Outlets Twist Good News on Iraq Into Bad, Except ABC & LA Times

Viewers of ABC's World News on Tuesday night learned of good news in the Pentagon's latest quarterly report on conditions in Iraq, but the positive developments went unnoted on CBS while NBC, the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, AP and McClatchy all stressed the negatives in the status report. ABC anchor Charles Gibson pointed out that “in the past, these reports have offered a brutally negative assessment” but the new one “shows real progress, across the board. On security, the report says weekly IED attacks have dropped 68 percent since June. The number of U.S. troop deaths from IEDs fell to the lowest level since January 2006.” Gibson proceeded to cite lower inflation and a boost in electricity production.

Wednesday's New York Times turned that into: “Pentagon Says Services in Iraq Are Stagnant.” USA Today headlined an AP dispatch in Wednesday's edition, “Pentagon: Transition to Iraqi security forces lags.” The Washington Post's story: “Iran Continues to Support Shiite Militias in Iraq, Pentagon Says.” The Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers, which infamously headlined an October story, “As Violence Falls in Iraq, Cemetery Workers Feel the Pinch,” headlined a Tuesday story: “Despite drop in violence, Pentagon finds little long-term progress in Iraq.” The Los Angeles Times provided an exception to the downbeat spin with an article which echoed what ABC stressed: “Pentagon reports security gains in Iraq.”

(That October McClatchy headline won the “Quote of the Year” in the MRC's “Best Notable Quotables of 2007: The Twentieth Annual Awards for the Year's Worst Reporting” -- now online with about 45 video clips.)

Jim Miklaszewski gave the Pentagon report a sentence on the NBC Nightly News as he noted that “the Pentagon's quarterly report on Iraq, released today, warned that any progress” on political reconciliation “remains slow.”

PDF of the December 18 DOD report.

Past quarterly reports.

ABC has consistently stood apart over the past few months in being willing to report improvements in Iraq. The MRC's study on ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscast coverage from September through November, “Good News = Less News on Iraq War,” discovered: “Of the three evening newscasts, ABC’s World News was the first to take serious note of the improving situation (back on October 1), and has offered the most stories (9 field reports, 7 from Iraq) detailing the progress.”

Indeed, on Friday, Gibson uniquely noticed the lack of any violence in Baghdad that day and used it as a hook for a look at life returning to normal. Gibson set up the December 14 story:
Overseas, this has been a remarkable day in Iraq. Our Baghdad bureau says there were no reports of any major outbreaks of violence anywhere in the country today. This is the first time we can recall that happening since the insurgency began. The improving conditions are having visible effects. Communities that had been under siege are coming alive again. Our Terry McCarthy in Baghdad found many examples.
McCarthy began: “The children are coming back to school -- one of the strongest signs yet that this tortured city is getting safer...” [full transcript below]

Gibson's short item, about the new Pentagon report, on the December 18 World News:
The Pentagon, today, issued its quarterly report on the situation in Iraq. In the past, these reports have offered a brutally negative assessment. But today, it shows real progress, across the board. On security, the report says weekly IED attacks have dropped 68 percent since June. The number of U.S. troop deaths from IEDs fell to the lowest level since January 2006. On the economy, the report claims Iraqi inflation through October of this year stands at 4.2 percent. That's down from nearly 53 percent last year. Electricity production is up 14 percent over last year. The report also points to some achievements by the Iraqi parliament, but it says the key national reconciliation laws need to be passed to solidify gains.
The headlines and leads from the print publications cited above:
New York Times, December 19 article:

Pentagon Says Services in Iraq Are Stagnant

By MICHAEL R. GORDON

WASHINGTON — Despite a significant reduction in violence in Iraq over the past three months, the Iraqi government has made little headway in improving the delivery of electricity, health care and other essential services, a new Pentagon report said Tuesday.

The report is the latest of the Pentagon’s quarterly assessments on progress in Iraq and offers the Bush administration’s most comprehensive assessment of security and economic trends there.

As expected, the report chronicled a substantial decline in attacks on Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces and American troops — a reduction to numbers not seen since the summer of 2005, according to the Pentagon.

But the assessment also indicated that the Iraqi government has been slow to take advantage of that downturn in violence by taking the political and economic steps to cement the security gains....
USA Today, December 19 edition:
Pentagon: Transition to Iraqi security forces lags

By Lolita C. Baldor
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — As violence continues to decline in much of Iraq, efforts to shift responsibility to the Iraqi security forces are still lagging, dogged by corruption, administrative shortfalls and sectarian divides, according to a Pentagon report.

