In the flow of bad news engulfing the Bush administration last week was the coincidental fact that the 2,000th military death in Iraq happened to fall on exactly the same day as the Iraqi constitution was officially passed.
The constitution story, though appearing on many front pages, paled in placement and headline size to the 2,000-death story, with many papers boldfacing and enlarging the number “2,000,” so that it eclipsed any other nearby story. As one would expect, conservative critics jumped at this as further proof that, once again, the liberal media was trumpeting the bad news and suppressing the good news.
Though there’s no doubt that the unceasingly violent insurgency and intractable ethnic divisions are still the most important stories coming out of Iraq, critics who wonder why more positive political developments aren’t getting even close to the same coverage have a legitimate point. A cursory, unscientific Lexis-Nexus-based study that we quickly conducted indicates that at least last week, they had a point. In the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times there was just one story each about the constitution passing. Whereas the 2,000 deaths story inspired three to four stories and a couple op-eds and editorials per paper.
One doesn’t need to be a right-wing crusader to acknowledge that the constitution story is a significant one. Turnout was about 63 percent, an increase from the January election when 58 percent turned out, and this time many more Sunnis participated. And, given the atmosphere of extreme violence, for an Iraqi to stand in line to vote is an extraordinarily brave act. There are many unresolved problems with the constitution — not least of which that disgruntled Sunnis feel disenfranchised by it — but it is indisputable that it represents a halting step toward America’s stated goal of democratization.
So why was this news played down? Cathy Young, a columnist for the Boston Globe thinks it has to do with a certain conception of the political process that has been adopted by the press:
“The dominant media narrative is that Iraqi self-government is doomed because the draft constitution favors Shi’ites and Kurds and fails to reflect the interests of the Sunni Arabs. There are dire warnings that the Sunnis’ failure to block the constitution will convince them that the political process is stacked against them, driving them to embrace the insurgency.”
If that’s your interpretation of the referendum, it’s understandable why the constitution passing wouldn’t be big news. From that point of view, the vote simply meant more fuel to the Sunni fire, just another part of the downward spiral in Iraq, not demanding of any special flagging. By that measure, the Iraqis can’t win; both a constitution that succeeds at the polls and one that does not are construed as bad news.
A study meant to expose the press’s penchant for bad news over good was recently conducted by the Media Research Center, a group which bills itself as “the Leader in Documenting, Exposing and Neutralizing Liberal Media Bias,” and is run by L. Brent Bozell III, a notoriously partisan social conservative critic. Bozell is Bozell, but the numbers, even taken with a very large grain of salt, are compelling. MRC claims that of 1,388 Iraq stories appearing on the nightly news broadcasts of CBS, NBC and ABC, 848 stories, or 61 percent, “focused on negative topics or presented a pessimistic analysis of the situation.” Only 15 percent, 211 stories, “featured U.S. or Iraqi achievements or offered an optimistic assessment.”
As for coverage of the political process, the MRC found “more stories (124) focused on shortcomings in Iraq’s political process — the danger of bloodshed during the January elections, political infighting among politicians, and fears that the new Iraqi constitution might spur more civil strife — than stories that found optimism in the Iraqi people’s historic march to democracy (92 stories). One-third of those optimistic stories (32) appeared on just two nights — January 30 and 31, just after Iraq’s first successful elections.”