Apr 1 2003

In Prelude to War, TV Served as Official Megaphone

MegaphoneIn the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, a FAIR study documents, network newscasts were dominated by current and former U.S. officials, and largely excluded Americans who were skeptical of or opposed to an invasion of Iraq.

Looking at two weeks of coverage, FAIR examined all 393 on-camera sources who appeared in nightly news stories about Iraq on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS‘s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. Beginning one week before and ending one week after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 presentation at the UN, the study spanned a time of intense domestic and international debate about Iraq.

But not much of a debate on the networks, it turns out. Part of the reason for this was the networks’ over-reliance on official sources: 76 percent of all sources on the four networks were current or former government officials. Among the two out of three sources that were from the U.S., 75 percent were current or former officials. That didn’t leave much room for independent and grassroots voices to be heard.

Opponents of war, or skeptics who wanted more time for diplomacy or inspections, were grossly underrepresented. At a time when 61 percent of respondents were telling CBS pollsters (2/5-6/03) that the U.S. should “wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time,” just 6 percent of U.S. sources were skeptics about the need for war.

Sources affiliated with anti-war activism were nearly non-existent. On the 4 networks combined, just 3 of 393 sources were identified with anti-war activism. That’s less than 1 percent. Only one out of 267 U.S. sources was identified with organized protests or anti-war groups; that’s an even smaller fraction of 1 percent.

Overall, 68 sources, or 17 percent of the total on-camera sources, represented skeptical or critical positions on the U.S.’s war policy–ranging from Baghdad officials to people who had concerns about the timing of the Bush administration’s war plans. The percentage of skeptical sources ranged from 21 percent at PBS (22 of 106) to 14 percent at NBC (18 of 125). ABC (16 of 92) and CBS (12 of 70) each had 17 percent skeptics.

If the goal of journalism is to provide a broad debate, including a range of independent critics, the major networks failed the public at a crucial time.