Media caught in Iraq's war of perceptions
Many Americans have seen news coverage as overly negative, but mounting troop deaths test support for war.
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Another factor influencing coverage of Iraq is the media's practice of holding the government accountable for its stated policies. In this way, the Bush administration's success in Iraq is being gauged by expectations set in Washington, experts say.Skip to next paragraph
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"If the administration had said, there may or may not be weapons... but we will oust a brutal dictator and there will be thousands of casualties, the press coverage would be different," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia.
"The administration has managed expectations poorly, and then blamed the press for not meeting those expectations," says Ms. Jamieson, author of "The Press Effect," a book on media and politics.
Similarly, the administration's assertion that US troops would be widely welcomed as liberators has fallen short of reality. "We had this archetypal vision of the American troops rolling in as in France and handing out Hershey bars and nylons, and that's not happening," says Mr. Watson.
"The administration ... gave no indication there would be this nasty war of attrition with Americans blown up in continuing acts of terrorism for which the US has no defense," Watson continues.
Meanwhile, the administration's continued efforts to cast the occupation in the best possible light have drawn intensified scrutiny from reporters who encounter a more mixed picture on the ground.
In September, Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on television, cited a poll that he said showed 60 percent of Iraqis wanting US forces to stay in Iraq "at least" another year. He failed to state that the same poll showed 64 percent of Iraqis want the US to leave within a year, says Zogby, whose firm conducted the poll.
Republicans in Congress highlighted the poll's finding that 68 percent of Iraqis think Iraq will be a better country in five years. None pointed out, however that most respondents did not attribute that progress to American intervention: Half of Iraqis said the United States would hurt their country over the next five years.
"It was very disturbing to me," says Mr. Zogby. "I haven't accused anyone of lying, but this is what psychologists call 'selective screening,' " he says. "There was very little good news in this poll."
Troop morale is another area where administration statements on Iraq have clashed with what reporters are hearing first hand.
An informal poll of 1,900 service members in Iraq in August by the Pentagon-funded Stars and Stripes newspaper revealed that 49 percent think morale in their units is low - the same percentage who say they are unlikely to reenlist. Nearly a third said the war in Iraq was of "little value" or "not worthwhile at all."
Although media outlets, including this one, are regularly pummeled with hostile e-mails over reports perceived as antiwar and unpatriotic, experts disagree. "The press is almost congenitally patriotic and nationalistic," says Jamieson.
As in Vietnam, initial US media coverage of Iraq was fairly supportive of the administration's line, says Watson. Skepticism set in more quickly than in Vietnam, however, beginning with the occupation phase and coinciding with reporters leaving the embedded media program.