Iraq war vanishing from TV news

NEW YORK The question isn't entirely facetious. The war has nearly vanished from TV screens over the past few months, replaced by stories about the fascinating presidential campaign and faltering economy.

Yet Americans continue to fight and die there, five years after the war started in March 2003.

"It's no big secret that this is a war that everyone has grown tired of," said CNN correspondent Arwa Damon, whose documentary "On Deadly Ground: The Women of Iraq" is airing several times this month. "Iraqis are aware of it. They think it's a story that people are tired of hearing about. That's what makes our job more crucial."

ABC News will draw attention to the war this week with the fifth edition of its "Where Things Stand" series, polling and interviewing Iraqis about what is happening in their country.

Statistics clearly illustrate the diminished attention. For the first 10 weeks of the year, the war accounted for 3 percent of television, newspaper and Internet stories in the Project for Excellence in Journalism's survey of news coverage. During the same period in 2007, Iraq filled 23 percent of the news hole.

The difference is even more stark on cable news networks: 24 percent of the time spent on Iraq last year, just 1 percent this year.

"The fact that it went down didn't surprise me," said Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director. "But the fact that it almost disappeared is something I didn't expect."

The fatigue factor is hard to fight.

From a journalist's standpoint, the story hasn't changed for several months. The American "surge" appears to have made progress, and while Iraq is hardly safe, pockets of the country are much safer than before.

It's possible to pinpoint the exact week that the switch turned off. The war averaged 30 minutes per week of coverage last year on the three network evening newscasts up until Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. forces, testified in September about the surge's progress, according to news consultant Andrew Tyndall. In the last 15 weeks of the year, the broadcasts collectively spent four minutes per week on the war.

A week before Petraeus' testimony, Katie Couric did some of her best journalism since joining CBS during a trip to Iraq and Syria.

Her reward? The least-watched week for the "CBS Evening News" since at least 1987, and probably long before.

"The story there is so difficult to cover and there's so little to get to that represents something you haven't said already and haven't shown already," said Paul Friedman, senior vice president of CBS News.

It's also dangerous and expensive, he said.

Unless the story changes dramatically, Friedman said, the point may come when a network pulls full-time staff from the country.

Whether the media is to blame or not, people clearly know less about what's going on in Iraq than they used to. About half of Americans have consistently been able to correctly estimate how many U.S. military personnel have died there, most recently last August. But a survey conducted two weeks ago by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found only 28 percent knew that just about 4,000 Americans have been killed.

To this point, the networks say they haven't cut back on their staffing and commitment to covering Iraq.

"It's clear that this is going to be a big story for some time to come," said ABC News President David Westin. "It's our job to find ways of presenting that story in the most memorable and compelling ways to our audience because they need to know what's going on there."

That means replacing micro stories - how many people were killed by the latest roadside bomb - with macro stories of investigations and subtle changes in Iraqi society, said NBC News President Steve Capus.

For correspondents, the trade-off is less exposure on the air for more interesting stories that show enterprise. ABC's Terry McCarthy reported a love story with a Sunni woman and Shiite man marrying to the backdrop of sectarian violence in Baghdad. NBC's Richard Engel spent 10 days in Najaf reporting on Iranian influence there, and Damon got a strong viewer reaction to her story about a 5-year-old boy whose face was doused with gasoline.

"There is always news out there if you look for it," said Jon Klein, CNN U.S. president. "What too many news organizations were doing was covering the car bomb du jour, and when the car bombing ceased, the coverage ceased."

Still, Engel senses a growing dissatisfaction among some correspondents about the lack of air time.

Engel said he believed war news would come back to the fore. It was pushed back following the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, but those stories faded. This interval is just longer than the others, he said.

"Obviously, the economy is really critical and the campaign is really critical," Rosenstiel said. "But you do have a sense that when all is said and done, when we have a new president, the thing that will dominate the presidency is the war."

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