The Rise of the Anti-war Media, and Its Importance

Today's Wall Street Journal online edition features an important essay by sociologist James Q. Wilson examining how the American press has turned into an unpatriotic and anti-war entity. He also explains why this matters: because educated people are likely to be swayed by the media's coverage of events, whether that coverage is accurate or not.

A few excerpts:

We are told by careful pollsters that half of the American people believe that American troops should be brought home from Iraq immediately. This news discourages supporters of our efforts there. Not me, though: I am relieved. Given press coverage of our efforts in Iraq, I am surprised that 90% of the public do not want us out right now.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2005, nearly 1,400 stories appeared on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news. More than half focused on the costs and problems of the war, four times as many as those that discussed the successes. About 40% of the stories reported terrorist attacks; scarcely any reported the triumphs of American soldiers and Marines. The few positive stories about progress in Iraq were just a small fraction of all the broadcasts.

When the Center for Media and Public Affairs made a nonpartisan evaluation of network news broadcasts, it found that during the active war against Saddam Hussein, 51% of the reports about the conflict were negative. Six months after the land battle ended, 77% were negative; in the 2004 general election, 89% were negative; by the spring of 2006, 94% were negative. This decline in media support was much faster than during Korea or Vietnam.

Naturally, some of the hostile commentary reflects the nature of reporting. When every news outlet struggles to grab and hold an audience, no one should be surprised that this competition leads journalists to emphasize bloody events. To some degree, the press covers Iraq in much the same way that it covers America: it highlights conflict, shootings, bombings, hurricanes, tornadoes, and corruption.

But the war coverage does not reflect merely an interest in conflict. People who oppose the entire war on terror run much of the national press, and they go to great lengths to make waging it difficult. Thus the New York Times ran a front-page story about President Bush's allowing, without court warrants, electronic monitoring of phone calls between overseas terrorists and people inside the U.S. On the heels of this, the Times reported that the FBI had been conducting a top-secret program to monitor radiation levels around U.S. Muslim sites, including mosques. And then both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran stories about America's effort to monitor foreign banking transactions in order to frustrate terrorist plans. The revelation of this secret effort followed five years after the New York Times urged, in an editorial, that precisely such a program be started.

Virtually every government official consulted on these matters urged that the press not run the stories because they endangered secret and important tasks. They ran them anyway. The media suggested that the National Security Agency surveillance might be illegal, but since we do not know exactly what kind of surveillance is undertaken, we cannot be clear about its legal basis. No one should assume that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires the president to obtain warrants from the special FISA court before he can monitor foreign intelligence contacts. Though the Supreme Court has never decided this issue, the lower federal courts, almost without exception, have held that "the Executive Branch need not always obtain a warrant for foreign intelligence surveillance."

The Vietnam War was where all this began, as the American press became willing stenographers for the anti-war movement. Following the Tet offensive which was falsely reported as an American defeat, the media's spin began to have an effect:

When Douglas Kinnard questioned more than 100 American generals who served in Vietnam, 92% said that newspaper coverage was often irresponsible or disruptive, and 96% said that television coverage on balance lacked context and was sensational or counterproductive.

An analysis of CBS's Vietnam coverage in 1972 and 1973 supports their views. The Institute for American Strategy found that, of about 800 references to American policy and behavior, 81% were critical. Of 164 references to North Vietnamese policy and behavior, 57% were supportive. Another study, by a scholar skeptical about the extent of media influence, showed that televised editorial comments before Tet were favorable to our presence by a ratio of 4 to 1; after Tet, they were 2 to 1 against the American government's policy.

Opinion polls taken in 1968 suggest that before the press reports on the Tet offensive, 28% of the public identified themselves as doves; by March, after the offensive was over, 42% said they were doves.

Sociologist James D. Wright directly measured the impact of press coverage by comparing the support for the war among white people of various social classes who read newspapers and news magazines with the support found among those who did not look at these periodicals very much. By 1968, when most newsmagazines and newspapers had changed from supporting the war to opposing it, backing for the war collapsed among upper-middle-class readers of news stories, from about two-thirds who supported it in 1964 to about one-third who supported it in 1968. Strikingly, opinion did not shift much among working-class voters, no matter whether they read these press accounts or not. Affluent people who read the press apparently have more changeable opinions than ordinary folks. Public opinion may not have changed much, but elite opinion changed greatly. [...]

I repeated for the Iraq War the analysis that Professor Wright had done of the impact of the media on public opinion during the Vietnam War. Using 2004 poll data, I found a similar effect: Americans who rarely watched television news about the 2004 political campaign were much more supportive of the war in Iraq than were those who watched a great deal of TV news. And the falloff in support was greatest for those with a college education.

Wilson identifies several factors he sees as being responsible for the media's move into the anti-war left. His third explanation is insightful:

Control of the press had shifted away from owners and publishers to editors and reporters. During the Spanish-American War, the sensationalist press, led by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, and Joseph Medill's Chicago Tribune all actively supported the war. Hearst felt, perhaps accurately, that he had helped cause it. His New York paper printed this headline: "How Do You Like the Journal's War?" Even the New York Times supported the Spanish-American War, editorializing that the Anti-Imperialist League was treasonable and later that the Filipinos "have chosen a bloody way to demonstrate their incapacity for self-government."

Today, strong owners are almost all gone. When Henry Luce died, Time magazine's support for an assertive American foreign policy died with him. William Paley had worked hard to make CBS a supporter of the Vietnam War, but he could not prevent Walter Cronkite from making his famous statement, on the evening news show of Feb. 19, 1968, that the war had become a "stalemate" that had to be ended, and so we must "negotiate." On hearing these remarks, President Johnson decided that the country would no longer support the war and that he should not run for reelection. Over three decades later, Mr. Cronkite made the same mistake: We must, he said, get out of Iraq now.

There are still some family owners, such as the Sulzbergers, who exercise control over their newspapers, but they have moved politically left. Ken Auletta has described Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, as a man who has "leaned to the left," but "leaned" understates the matter. Mr. Sulzberger was a passionate opponent of the war in Vietnam and was arrested more than once at protest rallies. When he became publisher in 1997, he chose the liberal Howell Raines to control the editorial page and make it, Mr. Sulzberger said, a "more assertive, populist page."

Other media companies, once run by their founders and principal owners, are now run by professional managers who report to directors interested in profits, not policy. Policy is the province of the editors and reporters, who are governed by their personal views, many of them acquired not by having once covered the police beat but from a college education. By 1978, 93% of the top reporters and editors had college degrees.


Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013