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The big story
With Iraq taking center stage, other news gets squeezed. Plus, Danny Schechter goes public, Spare Change News goes pro, and the Globe goes porn.

ITíS THE SORT of problem television news executives wish they had more often: a running story of such overwhelming importance that it crowds out other news. Such is the case with the war in Iraq. Since early April, when the charred corpses of American contractors were strung up on a bridge in Fallujah, and especially since April 28, when 60 Minutes II broadcast the first of those terrible photos from the Abu Ghraib prison, the focus on Iraq has been constant and unrelenting. Every day seems to bring a shocking new development, such as the videotaped beheading of American hostage Nicholas Berg last week and the assassination of Iraqi Governing Council leader Ezzidin Salim this past Monday.

"If youíre going to be owned by a story, youíd rather be owned by a story of meaning than by Kobe Bryant or Michael Jackson," says Aaron Brown, the host of CNNís NewsNight with Aaron Brown. "This matters, and as the person responsible for making editorial judgments on the program, I would rather sort through this kind of stuff than have it be the other way around."

Yet there is a cost to such a single-minded focus. There are major stories getting little or no coverage, from John Kerryís presidential campaign (probably fine with Kerry, given the pounding that George W. Bush is taking) to the environment (never a television favorite). Brown points to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharonís recent visit to the White House and proposed changes to overtime pay as stories that didnít get enough attention. And there are the little things, too. When Brown and I spoke last Friday, he was wondering whether he would be able to find room that evening for a Jeff Greenfield feature on Oakland Aís general manager Billy Beane. (He did.) And he talked about the difficulty of doing such pieces as his nightly round-up of the next morningís papers, which he generally delivers with an exceedingly light touch.

"Itís not news-of-day stuff, by and large, that doesnít make it. Itís the back-of-the-book texture stuff that helps define the program," Brown says. "It is harder to do the off-beat stuff that is also part of life and that is also part of what we ought to do if we can."

Every news organization must divert resources to give a story like the war in Iraq the coverage it deserves. But television, unlike newspapers, is governed by the clock. Every minute given to one story means that minute is no longer available for something else. Each of the three nightly network newscasts ó by far the most-watched news programming in the country, despite audience drop-off in recent years ó contains only 18 to 19 minutes of news. According to the Tyndall Report, the networks devoted 101 of their 285 minutes during the last week of April (the most recent numbers available) to various aspects of the war in Iraq and the wider struggle against terrorism.

"Weíve got two things going on: Iraq and an election year," says Brian Rooney, an ABC News correspondent based in Los Angeles. "Even without Iraq, election years are difficult for other kinds of coverage." His sister Emily Rooney, host of WGBH-TVís Greater Boston and a former executive producer of ABC Newsí World News Tonight, adds, "Whatís going on with Arnold Schwarzenegger? After all that frenzy, we have no idea." She also cites serious stories like the brutal civil war taking place in Sudan ó a story not entirely absent from television, but one that ought to be getting more coverage, especially given the failure of the international community to respond to genocide in Rwanda during the 1990s. (In fact, CNNís NewsNight featured Christiane Amanpour reporting from Sudan last week.)

National Public Radio has many more hours to fill than television. (Even the 24-hour cable news channels consist mainly of talk shows, and broadcast the same stories repeatedly throughout the day except when thereís breaking news.) Bruce Drake, NPRís vice-president for news, says that his network has carried 70 to 80 stories on Abu Ghraib and related developments, a figure that rises to more than 100 if other Iraq-related stories are factored in. But with five hours of news plus the two-hour Talk of the Nation every weekday, there is time to accommodate other news, too. What has mainly suffered, he says, is the ability to cover non-Iraq foreign news, since many of the networkís foreign reporters are being rotated through Iraq.

"For that reason we havenít done as much as we might have done, say, on the recent European Union expansion," Drake says. "Domestic coverage is not a problem. We have the shelf space, and a reporter covering health care is certainly not going to be pulled into the Iraq story." Adds NPR managing editor William Marimow: "I think when you have something this important and this incendiary, whether you are NPR, a TV station, or a newspaper, it has to dominate. Stories like this come along once every three or four years."

So what are we missing? "Itís always hard to prove the negative. The unexpected, the serendipitous ó thatís what gets left out," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Thereís probably no logical alternative. The war is an overriding issue, but that comes with consequences. Iím sure weíll find out in two years that things went unnoticed ó things that will come back to haunt us."

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Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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