12/09/2005 01:18 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Problems in Iraq: It's the Media's Fault

This week, once again, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed that the real problem in Iraq is that the media are only reporting negative stories instead of accentuating the positive. President Bush also got into the act by highlighting a couple of Iraqi cities where things were kind of going well, sort of. It is true, though, that American media coverage of the war has been confused at best. Although there has been quite a bit of attention given to the failings of the print media, the fact is that most Americans get their news from television, which has done an ever worse job of reporting the war.

According to a CBS News poll, as late as three days before George Bush ordered the bombing of Baghdad, 41% of Americans opposed the invasion of Iraq. Yet I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that on television barely 2% of the commentators took that position. Liberals and others were understandably furious that the TV networks refused to let anti-war partisans have their say. After the brief euphoria that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein, the TV coverage started to change. Within days the networks began to report the looting of museums, chaos in the streets and one negative story after another. Suddenly it was the conservatives and other war supporters who were complaining about media coverage of the war. Is it possible that the networks changed from being conservative to liberal almost overnight? I think that there is a different explanation, one that has nothing to do with politics. It's called…ratings.

In the months preceding the war, the alternatives to attacking Iraq were diplomacy, negotiations and inspections. Diplomacy and negotiations are admirable strategies, but they don't play well on television. Viewers will not sit riveted to their TV sets, anxiously watching the latest round of negotiations. They won't keep their sets on all day because they want to catch the latest breaking development as U.N. inspectors drive around Iraq inspecting factories and warehouses. But if there is a real war going on, most Americans will increase their TV viewing dramatically. To put it simply, war is good for television. Peace isn't.

Once "major combat," as President Bush so carefully put it, was over, the networks wanted to retain as many heavy users as possible. They could have emphasized the reconstruction efforts of U.S. soldiers and contractors, showing the building of schools and hospitals and sanitation systems, but no one is going to keep the television on most of the day to watch that. On the other hand, looting and lawlessness have great potential for riveting visuals. Of course, most Americans can't take too much of that either, but at least this more violent storyline had more staying power than reconstruction.

Obviously, Fox News promotes a conservative agenda. Fox supporters, for their part, say that CBS and PBS are excessively liberal. Actually, most of them say that all networks other than Fox are excessively liberal. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox, aggressively promotes right-wing causes and values. But I'll bet that if he thought he could make enormous profits with a liberal television network, even Rupert Murdoch would finance it. After all, he is already funding The Simpsons, and one of his companies, HarperCollins/Regan Books, published Michael Moore's bestseller, Stupid White Men.

In the end, Mr. Rumsfeld is stuck with negative media coverage of Iraq because the bad stories about death and fear and torture are true. And President Bush can talk all he wants about electricity and sewer projects in Iraq, but each time he does so, he just calls attention to the question of whether, with the need to fund post-hurricane reconstruction projects on the Gulf Coast, it is really worth it to spend another $100 billion on Iraq.

Speaking on PBS's NewsHour Thursday night, Rumsfeld told Jim Lehrer that he had never predicted the length of the war in Iraq. Actually, speaking to U.S. troops in Italy on February 7, 2003, he said, "It could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." So Mr. Rumsfeld was not telling the truth about his refusal to make predictions. He was right about one thing, though. Later in the same interview, he told Lehrer, "To find the truth out takes weeks. To spread something that's not true takes five minutes. And it's all over the globe." Thank you for that reminder, Mr. Secretary.