Fox News gives Iraq war less attention
By DAVID BAUDER, AP Television WriterSun Jun 10, 12:18 PM ET
On a winter day when bomb blasts at an Iraqi university killed dozens and the United Nations estimated that 34,000 civilians in Iraq had died in 2006, MSNBC spent nearly nine minutes on the stories during the 1 p.m. hour. A CNN correspondent in Iraq did a three-minute report about the bombings.
Neither story merited a mention on Fox News Channel that hour.
That wasn't unusual. Fox spent half as much time covering the Iraq war than MSNBC during the first three months of the year, and considerably less than CNN, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The difference was more stark during daytime news hours than in prime-time opinion shows. The Iraq war occupied 20 percent of CNN's daytime news hole and 18 percent of MSNBC's. On Fox, the war was talked about only 6 percent of the time.
The independent think tank's report freshens a debate over whether ideology drives news agendas, and it comes at a delicate time for Fox. Top Democratic presidential candidates have refused to appear at debates sponsored by Fox. Liberals find attacking Fox is a way to fire up their base.
"It illustrates the danger of cheerleading for one particular point or another because they were obviously cheerleaders for the war," said Jon Klein, CNN U.S. president. "When the war went badly they had to dial back coverage because it didn't fit their preconceived story lines."
Fox wouldn't respond to repeated requests to make an executive available to talk about its war coverage.
So how to explain the divergent priorities? Different opinions on what is newsworthy? A business decision?
A mere coincidence?
Fox News Channel viewers argue that their favorite network is simply the most fair. Fox has long objected to suggestions that its newscasts go through a conservative filter. Surveys have shown its audience is dominated by Republicans.
There are no similar differences in priorities among the broadcast evening-news programs, where Iraq was the top story between January and the end of March. NBC's "Nightly News" spent 269 minutes on Iraq, ABC had 251 and CBS 238, according to news consultant Andrew Tyndall.
Another story that has reflected poorly on the Bush administration, the controversy over U.S. attorney firings, also received more attention on MSNBC (8 percent of the newshole) and CNN (4 percent) than on Fox (2 percent), the Project for Excellence in Journalism found.
Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center, said Fox has always claimed to report from an American perspective and to not follow the pack. While Graham said he may have questions about the PEJ's methodology, he doesn't dispute the results.
His group published its own study last year about the content of coverage. Fox didn't have its head in the sand; there were more negative stories about what was happening in Iraq than positive. But his group's view was that Fox was more balanced while CNN and MSNBC were relentlessly pessimistic. Between May 15 and July 21 of last year, Fox aired nearly twice as many stories about successes in Iraq as CNN and MSNBC combined, he said.
Most coverage of Iraq focuses on what gets blown up, he said.
"The problem we have with the media elite is that they clearly see Fox as pandering to an audience and they don't see CNN as pandering to an audience," Graham said. "That's where I think the double standard sets in."
While polls say its size is diminishing, there's clearly an audience that resists the general tenor of war coverage. GOP presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani was applauded during last week's debate when he wondered aloud what would happen if the American war effort succeeds over the next few months. "Are we going to report that with the same amount of attention that we would report the negative news?" he said.
Klein disputed the idea that CNN doesn't give a complete picture of what is happening in Iraq.
"Certain folks don't want to see any bad news," he said. "It's our job to report all of the news."
The project's findings surprised MSNBC chief executive Dan Abrams, who has been pushing his network to concentrate on politics and inside-the-Beltway issues lately.
"I'm not going to get on a high horse and judge our competition based on the numbers," he said. "We are looking for the right balance."
Fox's business interests may depend on less negative news about Iraq.
If Fox's audience is dominated by Republicans who are disgusted about hearing bad news on Iraq, it would stand to reason that you'd want to feed them less of it. Bill O'Reilly touched upon that idea on the air one night last December, telling viewers that the lowest-rated segment of his show the previous night was when Iraq was discussed. Ratings jumped at talk about Britney Spears, he said.
The danger is whether those concerns eat away at journalistic credibility.
They're a news network, said CNN's Klein, "so it is surprising that they're not covering the biggest story in the country and the world."
The Project for Excellence in Journalism steered clear of questions about what its findings proved. "We just wanted to tell people that it does make a difference where you go for the news," said the group's Mark Jurkowitz.
So with less on-air attention being paid to Iraq during the first few months of the year, what filled the void for Fox? PEJ's report said the network gave the death of Anna Nicole Smith significantly more air time than its rivals.