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Media Meltdown
By Dick Morris


April 19, 2003
Saturday - 7:00 pm


One byproduct of war is often a major change in media and news reporting. In the Civil War, photography was born. In World War II, Edward R. Murrow brought radio into its own with his dramatic reports of the Nazi blitz on London. In Vietnam, television became pivotal as images of bloodshed soured American backing for the war. The Gulf War saw the growth of CNN as all-news television became essential.

In the Iraq War, the public may well have learned not to trust the broadcast networks or the establishment newspapers.

Never before have Americans had the chance to watch the establishment media while also seeing events unfold for themselves, live, on television. Our collective understanding of the dissonance between the two is breeding a distrust of the major news organs that will likely long outlast this war.

Those in professional politics take the media's distortions for granted, and even learn to play them through what has come to be called "spin." We know what's happening in Washington, the White House and Congress; each morning, when we read the version the media give to the public, we can't but help notice the difference.

But the average American rarely, if ever, gets that opportunity. In this war, they did - and their reaction to media news is likely never to be quite the same.

Each morning, we sat reading our copy of The New York Times, The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times and ruminated on their prophecies of doom and quagmire. Then we looked up to see, on television, correspondents actually embedded with our troops reporting quick advances, one-sided firefights, melting opposition and, finally, welcoming crowds.

Then the TV would cut back to the anchors and military analysts far from the battlefield. There, with their pointers and maps, we heard all about how we had too few troops in Iraq and the war plan had misfired and that Bush's failure to enlist Turkish cooperation was likely to prove disastrous.

For months before the war started, we had read articles in the establishment media about how house-to-house fighting in Baghdad would consume our troops like a meat grinder. We heard dire TV predictions of poison gas, missile attacks on Israel and burning oil wells. None of it happened.

Then, as the war unfolded, it was obvious that minor mishaps would dominate the network and newspaper coverage. Friendly-fire casualties, accidental journalist deaths, temporary supply shortages, unavoidable killing of civilians - all were played with the same or greater gusto than was the news of the actual war itself.

Who can forget juxtapositions like this one: A joyous mob hauls down Saddam Hussein's 40-foot statue in a scene reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall - while ABC's Peter Jennings belittles the Iraqis as a "small crowd"?

The disjuncture between the reality and the reporting became obvious to anyone who had eyes and ears.

A few news organs, including this newspaper, featured reports that the established media felt were cheerleading in their optimism. But reality proved the "cheerleaders" right and the pessimists wrong.

The result has been a major shift in American media/news habits. While CBS viewership dropped 15 percent from pre-war totals, ABC fell 6 percent and NBC gained an anemic 3 percent, the Fox News Channel audience rose 236 percent while CNN and MSNBC (with smaller audiences) recorded similarly impressive gains.

On morning TV, the cable show Fox and Friends actually drew 2.9 million viewers, more than CBS' 2.8 million on its Early Show - the first time a cable news station has beaten a network news program in ratings (but not the last).

Among younger viewers (18-34), CBS Evening News fell 16 percent while Fox News Channel gained fivefold.

But the biggest loser was The New York Times, formerly the newspaper of record, but now reduced - in full public view - to a newspaper of the political opposition. Its readers got to see, in plain view, the paper's pessimism and bias against the Bush administration.

This has been a rough war for tyrants and those who try to control the thoughts of their people. In Baghdad - but also in Manhattan, at the headquarters of the Times, NBC, CBS and ABC.


Dick Morris has become a familiar figure as a commentator for the Fox News Channel. He writes weekly columns for the New York Post, The Hill Magazine in Washington D.C. and The National Post in Canada.

Copyright 2003 Dick Morris, Distributed by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. to subscribers.


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