The Spinners,

Casting Their Versions of the Vote in Iraq


By Howard Kurtz

Washington Post Staff Writer


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.

"Iraq has become part and parcel of American domestic politics, and subject to all the tricks of the trade of American politics," said Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "Condi, the president -- the administration was definitely out there trying to turn it into something bigger. It was a very good day -- though it may be irrelevant in the long term -- but it could have been catastrophic."

Administration spokesmen also blitzed the morning programs yesterday, with John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, hitting CBS's "Early Show," CNN's "American Morning" and "Fox & Friends," while Paul Bremer, the former civilian administrator in Iraq, popped up on "Today."

Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, said the pictures were the story. "When you see people literally risking their lives in order to vote, that seems to me to meet the definition of success and shouldn't require a whole lot of spin," said May, a former New York Times correspondent and Republican Party spokesman. "By and large, most of the coverage reflected the fact that Iraqis were going to the polls, lining up, walking miles, risking lives. There was in some of the commentary a kind of grumbling that this is not so important, that this doesn't really prove anything."

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 correspondents in Iraq "can't find" the pro-freedom sentiments among Iraqis, "and they don't want to find it."

Some liberals dismissed the notion that they were disappointed. "This wasn't a defeat for anybody," Al Franken said on Air America radio. "We are thrilled." But, he added, "there's a long, long way to go before Iraq is going to be a stable Western democracy." Liberal radio host Ed Schultz said of conservatives, "It's not that Iraq is moving forward that's important to them as much as it is that it makes Bush look good for one day."

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 Baghdad," said Lorch, who directs the Knight International Press Fellowships.

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.

"It's an amazing media error, a huge blunder," said Clinton White House veteran Robert Weiner. "I'm sure the Bush administration is thrilled by this spin."  The 60 percent figure is based on the notion that 8 million of 14 million eligible Iraqis turned out. But the 14 million figure is the number of registered Iraqis, while turnout is usually calculated using the number of eligible voters.

The number of adults in Iraq is probably closer to 18 million, which would lower the turnout figure. And the registration figure itself is questionable. Anyone who received a ration card was deemed registered, and there was no effort to remove duplicate names or those who sought extra food rations. Election officials concede they did not have a reliable baseline on which to calculate turnout.

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 United States on Election Day, we would have made it a major scandal. Now we're acting like in Iraq it's a great success. We seem to have become numb to the daily car bombs and daily attacks."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.