During the recent war in Iraq there has been a virtual meltdown in public trust in the mainstream media. Given its performance, it is no wonder. First there was the excited jumping on the bandwagon as the bombing and invasion started. That was followed, in short order, by a series of florid overreactions, ranging from amazement that the enemy was shooting back, and agonizing over a "flawed" battle plan and the coming "quagmire"see, especially, Johnny Apple of the New York Timesthrough dismay over the disorder and looting in Iraqi cities, to distressful anticipations of our coming failure to put the country back together again. What comes next is hardly imaginable, save that there will be something.
The effect of this has been obvious. First, the viewing public has lost its taste for the establishment news sources. In a heavy news period, where one would expect viewing to rise, the networks have been hit badly. CBS's audience fell 15 percent. ABC is down six percent. NBC is up three percent, but this is far below expectations given the war. On the other hand, FOX, the non-establishment cable guy, is up 236 percent, and the other cable stations have also risen, if less spectacularly. The new kids on the block have taken over the neighborhood. Along the same lines, there were the comments last week from an Egyptian that the kingpin of Middle East television, Al-Jazeera, was never again to be trusted because of the fairy-tale nature of its war presentation.
The situation is similar for the print news. The New York Times reports good earnings and future ad revenues look promising. There will be a lag, however, before we know how readers will respond to the shroud in which the paper encases its war reporting. The edition of Monday, April 14, provides a good case in point.
Monday's Times follows a weekend of largely upbeat news from front. The biggest story was the recovery of the seven U.S. Army P.O.W.'s captured in the war's first week. The other big stories were the Marines moving into Tikrit with little opposition, and the abeyance of looting and disorder in Iraq's major cities. The Times covered all three stories on its front page, with pictures above the fold of the rescued P.O.W.'s. As far as the stories of the day went, therefore, the Times did not leave much room for complaint, although it was hardly upbeat in reporting that "the frenzies of the looters (are) not yet spent."
It is the substantial inside of the paper, however, that causes dismay. Its "B" section, devoted since the onset of conflict to "A Nation at War," seems intent upon torpedoing the sense of success the paper reports on the front page. The tone is immediately set on the section's front page, the top half of which is a photo of three little Iraqi girls thought to have been killed by a stray American missile early in the bombing: in a mix-up, the paper reports that this happened on the third night of the bombing and last week. The headline is that the girls' family dreads telling their father of their deaths, and the story seems to revolve around the theme that such civilian casualties "have cost the Americans precious support here."
The other two front page stories have a similar effect. One tells of how victorious Kurds are driving Arab families, including "tiny, wheezing infants," from their villages. The other tweaks already sensitive nerve endings by reporting how a belligerent President Bush is making "demands" on Syrians and "warning" them about their complicity with Iraq, and predicts that this phase of the American campaign, like the first, will be "second- guessed." The overall impression left by the first page of "A Nation at War," then, is sadness and anxiety.
This kind of portrayal continues all through the "B" section. Inside, there is a long section with pictures about the recovery of the P.O.W.s, but we return to problems. Chaos in Baghdad hospitals, misery in Mosul, the anger of Iraqis with us, are all covered, and the most impressive pictures are of the looting in the National Museum, of Iraqis being searched, and of civilian casualties. Moreover, the most poignant page has pictures and a long story of two American women opponents of the war who have lost sons in it.
The news stories in section "B" are newsworthy in one way or another. But the Times negativity about what is going on in Iraq is unmistakable, and unfailing. The paper does not approve of the war, and let's us know about that at every turn. What we hear from the pollsters, on the other hand, suggests that the American people know better. If the Times is not careful, it may join the other old-line media institutions in being consigned to irrelevance.