On Saturday, millions of Iraqis walked with determination to the polls to vote for a new constitution. The turnout was high. The violence was down dramatically from the triumphant elections of January. But the network found all this boring. On the night before the historic vote, ABC led with bird-flu panic. CBS imagined Karl Rove in a prison jumpsuit. NBC hyped inflation.
They say that news is a man-bites-dog story. In the Middle East, how common is a constitutional referendum? Have they had one in Egypt? Saudi Arabia? Syria? Jordan? Until the last few years, the phrase "Arab constitutional democracy" sounded like a pipe dream or an oxymoron. But today, the reporters can only kvetch. NBC's Richard Engel growled online that the new constitution was "a deeply flawed document, peppered with religious slogans, and leaves plenty of room for Shiites and Kurds to govern themselves." Engel says Iraqis disagree on the constitution, but "with the daily pressures of the insurgency, power cuts and lawlessness, there might not be enough time to start over before this country and the people lose hope -- along with many of their lives."
Does Engel wear black everywhere he goes? The news pattern from Iraq has that familiar gloom to it. The process of building a constitutional democracy has been a story made in sessions of boring political blather, in a language Americans can't understand. Bombs blowing people up -- now that's action, great television, it doesn't require an interpreter. That's news.
A massive new study by Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center reviews every Iraq story on the evening news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC from January through September of 2005. That's 1,388 news stories. He titled it "The Bad News Brigade," because 61 percent of the stories were negative or pessimistic, while only 15 percent of the stories were positive or optimistic -- a four-to-one ratio. The trend in coverage has also become increasingly negative during 2005, with pessimistic stories rising to nearly three-fourths of all Iraq news by August and September, with a 10-to-one ratio of negative stories over positive ones.
Terrorists are the real assignment editors of American TV news from Iraq. Two out of every five network evening news stories (564 stories this year) featured car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings or other attacks launched by the terrorists against the Iraqi people or coalition forces, more than any other topic. That's an average of two stories every night between the three shows.