Hundreds of thousands of Americans around the country protested the Iraq War on the weekend of September 24-25, with the largest demonstration bringing between 100,000 and 300,000 to Washington, D.C. on Saturday.
But if you relied on television for your news, you’d hardly know the protests happened at all. According to the Nexis news database, the only mention on the network newscasts that Saturday came on the NBC Nightly News, where the massive march received all of 87 words. (ABC World News Tonight transcripts were not available for September 24, possibly due to pre-emption by college football.)
Cable coverage wasn’t much better. CNN, for example, made only passing references to the weekend protests. CNN anchor Aaron Brown offered an interesting explanation (9/24/05):
“There was a huge 100,000 people in Washington protesting the war in Iraq today, and I sometimes today feel like I’ve heard from all 100,000 upset that they did not get any coverage, and it’s true they didn’t get any coverage. Many of them see conspiracy. I assure you there is none, but it’s just the national story today and the national conversation today is the hurricane that put millions and millions of people at risk, and it’s just kind of an accident of bad timing, and I know that won’t satisfy anyone but that’s the truth of it.”
To hear Brown tell it, a 24-hour cable news channel is somehow unable to cover more than one story at a time– and the “national conversation” is something that CNN just listens in on, rather than helping to determine through its coverage choices.
The following day (9/25/05), the network’s Sunday morning shows had an opportunity to at least reflect on the significance of the anti-war movement. With a panel consisting of three New York Times columnists, Tim Russert mentioned the march briefly in one question to Maureen Dowd– which ended up being about how the antiwar movement might affect Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential chances.
On ABC’s This Week, host George Stephanopoulos observed, “We’ve seen polls across the board suggesting that we’re bogged down now in Iraq and now you have this growing protest movement. Do you believe that we’re reaching a tipping point in public opinion?” That question was put to pro-war Republican Sen. John McCain, who responded by inaccurately claiming: “Most polls I see, that most Americans believe still that we have to stay the course…. I certainly understand the dissatisfaction of the American people but I think most of them still want to stay the course and we have to.”
A recent CBS/New York Times poll (9/9-13/05) found 52 percent support for leaving Iraq “as soon as possible.” A similar Gallup poll (9/16-18) found that 33 percent of the public want some troops withdrawn, with another 30 percent wanting all the troops withdrawn. Only 34 percent wanted to maintain or increase troop levels–positions that could be described as wanting to “stay the course.” Stephanopoulos, however, failed to challenge McCain’s false claim.
(An L.A. Times recap of the protests–9/25/05– included a misleading reference to the Gallup poll, reporting that while the war is seen as a “mistake” by 59 percent of respondents, “There remains, however, widespread disagreement about the best solution. The same poll showed that 30 percent of Americans favored a total troop withdrawal, though 26 percent favored maintaining the current level.” By leaving out the 33 percent of those polled who wanted to decrease troop numbers, the paper gave a misleading impression of closely divided opinion.)
On Fox News Sunday (9/25/05), panelist Juan Williams was rebuked by his colleagues when he noted that public opinion had turned in favor of pulling out of Iraq. Fellow Fox panelist and NPR reporter Mara Liasson responded, “Oh, I don’t think that’s true,” a sentiment echoed by Fox panelist Brit Hume. When Williams brought up the Saudi foreign minister’s statement that foreign troops were not helping to stabilize Iraq, panelist William Kristol retorted: “So now the American left is with the House of Saud.” (That was, if anything, a more complimentary take on the protesters than was found in Fox’s news reporting, when White House correspondent Jim Angle– 9/26/05– referred to them as “disparate groups united by their hatred of President Bush, in particular, and U.S. policies in general.”)
Another feature of the protest coverage was a tendency to treat a tiny group of pro-war hecklers as somehow equivalent to the massive anti-war gathering. NBC’s Today show (9/25/05) had a report that gave a sentence to each: “Opponents and supporters of the war marched in cities across the nation on Saturday. In the nation’s capital an estimated 100,000 war protestors marched near the White House. A few hundreds supporters of the war lined the route in a counterdemonstration.”
Reports on NBC Nightly News and CBS Sunday Morning were similarly “balanced,” and a September 26 USA Today report gave nearly equal space to the counter-demonstrators and their concerns, though the paper reported that their pro-war rally attracted just 400 participants (that is, less than half of 1 percent of the number of antiwar marchers).
In a headline that summed up the absurdity of this type of coverage, the Washington Post reported (9/25/05): “Smaller but Spirited Crowd Protests Antiwar March; More Than 200 Say They Represent Majority.” Perhaps this “crowd” felt that way because they’ve grown accustomed to a media system that so frequently echoes their views, while keeping antiwar voices–representing the actual majority opinion–off the radar.