'Conflict' turns into 'civil war'

In changing the wording, NBC shapes public thinking

Critical Eye

December 03, 2006|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,[Sun Television Critic]

That so-called dinosaur, network TV news, let forth a loud roar last week. Who knew a fossil could make so much noise?

The bellowing began Monday when NBC announced that it had decided to call the conflict in Iraq a civil war.

Before 24 hours had passed, what constitutes a civil war was being debated on Capitol Hill, parsed on the front pages of newspapers nationwide and discussed on TV and radio talk shows.

"Even if network news is a dinosaur, it still has a huge audience -- an aggregate that can be matched nowhere else in the media -- and that's a fact often overlooked," said Philip M. Seib, author of Going Live: Doing the News Right in a Real-Time Online World (Roman & Littlefield 2001).

"The lesson of the week is an unmistakable reminder that national broadcast networks can still have a profound effect on political discourse in this country in a way that no single newspaper, with the possible exception of The New York Times, can hope to have."

Indeed the network wasn't the first media organization to make such a decision: The Los Angeles Times, one of the nation's largest and most influential newspapers, last October began referring in its pages to the conflict in Iraq as a civil war, with hardly a blip in either media or national debates.

But NBC's decision was announced by co-host Matt Lauer on the Today show, the highest-rated of the network morning shows, and reached a daily audience of 5.7 million viewers.

"For months now, the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war, and for the most part, news organizations like NBC have hesitated to characterize it as such," Lauer told viewers.

"But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted, that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterized as civil war."

The White House reacted within hours.

"What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences, and also trying to destabilize a democracy -- which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters as President Bush set off on a trip that would bring him to Amman, Jordan, by midweek to discuss Iraq.

And what did Bush find waiting for him when he arrived in Amman? All three network anchors -- NBC's Brian Williams, ABC's Charles Gibson and CBS' Katie Couric -- whose presence would further heighten the focus on Iraq for their combined audience of 25.9 million viewers a night.

(NBC also leads the evening news race with 9.47 million viewers a night, compared with 8.48 million for ABC, and 7.96 million for CBS, according to the most recent Nielsen Media Research ratings available.)

Throughout the fall, when the Los Angeles Times was calling Iraq a civil war, "it was a contained problem" that could largely be ignored by the White House, Seib pointed out. The Los Angeles Times is owned by the Tribune Corp. (which also owns The Sun) and has a daily circulation of 775,766 readers.

When NBC took up the term, the conflict was suddenly being framed in a new and highly negative way for millions of viewers coast to coast, and the president had little choice but to respond -- a move that practically guaranteed page one coverage and the debate that followed.

The different ways in which NBC News and the Los Angeles Times handled their editorial decisions also contributed to the vast divide in reactions, according to some analysts.

"NBC made an affirmative announcement about it on TV, as opposed to the Times, which did it more quietly," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based media think tank and educational forum.

Rosenstiel also noted that a decision by NBC News might have more clout than one made by another network because of NBC's first-place status in morning and evening newscasts -- and multimedia muscle.

"When NBC News makes a policy decision, it cuts across numerous platforms," he said. "It's in MSNBC.com, MSNBC cable TV, CNBC cable TV, the NBC Nightly News and the Today show. If you cobble together all of those audiences, it far outstrips even the readership and pass-on rate of the New York Times."

Not to overstate the case, however, Rosenstiel added that, as large as the audience for the three networks' nightly newscasts is compared to any print forum, it has shrunk to only half what it was 20 years ago: "Despite the reaction to NBC's decision, I wouldn't say any of these news organizations any more can singularly set the national agenda the way they once did."

What happened last week with NBC is but an echo of 1968, when Walter Cronkite, anchorman for the CBS Evening News, after traveling to Vietnam to report on the TET offensive, closed a newscast by predicting that the war would end in "stalemate."

"That's it," President Lyndon Johnson said after seeing the broadcast. "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

Nevertheless, while that was long ago and far away in a three-network universe, before the age of media fragmentation, Seib still sees the same dynamic at play in last week's decision by NBC and the reaction to it.

"It's a classic example of the same tension between the administration and a major network as to how a conflict is going to be framed and perceived. Maybe not as much, but the networks still matter in the same kind of way."


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