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TV Reporters Decry Drop in Iraq Coverage

The deaths of two CBS crew members have put the war back at the top of prime-time news, but journalists say they sense a growing apathy.

June 03, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

News of the bombing that felled a CBS news crew washed over Baghdad's tight-knit press corps like a tempest this week -- evoking waves of anxiety, sadness, resolve and more than a little dismay.

American television journalists covering Iraq confronted the difficult reality that it took the deaths of a cameraman and soundman and critical injuries to correspondent Kimberly Dozier to help push Iraq back to the forefront of the nightly news back home.

By the end of April, the amount of time devoted to Iraq on the weeknight newscasts of the three major television networks had dropped nearly 60% from 2003, according to the independent Tyndall Report tracking service.

Even before Monday's attack in a relatively placid section of Baghdad, some network television correspondents had reached the unsettling conclusion that, even as they were risking their lives in the war zone, audiences and producers in America had grown weary of much of the coverage from Iraq.

ABC correspondent John Berman in Baghdad wrote in his blog recently that he and his colleagues felt like the castaways on the network's prime-time drama "Lost" -- "We have come to the conclusion that no one knows we are here."

Earlier, he wrote: "There is definitely a sense that the public feels like it knows what is going on here, and doesn't want to hear anymore about it."

One NBC veteran expressed frustration at the current verities of the nightly news -- the demand for ever more vivid storytelling to help combat audience fatigue, an imperative often thwarted by the relentless violence in Iraq that makes reporting so difficult.

"I think we are all very concerned that the war and Iraq are not getting their due," said Allen Pizzey, who has covered several wars, including Iraq, in 26 years at CBS News.

After the death and injury to his friends this week, Pizzey, who recently rotated out of Baghdad, added, "You think, 'What the hell are we out there for?' "

Network news executives defend their coverage. NBC News President Steve Capus said the network's coverage was "extensive," giving "an accurate depiction of what's going on over there."

Still, he acknowledged that the danger made the broadest reporting from the war zone problematic -- as evidenced by the attack that killed the CBS camera crew.

As a result, Capus has ordered his reporters to take a break from most assignments with the military, to give the network time to "pause to reassess" its safety precautions.

Coverage of Iraq has also been a political issue, with President Bush and his top aides accusing the media of driving down public support for the war by reporting only the "bad news."

With a combined 23.5 million viewers on a typical weeknight, the three major broadcast networks draw particular scrutiny.

Media critics across the ideological spectrum also have complained about the coverage, or rather the lack thereof.

"The idea that the Brangelina baby or some salacious trial might trump coverage of the war is just stunning to me," said Cori Dauber, a University of North Carolina researcher who has criticized television coverage from Iraq for its emphasis on violence.

Sean Aday, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, reviewed all of the nightly news for NBC and Fox News in 2005 and found that they did not report most U.S. military deaths. Both news outlets also covered an even smaller fraction of violence against Iraqis, he found.

Aday attributed what he called the under-reporting in Iraq to multiple factors, including the danger faced by journalists reporting the story; the fact that random violence typically occurs outside a camera's view; the sense among news executives that continuing attacks were no longer "news"; and, finally, political pressure on the networks.

Aday said that the constant attacks on the media for alleged negative coverage "have got to be in the back of their heads when they make these decisions."

In the last week, Iraq has leapt back to the top of network news because of several developments: the deaths of cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan, along with a U.S. soldier; reports from the American military command that a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq this year appears unlikely; and an investigation into an incident last year in which Marines allegedly went on a shooting rampage that killed 24 men, women and children in the Euphrates River town of Haditha.

But the last week has been an exception to the general pattern of diminished coverage.

Paul Slavin, ABC's senior vice president for worldwide news gathering, said that the networks' coverage of Iraq should not be judged solely by the evening news. Stories about Iraq sometimes come from other locations, particularly Washington, and air on other "platforms," such as ABC radio, newsmagazines and the company's website, he said.

But Slavin acknowledged being "frustrated as hell about our ability to report the story."

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