Their Versions of the Vote in
By Howard Kurtz
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; Page C01
Less than an hour before the Iraqi polls closed, correspondent Jim Maceda was reporting on MSNBC that some voters were so afraid that they asked if they could sneak in the back of a polling station. At almost the same moment, CNN's Jane Arraf was interviewing a man who was proud to talk about his vote in front of a camera.
On Fox News, former coalition spokesman Dan Senor, now a Fox analyst, was praising the process, followed by a parade of mostly pro-administration guests -- Richard Perle, Alexander Haig, Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, Republican Rep. Ted Poe, Robert MacFarlane, Bill Kristol, Newt Gingrich and Oliver North (who called it "a great day for America and a great day for freedom").
From the moment the first Iraqis cast their ballots, the administration's supporters and critics were out in force, pushing their preferred story line. True, no one knows yet who won, or how many Sunnis turned out despite boycott threats, and 45 people were killed in a matter of hours. But none of that could stop the message wars.
Later on Sunday morning, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was declaring the election process "better than expected" on "Face the Nation," one of four Sunday shows she dropped by, while Sen. John Kerry was cautioning on "Meet the Press" that "no one should overhype this election." President Bush went before the cameras at 1 p.m. to declare the elections a "resounding success," and most newspaper front pages trumpeted his assessment yesterday.
Administration spokesmen also blitzed the morning
programs yesterday, with John Negroponte, the
Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the
Defense of Democracies, a
Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show, was far more
critical of the coverage. "All the media expressed shock and surprise that
the turnout was so high and there was as little violence as there was. . . .
Who are these people to be setting expectations?" he asked yesterday. Even
Some liberals dismissed the notion that they were
disappointed. "This wasn't a defeat for anybody," Al Franken said on
If some television viewers were surprised by Sunday's spectacle, it may be because much of the media coverage since Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled has focused on the shootings, kidnappings and suicide bombings that have claimed the lives of American soldiers and Iraqis alike. This is in part because attacks are a natural and heart-rending story for the media, especially if there is dramatic video, and in part because of the dangerous environment for journalists.
"What we've missed out on is Iraqi
thinking," said Donatella Lorch,
a onetime foreign correspondent for Newsweek, NBC and the New York Times,
because "our reporters on the ground are so constrained. As a westerner,
you can't go out and visit Hassan on the fourth floor
of his apartment for dinner and find out how he's feeling. It's not a pleasant
job, being a reporter in
Pollack agreed that violence has been a staple of the coverage, but said: "I don't see that as evidence of liberal bias. It's inherent in the news process -- you focus on what's sensational."
Numbers also played a role in shaping the early coverage. When an Iraqi official estimated a 72 percent turnout rate early Sunday, the figure was repeatedly cited by anchors and correspondents, although a few noted that it sounded unrealistically high. It turned out to be as accurate as the American exit polls in November. But although the official number was later downgraded to 60 percent, that may not be accurate, either.
an amazing media error, a huge blunder," said
The number of adults in
No one would contest that the tableau of Iraqis proudly waving their fingers, purple with election ink, was a stirring sight, but there were casualties as well.
"Forty-five dead -- that's not peanuts," Lorch said. "If that had happened in the
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.