Vetting the news through a glass half-empty

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: Oct 19, 2005 12:05 AM

Here are the headlines you may have missed: "Iraqi democracy takes bow to standing ovation, global applause" Or "Iraqi voter turnout another blow to al-Qaida." Or perhaps: "Joyful Americans dance in streets as Iraqi voters approve new constitution."

Fat chance. In some towns and cities, Americans who rely on the local paper for news might not have known there was a constitutional referendum in Iraq on Saturday. Or that there was almost no violence. Or that more than 10 million Iraqis voted, including many Sunnis.

Sure, many Sunnis opposed the referendum, but many more apparently didn't. Early ballot counts as of Monday seemed to indicate that the constitution had passed, from which we might infer that more Sunnis than not found the constitution acceptable.

Not perfect, but acceptable. Workable. Amendable.

What matters is, they voted. They went to the polls and practiced democracy - again - in a country that three years ago staggered under tyrannical rule. So that even a grouchy old headline writer might concede that this was rather fabulous news.

Instead, the American print media have been relatively muted in reporting the referendum. Given that ballots are still being counted, some caution is appropriate. But surely there's some ground between cautiously optimistic and spiritually stingy.

Curious to see how the story played across the country, I took a tour of America's front pages, which are available at the Newseum's Web site (www.newseum.org). It's fascinating to see how different newspapers play the same news stories on a given day, and how that play may reflect the paper's community.

There also may be a lesson buried in the bold type as to why increasing numbers of Americans have been finding alternative news sources, principally among blogs. Often, traditional news sources and the blogs reflect different realities, as with the story I tracked.

The tone of a majority of newspapers I viewed both Sunday and Monday was restrained to tepid. With some exceptions, headlines conveyed that familiar "yes, but" qualification. As in, "Yeah, sure, Iraq got a new constitution and took a giant stride toward independent self-rule, but life is still hell and, by the way, six American soldiers died."

Admittedly, my cursory review hardly qualifies as scientific, but a quick survey suggests that the public's perception that the media take a glass-half-empty approach to news coverage, especially the war in Iraq, is justified. Here, for instance, is The Baltimore Sun's Monday headline: "Arguments begin over count of Iraq vote."

The Augusta Chronicle and The Orlando Sentinel chimed in with: "Disputes surround early tally" and "Disputes erupt on Iraq vote results," respectively. The Louisville Courier-Journal took the fire-'n'-brimstone path: "Passing constitution won't end Iraq's woes."

There indeed may be arguments over the vote count. We know something about that in this country. And there may be some Sunnis protesting. That seems inevitable. We can easily predict that Iraq's woes will continue for a while longer. But do such sidebar notes really convey the gist of the day?

While a majority of newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, highlighted likely passage of the constitution on their front pages, others buried the story inside. Neither The Detroit News nor The Detroit Free Press ran a story on their front pages.

The Times-Picayune in New Orleans skipped the referendum in favor of continuing post-hurricane stories on its front page. Understandable, though arguably "Honk if you're sick of traffic" might have held a couple of days. As a footnote, papers that serve smaller communities tended to play the referendum story more prominently and positively than did larger papers.

The Port Huron (Mich.) Times Herald, for instance, greeted readers with: "Iraq takes first step into future," while the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, Pa., led with: "Iraq's new era." I'll have what they're having.

Given the geopolitical importance of Iraq's becoming a fully functioning democratic country - and America's wish to extricate herself as soon as possible - no story trumps the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum.

Unspoken, of course, is the near-pathological fear among many journalists that shining a positive light on Iraq might inadvertently refract toward President George W. Bush. Only The Washington Examiner let Bush get near an upbeat headline, with: "President hails Iraq on charter."

No, it isn't over yet in Iraq, but so what? In some circles, the 2000 presidential election isn't over yet. And neither is the American experiment. Jefferson, Madison and Adams didn't get it all exactly right with their constitution. The U.S. still embraced slavery, and there was no franchise for women. We slogged on.

And so, apparently, will the Iraqi people. With or without our applause.