqi appearances. Of Iraqi persons on the street, 49 percent expressed support for the U.S. war effort, while 18 percent voiced opposition, but the format of on-the-street interviews seldom elicited deep insights from either side; typical comments included “God damn to bloody hell Saddam” (CBS, 4/9/03) and “They can go. USA go” (Fox, 3/27/03).
Given that the war was ultimately justified as being fought for the liberation of the people of Iraq, sources who represented Iraqi civil society were in remarkably short supply on the news. Two of such Iraqi sources were clergymembers, one was a journalist and one represented a non-governmental organization. Nine sources came from Iraqi militia groups, both pro- and anti-U.S.
Only 6 percent of sources came from countries other than the U.S., Britain or Iraq. Given the strong opposition to the war measured in most countries that were not directly involved in the invasion, it’s perhaps unsurprising that these sources had the most anti-war representation; 48 percent either voiced criticism or were officials of governments that criticized the war.
Citizens from those nations that most vocally opposed the U.S. war policy–France, Germany and Russia–accounted for 16 appearances, constituting just 1 percent of all guests. Nine of these 16 appearances were by government officials.
Out of 45 non-Iraqi Arab sources, a strong majority (63 percent) were opposed to the war. Kuwaitis, whose country served as a staging area for the invasion, were the only exception to this tendency; none of the eight Kuwaiti sources expressed opposition to the war.
Restricted to the street
As noted in earlier FAIR studies, over-reliance on official sources leaves little room for independent policy critics or grassroots voices. At a time when dissent was quite visible in U.S. society, with large anti-war demonstrations across the country and 27 percent of the public telling pollsters they opposed the war (Bulletin’s Frontrunner, 4/7/03), the networks largely ignored anti-war opinion in the U.S.
The FAIR study found just 3 percent of U.S. sources represented or expressed opposition to the war. With more than one in four U.S. citizens opposing the war and much higher rates of opposition in most countries where opinion was polled, none of the networks offered anything resembling proportionate coverage of anti-war voices. The anti-war percentages ranged from 4 percent at NBC, 3 percent at CNN, ABC, PBS and Fox, and less than 1 percent–one out of 205 U.S. sources–at CBS.
While the percentage of Americans opposing the war was about 10 times higher in the real world as they were on the nightly news (27 percent versus 3 percent), their proportion of the guestlist may still overstate the degree to which they were able to present their views on U.S. television. Guests with anti-war viewpoints were almost universally allowed one-sentence soundbites taken from interviews conducted on the street. Not a single show in the study conducted a sit-down interview with a person identified as being against the war.
Anti-war sources were treated so fleetingly that they often weren’t even quoted by name. While 80 percent of all sources appearing on the nightly news shows are identified by name, 42 percent of anti-war voices went unnamed or were labeled with such vague terms as “protester” or “anti-war activist.” Only one leader of an anti-war group appeared as a source: Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice, a New York-based organizer of anti-war marches, appeared on a March 27 CNN segment in a one-sentence soundbite from an on-the-street interview.
Beyond the battlefield
Perhaps as striking as the dominance of official voices and the scarcity of dissent on these shows was the absence of experts dealing in non-military issues. The story of war is much larger than simply what happens on the battlefield; it includes issues of international law, human rights and global and regional politics–issues beyond the scope and expertise of former generals.
But few people with the expertise to address such questions were sought out on the nightly news. FAIR found that academics, think tank staffers and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) accounted for just 4 percent of all sources.
With 64 appearances overall, this group included just one source who spoke against the war, Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Center, a civil rights NGO. Twelve sources supported the war, while the remaining 51 sources did not take an explicit position.
Nearly half of the think tank sources (seven of 16) favored the war, while none opposed. The Council on Foreign Relations was most frequently represented; two of its three sources supported the war. Academic sources included three supporters of the war and no opponents.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which takes no political positions, was the leading NGO, with four appearances; no other NGO had more than one appearance. Of those with discernible positions on the war, two sources were in favor, one opposed.
More often, when television wanted a non-official source to provide context, it turned, somewhat incestuously, to journalists from other news outlets–who provided 8 percent of all sources. Relatives of military personnel made up another 4 percent of sources.
The Best–and Worst–of an Imbalanced Lot
In terms of their guestlists, the television outlets studied by FAIR were more alike than different: All had a heavy emphasis on official sources, particularly current and former U.S. military personnel; each featured a large proportion of pro-war voices; and none gave much attention to dissenting voices.
But these trends were more or less pronounced on different shows. The outlet with the smallest percentage of U.S. sources who were officials (60 percent) and the largest percentage of U.S. sources who were anti-war (4 percent) was NBC Nightly News, despite the network’s ownership by General Electric, a significant military contractor.
The highest percentage of officials among U.S. sources (75 percent) and the lowest number of U.S. anti-war voices (one–a soundbite from Michael Moore’s March 24 Oscar speech) was CBS Evening News. The show’s anchor, Dan Rather, had openly declared the partisanship of his coverage (Larry King Live, 4/14/03):
Look, I’m an American. I never tried to kid anybody that I’m some internationalist or something. And when my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of “win” may be. Now, I can’t and don’t argue that that is coverage without a prejudice. About that I am prejudiced.
PBS‘s NewsHour also had a relatively low percentage of anti-war voices–perhaps because the show less frequently features on-the-street interviews, to which critics of the war were usually relegated.
Though Fox News Channel frequently engaged in overt cheerleading for the war and is on record as considering itself a pro-war news outlet (Baltimore Sun, 4/2/03), Fox‘s Special Report With Brit Hume had fewer U.S. officials than CBS (70 percent) and more U.S. anti-war guests (3 percent) than PBS or CBS. Eighty-one percent of Fox’s sources were pro-war, however, the highest of any network. CBS was close on the Murdoch network’s heels with 77 percent. NBC featured the lowest proportion of pro-war voices with 65 percent.