Jun 1 2012

Network TV’s Attention Deficit After Gadhafi

Libyan violence ongoing, but media have moved on

Moammar Gadhafi--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/BRQ Network/AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Moammar Gadhafi–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/BRQ Network/AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Broadcast TV networks ABC, NBC and CBS combined to mention Libya a whopping 1,681 times between February 2011—when uprisings against the government began—and October, when Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed by a combination of NATO and Libyan rebel forces.

Before that, coverage of Libya was barely a blip. And by 2012, coverage was back to almost nothing.

There were four mentions of Libya in January 2011—one of which was ABC anchor Diane Sawyer (ABC World News, 1/17/11) prophetically speculating about the “dominoes” falling and “toppling” Mubarak in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya and Assad in Syria. The next month, coverage for Libya was unusually strong for a country where the U.S. had no active military presence: 255 mentions, compared to 54 for Afghanistan and 79 on Iraq.

As the intervention debate escalated into March 2011, with airstrikes beginning on March 19, coverage exploded to 565 mentions that month. CBS (3/30/11), now in full hawk mode, discussed whether the U.S. should arm the rebels barely a week after the United Nations had issued a no-fly zone over Libya, ignoring the fact that a UN resolution prohibited arming anyone in Libya.

Unsubstantiated stories of systematic rape (CounterPunch, 6/24/11), overestimates of casualties (CBS, 4/28/11) and a lack of interest in seriously investigating claims of NATO-caused civilian casualties (FAIR Media Advisory, 8/18/11) continued through the spring and summer.

October saw the death of Gadhafi, and the networks’ coverage begin to wane. But not before they could start shifting their audience’s focus from Libya to Syria. “The Middle East is littered with deposed dictators, dead and alive,” declared Brian Williams (NBC Nightly News, 10/31/11), introducing a report by Richard Engel. “Now all eyes are on Syria and President Assad, who remains defiant and in power for now.”

By early 2012, the networks had nothing more to report from Libya, with coverage of post-Gadhafi Libya down to single-digit mentions. None of these included the story of Libyan civilians storming the headquarters of the National Transitional Council while its chair was still inside (Reuters, 1/22/12), or any of the ongoing violence and instability still plaguing the country, which included a particularly violent week in late March that resulted in 147 deaths (Business Week, 4/1/12).

In fact, mentions of Libya in 2012 on the major networks were mostly discussions about the country as a model for Syrian intervention, with commentators lamenting it wouldn’t be as easy (e.g., CBS, 3/7/12). In April, the networks reported on Syria 72 times, versus six for Libya.

To be fair, Egypt, which had seized the imagination of the world with its emphatically peaceful revolution in 2011, also couldn’t recapture the attention of the networks when thousands of Egyptians went back to Tahrir Square in mid-April to protest military rulers (USA Today, 4/20/12). The networks didn’t mention these developments, though they did report on alleged anti-Christian violence in the region (60 Minutes, 4/22/12).

Bahrain, which suffered civilian deaths, massive protesting and even foreign intervention by Saudi Arabia, received only a single mention in March when over 100,000 protesters turned out on a single day (CBS, 3/10/12).

By this point, all attention was now focused squarely on Syria…that is, until the next disfavored regime captures the media’s attention.