This study analyzed three months of US and UK media coverage of the legislative elections in Iraq – November 1, 2004 to January 31, 2005.
The US and UK media massively covered the January 2005 Iraqi elections, seeing them on one hand as a referendum on the ability of the nation as a whole to embrace democratic institutions and on the other hand as a referendum on the Bush administration’s foreign policy – and administration of Iraq.
Wrote two reporters in The Washington Post:
“With only three weeks until the elections, the United States is also beefing up its diplomatic efforts to make sure the elections are seen as credible. To ensure a large turnout by Sunni Muslims, considered a key test of the elections’ legitimacy, the Bush administration is pressing the Arab League and reluctant Sunni leaders throughout the Middle East for a last-ditch effort to help mobilize Sunni voters, according to U.S. officials….”
“The latest U.S. efforts come at the crucial first juncture in a year of tests — including two national elections and the writing of a constitution — that will determine whether the U.S. intervention in Iraq can result in the creation of a stable new democracy, U.S. officials say.”
- Who’s on the ballot? Seemingly, it’s Democracy v. Terrorism. U.S. and U.K. media tracked the lead-up to the Iraqi election by reacting to the statements of Bush and Blair – that the election was about the forces of democracy versus the forces of global terrorism.
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- Ok, it’s an election in Iraq. But really, it’s all about us. (Meaning U.S. You know, about America.) Of all five elections looked at in this study, this election was the most extensively covered, in part, one could argue, because the election was framed not as a vote in a distant country, but as a referendum on “Western” political values and U.S. military policies.
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- Who matters? Blocks of voters, more than individuals. Across the board media looked at the “big picture,” rather than focused on how the election and the war were affecting individuals and their families.
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The Stack Graphs below trace key trends in what 12 American and British news outlets had to say during the three months surrounding the 2005 election. The graphics are screen grabs from dynamic charts that can be seen on IBM’s ManyEyes’ site. Click on the charts to go to ManyEyes and see details about the data.
The U.S. and U.K. media were SO OVER trusting the Bush and Blair administrations’ evaluation of events in Iraq. But that didn’t mean that media framed the election, or the surrounding war, in terms different than the politicians. Much of the coverage of the election simply repeated the statements of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair or reacted to the pronouncements of the White House and the Pentagon or Downing Street – as came through in this brief exchange on NPR in the days before the election:
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Terrorists in that country have declared war against democracy itself and, thereby, declared war against the Iraqi people themselves. Yet the elections will go forward, and millions of Iraqi voters will show their bravery, their love of country and their desire to live in freedom.
DON GONYEA: When the president was asked whether enough people will actually show up at the polls to make the Iraqi election credible, he refused to make any predictions as to participation but said the mere fact that the elections were being held at all was a historic sign of progress.
Or this summary in The Guardian, following the election:
“Speaking from the White House after the polls had closed, President Bush said: ‘The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the centre of the Middle East. By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists.’
Tony Blair called the elections a ‘blow right to the heart of global terrorism’ and called on people – whatever their views about the invasion – to embrace the results.”
Overall, media paid relatively little attention to process – including corruption, intimidation and voting irregularities. Most of the coverage focused on politics, especially the intersection of American and British policies and Iraq politics.
And even while most media expressed skepticism that the election would bring truly democratic institutions to the country and would undermine regional and local terrorist groups – especially given the Sunni boycott – the measures of success of the election remained ideological ones. In the coverage, a successful election was a success for democracy, and a victory for democracy was a victory for America… and Iraq.
Politics and Violence. That is what the coverage of the election emphasized.
To the American media’s audience the story revolved around what kind of political and military “progress” had been in Iraq made since 9/11 and the 2003 invasion. What did the election represent not just for Iraq but for Americans in the Middle East? This was the first Iraqi election since the fall of Saddam Hussein and Bush’s invocation of his “War on Terror” and so was covered as a bellwether of Bush doctrines and US foreign policy: “Similar values and a shared global vision.”
But it wasn’t just politics that made their way onto the front pages of the world’s premier news outlets: It was violence – and lots of it. Coverage of the escalating violence typically spoke about it as an effort by terrorists and insurgents to derail the election and “wreak fear and havoc,” as the Financial Times wrote.
A post-election article from the Times of London captured the tenor of much of the reporting:
“The day-after euphoria of many Iraqis and the relief, surprise and admiration of the outside world at the resounding success of Iraq’s first democratic elections in half a century are the latest astonishing testimony to the power of democracy.… The support of Washington for these first steps in empowering millions with the basic rights of freedom was taken as proof that ‘Western’ democracy was either incompatible with Islam or a plot to further Western interests.
Iraq has now vibrantly demonstrated that these theories are false. Millions risked their lives to vote. Neither the violence, the campaign of intimidation nor the corrosive denunciation of those posing as nationalists and freedom fighters deterred Iraqis, young and old, the infirm, the destitute and those who had lost family to terrorism and repression from waiting their turn to choose a representative.”
Whether media were covering the war or covering the election – and they often were covering both in the same stories – they rarely discussed the “people” of Iraq. You know, people like “mothers,” “fathers,” “daughters,” “sons,” even “women.”
When media cover war and conflict, they often speak about the human stories behind the death and destruction. That can mean giving details about who has been killed, who are the survivors.
So too when covering elections: media can decide that personal stories matter; that they need to discuss why people are voting, who is voting. That wasn’t the case for this period of coverage.
Across the board, media repeatedly used the generic term – as well as the masculine term – of “men,” but very rarely did they include any telling, identifying details even about those men, beyond simple numerical facts: “two dozen men were killed,” “three-fourths of the 4,000-member police force ran when the unit came under attack,” “25% of the men are Shias.”
Surprisingly, despite an electoral mandate that stated that one-third of the seats in the legislature were to be held by women, media paid minimal attention to the female candidates. One might have assumed that Americans audiences would have found the stories of Muslim women running for office compelling – especially given on-going coverage of the subjugation of women in Islam – women “under pressure to stay veiled and at home,” as NPR noted. But most of the U.S. news outlets in the study gave little if any attention to even the most popular female candidates, let alone their party platforms.
There were some exceptions, however. The Financial Times wrote several articles about perhaps the most famous woman running for office: Salama al Khafaji, a doctor and Shiite politician.
“Despite the male-dominated world of Iraqi politics, Ms Khafaji has one advantage: she has been able to campaign where her male counterparts cannot.
With the streets increasingly dangerous for candidates, Ms Khafaji has turned to a tradition known as the mulla – gatherings where women come together in each other’s homes to recite poems in praise of Muslim figures and discuss Islam – as a campaign platform.
‘You speak about religious things,’ she said with what is perhaps a slightly guilty chuckle. ‘I use them for elections.'”