Blown coverage

Most major media outlets are cautious about the war in Iraq these days. Other than times like, say, the fifth anniversary, they don’t cover the war every day, and when they do, they usually provide some sense of the war’s enormous costs, as well as its unpopularity both here and abroad.

But that wasn’t always the case. When George W. Bush beat the drums of war five years ago, most news organizations did little to question the president’s rhetoric. Some even played an active role in selling his case to the public.

“Although some raised doubts, none of the major newspapers were completely against the war,” Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor and Publisher magazine, told the Guardian. According to a 2003 survey by Mitchell’s publication, about 24 percent of newspapers questioned Bush’s arguments prior to the invasion, while the rest supported or were impartial to them.

“Very few disagreed with Bush’s language when he used terms like axis of evil and evildoers,” said David Domke, associate professor of communication at the University of Washington. Domke analyzed 320 editorial pages of the country’s top 10 newspapers between Sept. 11 and the beginning of the Iraq War. He found very little scrutiny or questioning of the administration’s case.

Another 2003 study, this one published in the Newspaper Research Journal, examined coverage by The New York Times and Washington Post between Sept. 11 and Oct. 7, 2001. The study concluded that most editorials in the influential papers simply reiterated White House opinions. This passive acceptance of administration spin did not just influence public opinion, the Journal argued. It also set the tone for news coverage across the country.

Broadcast media mimicked the pro-war bent of the country’s major newspapers. “Overwhelmingly, the expert sources [on television] were pro-war, even [on] PBS,” said Isabel Macdonald, communications director of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).

In the weeks following Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations, FAIR found that 75 percent of the 393 sources who appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS nightly news were current or former military officials. Only one speaker, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) denounced the invasion.

Since the invasion five years ago, the public’s approval of the Iraq War has gone from about 70 percent to 35 percent. Recent editorials reflect this drastic shift. A July 2007 study by found that newspaper opinion pieces are now much more critical of the war. The New York Times called for a troop withdrawal on July 8, 2007. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which twice endorsed Bush, called for a withdrawal several months before the Times. Another traditionally conservative daily, the Dallas Morning News, also asked for troop reductions.

Once the war started going badly, “a lot of military elite jumped ship,” Robert McChesney of the media reform organization Free Press told the Guardian. “Reporters have changed their stance because their sources have given them a different point of view.”

The alternative press, on the other hand, was consistently against the war from the start, and alternative weeklies provided some of the most significant coverage of the antiwar movement. The Guardian editorialized against the war, did cover stories against the war and pushed the agenda on a regular basis – and we weren’t alone.

We emailed editors of papers belonging to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies to get a sense of how many were out in front against the invasion, and the results were impressive. All over the country, in big cities and small towns, alt-weeklies were filling the role that the daily papers and TV stations didn’t.

Among the papers that published articles critical of Bush’s war plans and that reported favorably on the protests: Tucson Weekly. Athens (Ohio) News. Boulder Weekly. Long Island Press. North Coast Journal. Monterey Coast Weekly. Random Lengths (San Pedro). Memphis Flyer. Boston Phoenix. ArtVoice (Buffalo). Rochester City Newspaper. Colorado Springs Independent.

“We came out against it immediately,” wrote Bradley Zeve, publisher of the Coast Weekly. “And we sent a report to Iraq.”

Said Robbie Woliver, editor in chief of Long Island Press: “We were on this from the start and even had some amazing ongoing coverage by a reporter who was non-embedded. Back then that was pretty rare.”

Paemla White at Boulder Weekly noted that her paper “wrote a mondo article covering every single antiwar event in the week prior to shock and awe in an effort to prove conclusively that there was opposition.”

Ken Neill, publisher of the Memphis Flyer, reminded us that his paper was “ahem, outspoken in our editorials and in coverage of marches, etc.” That’s something of an understatement – Neill and his publication were among the most vociferous opponents of the war in the country.

In fact, most of the alts were writing about the war well ahead of the invasion: “Don’t forget that we gave the anti-war perspective BEFORE the war started,” said James Allen, publisher of Random Lengths.

The Village Voice and the L.A. Weekly both had strong antiwar articles in 2003. But they’re now part of the same chain that owns the SF Weekly, and the chain (now called Village Voice Media) doesn’t allow editorials in its publications. In fact, the Weekly made fun of the antiwar protesters (including the Guardian staff).

But overall, if you wanted to find out the other side of the war story, the alternative weeklies were offering it.