Jewish World Review April 21, 2003 / 19 Sivan, 5763
The war that network news lost in Iraq
Lyndon Johnson only needed three television sets in the Oval Office, one each tuned
to CBS, NBC and ABC. For the ensuing four decades, the three news anchors, and the
organizations that feed them their lines, have dominated American media and
therefore American politics. The Iraq War signals their dethronement.
Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings may not have to worry about being
blown up by an American cruise missile, but they are the losers in this war almost
as much as Saddam Hussein is. The network news organizations, which already
succeeded in losing two-thirds of their viewers in the past 20 years and one-quarter
in the past 10, now face extinction as a result of their limited and biased coverage of
the war in Iraq.
The ratings tell a story of massive public disenchantment and portend a sea change
in news-watching habits. For the first time, a cable news show has actually passed a
broadcast-network offering in total viewers. The cable show "Fox and Friends" drew
2.9 million viewers, more than CBS's 2.8 million on its "Early Show."
This has not been a good war for the networks. At the height of the biggest news
event since Sept. 11, one would expect all news shows to attract more viewers. A
rising tide, after all, is reputed to lift all boats. But not the network-news
viewer-ship. CBS News dropped 15 percent from pre-war totals, ABC fell 6 percent,
and NBC gained an anemic 3 percent. By contrast, all the cable news stations
recorded huge increases in audience. The Fox News Channel audience rose 236
percent, while CNN and MSNBC had similar gains.
What does the future hold? Among younger viewers (18-34), CBS News fell 15
percent while Fox gained fivefold.
Within the cable universe, Fox News emerged as the clear winner, showing 14 of the
15 most-watched cable shows during the war's peak. With Fox News shows
attracting 4 to 6 million viewers each night during prime time, they were closing in
on the 8 to 10 million households to which the network news shows cling.
Those new ratings bring with them a new political reality.
Every war has altered media habits. The Civil War brought news photography and
telegraphic reporting into its own. World War II - and particularly the blitz over
London - made Edward R. Murrow and CBS Radio the medium of choice of many
Americans. The Vietnam War was the first televised conflict. CNN was born in the
midst of the Gulf War.
The impact of the Iraq War is likely to be as fundamental.
The arrogance of the networks' news coverage has ultimately cost them their
audience. The assumption that we would wait to hear of the fate of our sons and
daughters until Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw were good and ready to show up in a
television studio to tell us was the most arrogant of all. When the networks opted to
run entertainment programs during prime time, they were signaling their end as
serious news organizations. How ironic that NBC would prefer its fictional show "The
West Wing" over real news from the same offices.
Their journalistic skepticism played badly as Americans saw, simultaneously, the
worried theories of doom echoed by the network news anchors and the triumphant
progress of American arms marching into and through Baghdad.
We in politics are accustomed to seeing reality firsthand and then watching its
distant cousin, events as portrayed by the media, unfold on our televisions. We know
that what happened in Congress and what is reported to have taken place are two
very different things. But that disjuncture, so familiar to politicians, is new to the
By seeing war and war coverage juxtaposed nightly on their screens, Americans
have learned the crucial lesson: not to trust the news anchors. But trust and the
one-on-one relationship has been the key to television news broadcasts ever since the
days of Walter Cronkite. Now that relationship has been disrupted and will likely
never be rekindled.
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, among others, "Power Plays: Top 20 Winning and Losing Strategies of History's Great Political Leaders" Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, Dick Morris