The Defense Department's quarterly report on progress in Iraq said that while the size and capabilities of the Iraqi army and police forces have grown, many are still dependent on the United States and coalition nations for logistics and training.

A key problem, it said, is the Iraqis' "inability to adequately forecast life-support requirements and to promptly take action when contracts are expiring." The report covers the three-month period from September through November...
Washington Post, December 19:
Iran Continues to Support Shiite Militias in Iraq, Pentagon Says

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007; A14

A new Pentagon report has concluded that Iran continues to provide money, training and weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq, although U.S. commanders previously stated that attacks using lethal bombs linked to Iran have fallen in recent months.

"There has been no identified decrease in Iranian training and funding of illegal Shi'a militias in Iraq," said the report, released yesterday.

"Tehran's support for Shi'a militant groups who attack Coalition and Iraq forces remains a significant impediment to progress," it said, adding that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps provides "many of the explosives and ammunition used by these groups."

The report also said that security gains in Iraq have been uneven in regions with fewer U.S. troops, and that political progress by Iraq's national government is the critical factor in sustaining those gains. The quarterly report, required by Congress, covers September through November.

U.S. commanders have voiced the concern that the security gains, aided by the deployment of nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq this year, might be squandered if the Iraqi government continues to move slowly on political reconciliation, a point underscored in yesterday's report...
McClatchy Newspapers:
Despite drop in violence, Pentagon finds little long-term progress in Iraq
By Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Despite significant security gains in much of Iraq, nothing has changed within Iraq's political leadership to guarantee sustainable peace, a Pentagon report released Tuesday found.

The congressionally mandated quarterly report suggests that the drop in violence won't hold unless Iraq's central government passes key legislation, improves the way it manages its security forces and finds a way to reconcile the country's competing sects. It said none of those steps has been taken.

"Although security gains, local accommodation and progress against the flow of foreign fighters and lethal aid into Iraq have had a substantial effect, more needs to be done to foster national, 'top-down' reconciliation to sustain the gains," the report said.

The Pentagon report is the latest assessment circulating in Washington as officials ponder whether the strategy of increasing U.S. troop strength this year by 30,000 can be called a victory or whether the drop in violence is a lull that will break once the United States returns to last year's troop levels....
Los Angeles Times, December 19:
Pentagon reports security gains in Iraq
Its latest study is the first to note broad reductions in violence in multiple categories. But it warns that progress could easily be reversed.

By Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Security in Iraq has improved consistently and dramatically in nearly every major category over the last three months, the most sustained period of such gains in nearly two years, according to the first Pentagon report to attempt to quantify recent progress in detail.

However, the report also makes it clear that progress could easily be lost unless improvements are made quickly in Iraq's economy and its unreliable central government, and it illustrates how dependent the advances are on restraint by still-active militant groups....
As highlighted above, the upbeat Friday, December 14 World News story on ABC:
CHARLES GIBSON: Overseas, this has been a remarkable day in Iraq. Our Baghdad bureau says there were no reports of any major outbreaks of violence anywhere in the country today. This is the first time we can recall that happening since the insurgency began. The improving conditions are having visible effects. Communities that had been under siege are coming alive again. Our Terry McCarthy in Baghdad found many examples.

TERRY MCCARTHY: The children are coming back to school -- one of the strongest signs yet that this tortured city is getting safer. The situation, says teacher Alaa Jumma, is much better than before, when parents held their children at home out of fear. The statistics are often repeated – civilian killings down 65 percent since June, car bombs down by half. What influences behavior, however, are the everyday experiences people talk about. In Kadhimiya market, a staunch Shiite stronghold, we meet Uma Bir (sp?), a Sunni. Six months ago, Shiite militias were mortaring her neighborhood. Now, she says she feels safe coming here. And besides, the selection is better in this market.

Baghdad's streets are getting much busier as the violence goes down. Now, of course, everyone around here knows this relative peace is still very fragile. But for the time being, they're happy just to come out and go shopping. Taxi? Six months ago, few cab drivers would venture outside their own neighborhoods. Now, Abu Hani says he'll take customers almost anywhere in the city, apart from a few tough districts. We stopped by Haji Ali's fish restaurant on Abu Nwa (sp?) street for lunch. He says his business has taken off like a rocket as security has improved.

This is the first time we've felt it's safe enough to eat outside in a restaurant in Baghdad in over three years. Now, nobody knows how long this lull in violence is going to last. But for the time being, people here are pretty happy just to get out. Some coffee shops even stay open after dark. The war is far from forgotten. But these days in Baghdad, people prefer to talk about something else. Terry McCarthy, ABC News, Baghdad.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center