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.

Just as news footage of Vietnam casualties slowly eroded public backing for that conflict, today's bold headlines on US military deaths in Iraq are revealing a ground truth that is, more swiftly, undercutting domestic support for the Iraq war.

Some polls show that most Americans no longer believe removing Saddam Hussein was worth the loss of US lives; significant majorities now consider the 400-plus US casualties in Iraq "unacceptable."

"We've reached that magic number, and now Americans are asking whether it's worth it or not," says John Zogby of Zogby International, which conducted prewar polls showing that war support would drop below 50 percent if US casualties went into the hundreds.

The stream of bad news is heightening tensions between an American media that feels duty-bound to report US losses in the headlines, and a Bush administration and Pentagon prone to castigating the negative coverage as one-sided.

Newly enforced restrictions on media coverage reflect Washington's sensitivity to public attitudes. At home, reporters are kept at a distance from Iraq servicemens' funerals at Arlington National Cemetery; they are not allowed to photograph caskets returning to Delaware's Dover Air Base. In Iraq, the military has mistakenly fired on journalists, detained them, or confiscated their equipment, leading media organizations to raise protests with the Pentagon.

Strategically, the war of perceptions has real-world import: In a classic guerrilla campaign, targets are as much political as military, US commanders stress. "It's a serious issue.... Our opponents are attacking the political and moral will of the American people - that's their strategic objective," the Army vice chief of staff Gen. John Keane, told a recent congressional hearing before he stepped down. Americans need a full picture of Iraq to see "what the gain is for that loss of life," he said.

Pentagon leaders have accused the media of "largely ignoring" progress while dwelling on problems. "It isn't all terrible. There's some darn good stuff happening," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Many Americans agree. A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll taken early this month, for example, found that 41 percent of Americans believe the media's Iraq coverage is too negative, 15 percent say it is too positive, 36 percent say it is balanced.

Yet US editors and media analysts counter that the spreading guerrilla attacks on the US-led coalition are rightfully major news in Iraq today, and take precedence over coverage of repairing schools or restoring water. Iraq is not a PR problem, but a policy problem, they say.

"No matter how many reporters are there, you are always going to have more coverage of Americans dying than [of] an electricity grid coming up," says George Condon, Washington bureau chief of Copley Newspapers. "That's how it should be, because that's what Americans care about."

At the heart of the debate is what constitutes "news." News is, by definition, something unusual, different, revealing, or dramatic - whether it be the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue or the car bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

But the news is not comprehensive.

"It's an inherent limitation of news. It can't give you all of reality. It necessarily focuses on a tiny piece of reality that is making the most noise at the moment," says John Watson, assistant professor of communications at American University here. In hotspots, "most news organizations are unable to devote the time and manpower" to covering breaking news while also providing thorough overviews for perspective.

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.

"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.

Scrutiny and 'selective screening'

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.

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