Nearly two-thirds of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq say the media are going overboard in covering it, while only a third of war supporters feel that way, according to a survey released yesterday.
The findings by the Pew Research Center make clear that a fundamental divide on the saturation coverage of the war, which seemed to peak with yesterday's dramatic pictures of the liberation of Baghdad, is driven by personal views of that war.
"There's probably a little bit of blaming the messenger on part of opponents of the war," said Andrew Kohut, the center's director.
While the news business generally drew high marks for chronicling the three-week-old conflict, four in 10 of those surveyed say the press is paying too much attention to antiwar protesters. Armchair generals also got mixed reviews, with 36 percent saying the media are giving too much prominence to retired military officers and 11 percent saying too little.
The survey is a vindication of sorts for the 600 embedded reporters traveling with U.S. and British troops, with eight in 10 of those questioned saying these journalists are fair and objective. But there are signs of a partisan split here as well, with 7 percent saying these reporters are too critical of U.S. forces and 7 percent saying they go too far in taking the side of the troops.
In fact, 18 percent of those who believe the United States should not have invaded Iraq say embedded reporters side with the troops too much.
In the same vein, 52 percent of war opponents say there has been too little coverage of Iraqi civilian casualties, compared to 23 percent of war supporters. A similar split emerges on whether there should be more news about the war's costs.
"I don't think there's any question that the people who are most critical of the media coverage are the most opposed to the war," said Alex Jones, who runs the Shorenstein press center at Harvard University. "They wanted to frame the war as an ongoing debate about whether we should or shouldn't be there. . . . The ones who liked the coverage best were the ones who most strongly supported the war and watched Fox. That was the coverage that conformed to what they thought."
Perhaps the most surprising finding in the poll of 912 people -- considering the global importance of the story -- is that 39 percent of those questioned say there is too much war coverage.
What do readers and viewers want instead? Overall, 45 percent of respondents said there was too little coverage of the tax-cut debate, 43 percent cited the economy, 42 percent said the budget deficit and -- some 10 months before the primaries begin -- 38 percent said the Democratic presidential race. A third wanted more coverage of the respiratory disease SARS.
Media criticism has long been influenced by personal views of the controversy at hand, as a review of past Pew surveys shows.
In the poll completed Monday, 80 percent of war supporters say the Iraq coverage has been excellent or good, compared to 62 percent of those who oppose the war.
In August 1998, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, 41 percent of those who wanted President Bill Clinton impeached said there was too much coverage, compared to 82 percent of those who opposed impeachment.
In January 1991, during the first Persian Gulf War, 83 percent of those who favored the war gave the coverage high marks, compared to 60 percent of the war's critics -- a mirror image of the latest results.
"If you don't like the story, you are more critical of the coverage," Kohut said.
The round-the-clock reporting has made the war nearly impossible to ignore. Over the weekend, 54 percent said they were following the war very closely, with 39 percent saying they "can't stop watching." Sixty-two percent said the coverage makes them sad, half said it frightens them and 37 percent said it tires them out.
Nearly seven in 10 say they prefer neutral reporting on the war, while 23 percent want the coverage to be pro-American -- an increase from the 16 percent who preferred a pro-American tilt in February, before the shooting started.