As I began my fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the impending war with Iraq dominated all discussions. I had come to the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy to produce their first documentary. As the former host of a news interview program, I had wanted to gauge the effect that cable television’s contentious talk-radio-comes-to-television interview shows had on political discussion in the United States. But the war and its coverage became the story in broadcast journalism.
We witnessed several sea changes during this conflict. The major broadcast networks had always been the goto places in times of crisis, but during the Iraq War, the number of viewers for the cable news networks shot up more than 300 percent. The Fox News Channel (FNC) jumped from its usual one million plus audience to five and a half million. CNN spiked to 3.3 million, while MSNBC more than doubled its audience to two million viewers.
But the battle was not only for ratings. The war coverage was a microcosm of the fiercely competitive ongoing war raging among the all-news cable networks over journalistic ethics and allegations of political bias. Even as the war was declared over, questions still lingered about whether objectivity—the attempt to give fair and equal treatment to all participants in a story without the influence of personal or political opinions—had been sidelined in the struggle for ratings and political supremacy.
What Research Revealed
To research my documentary, I watched endless days of live coverage during the war and ran through hours of tapes after the fact. The three cable networks differentiated their presentations, in part, through the word choice, tone and delivery of anchors and correspondents. This is also where the other big change in news coverage became apparent, in the amount of open rallying for the United States and the attempt to chill dissent. On Fox, U.S. soldiers were more often referred to as “we,” troops were “liberators,” and protesters were the “great unwashed” or other negatives. The New York Times media writer, Jim Rutenberg, called the level of pro-America coverage on Fox “astounding and completely unprecedented.” He quoted Fox anchor Neil Cavuto telling “those who opposed the liberation of Iraq: ‘You were sickening then, you are sickening now.’”
As for tone, the same pictures could receive very different treatment on the cable networks. While voicing over a videotape given to the networks by Al Jazerra—with pictures of Arab men favorably greeting U.S. soldiers—CNN anchor Aaron Brown commented, “I suppose if you see American forces coming in the force they’ve come in, you’d want to look friendly too, no matter what you feel. … But they were warmly greeted and in that part of Iraq there’s no reason they wouldn’t be.” On Fox, anchor Shepard Smith said, “Check out the reaction of ordinary Iraqis to our liberating forces. Smiles and handshakes. … An Iraqi man has liberation for himself, his family, and his neighbors. So far the war is going as scripted.”
Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center, who has closely monitored the rise of Fox, commented, “If you watch Fox you’re going to get a very positive interpretation of what’s going on, who’s right, who’s wrong. There will be very little ambiguity.”
Most Fox correspondents delivered straightforward, accurate reports. But during the evening on Fox, the analysts who usually host their opinion-driven interview programs anchored their war coverage. They offered blatant endorsements of the decision to go to war and verbally attacked antiwar protesters, the United Nations, the French, anyone who stood in the United States’s way. Fox’s “you’re with us or you’re against us” attitude mirrored that of the Bush administration in its challenge to other nations.
It was “jingoism as journalism,” according to Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Two of the cable channels, MSNBC and Fox, adopted the military’s name for the war—Operation Iraqi Freedom—as the title of their coverage. This “psy-ops” term—short for psychological-operations—was coined by the Pentagon to engender good feelings about the war effort. Rosenstiel viewed its use as “a clear and financially driven decision to pander to patriotic spirit as a way to get viewers.”
Bill O’Reilly, who hosts the most popular show on Fox, told me, “The reason we dominated in the ratings and continue to do so isn’t because we were rooting for the war, it was because we were accurate. Our assessment was it was a just war. We would win the war quickly. Both proved to be true.” The host of the “The O’Reilly Factor” went on to say, “If you’re going to tell me we shaded the news or did anything other than report the truth, I’m going to tell you you’re flat-out wrong.”
Fox failed to separate itself from the U.S. war effort, according to “60 Minutes II” executive producer, Jeff Fager. “Probably the hardest thing to detach from is your country. But you have to. That’s just something that is no longer as much of a priority in a place like Fox. It’s okay to say ‘we’ because you’re saying ‘we’ about a part of the audience that’s going to love you for it.” Rival network executives surmise that the FNC business plan calls for appealing to conservative males—the largest segment of the news-watching public. Many conservatives believe the press are too critical of the country at all times, let alone during a time of war.
The Role of Objectivity
Should journalists be allowed to be more patriotic, a little less objective during a time of conflict? Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News said, “I think it’s possible to be objective, even if not neutral. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. I’m not neutral about the outcome of the war. I want America to win. I’m not rooting for Iraq, but I remain objective in that I hope to maintain the ability to sift through information honestly obtained and honestly presented and give people the most accurate picture we can on what’s actually happened.”
The president of MSNBC, Erik Sorenson, suggested that since September 11th the country wants the news media to give the government more “benefit of the doubt,” to be less on the attack. Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, believes government should be given the “presumption of innocence” by cynical news people. It’s a false dichotomy, according to Rosenstiel: “It is as much a closed mind to say we’re just going to accept the government’s point of view as it is to say every politician is a liar. Both of those are a failure of professionalism, and I don’t think there is a sign that the American public has decided in a culture in which there is more information than ever to sort through that they don’t want the truth.”
However, when it comes to objectivity, the question is always the truth as seen through whose lens. The debate about fairness in the war coverage intersects with the controversy about whether mainstream news organizations, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, have a political bias and color their reports accordingly. The fiercely competitive Ailes declined to be interviewed for this documentary, but he has long argued Fox News is the much needed antidote to the liberal media. Ailes regularly accuses CNN of leaning to the left, and his commentators take the fight on-air. During the war, a guest on the Fox morning show referred to CNN as “Al Jazeera West,” a remark greeted with gales of laughter.
In our interview for the documentary, CNN general manager, Teya Ryan, was adamant that the cable news veteran is “not about a political point of view.” Ryan said that CNN provided straightforward reports during the war. “CNN is about the news,” she said. “Nothing is going to pull us off that road.” But in recent years, with faltering ratings, CNN has been looking for a road map. Shortly after the war, Ryan was relieved of her position. CNN, which was the undisputed news leader during the first Gulf War, fell to Fox’s highly energized, pro-American presentation during the war in Iraq.
O’Reilly claims that other news outlets attack Fox’s journalism because they disagree with their politics and are jealous of their success. “Look, the bottom line on this is the establishment press, which leans left in this country and always has, is now losing its power to a new operation that leans right, leans right, but isn’t in lockstep with anybody,” he said.
Heyward fires back, “Those predisposed to seeing the networks as either left wing, which I think is ludicrous, or not appropriately reverential to authority probably have a fundamental disagreement about the role of journalism in this society and therefore welcome a network that more blatantly acts as a cheerleader.”
Assessing the Future
The measure of any coverage can be assessed by what viewers learned and whether it is accurate. In October, an important postscript to my documentary was issued by a research group from the University of Maryland that has evaluated public misperceptions about foreign policy for a decade. In an analysis of polling conducted between June through September, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) found 52 percent of Americans believed evidence was found linking Iraq to September 11th. Thirty-five percent believed the United States had found weapons of mass destruction, and 56 percent believed most world opinion supported the war. Those who watched Fox as their main source of news on the war were found to be most likely to hold one or all three of those misconceptions. PIPA’s research director, Clay Ramsay, said: “It is a cautionary tale. People who rely primarily on Fox News are living in a different world from people who get their news from a mix of sources.”
There are profound implications for American television news if opinion—unidentified as such and masquerading as news—becomes the new paradigm for cable news or even the broadcast networks. Such an approach to news could not only eliminate objectivity as a standard, but with more propaganda and less information, our democracy could be harmed in the process.
Margie Reedy has been a television anchor and reporter for 25 years in Boston, Detroit and Austin. For seven years she hosted the news interview program “NewsNight” on New England Cable News, the largest regional cable station in the country. Reedy was the researcher, writer and producer of “Cable News Goes to War.” The film can be viewed at www.shorensteincenter.org.