As Goes the Statue, So Goes the War: The Emergence of the Victory Frame in Television Coverage of the Iraq War

Article excerpt

Wars begin in declarative, often formalized, moments. One country attacks another, followed by the solemn announcement by the aggrieved country and its allies that they are at war with the invading nation. Regardless of their origins, however, wars usually also have definitive endings, typically marked by ceremonial surrenders or truces. The war in Iraq, by contrast, has not achieved a clear-cut ending. Indeed, more U.S. soldiers died after President George W. Bush declared an end to "major combat operations" in May 2003 than were killed during the 3 weeks of fighting that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (139 before the President's declaration and more than 1,300 after it, as of the time this article was written; iCasualties, 2005).

Yet in a political sense, at least, the war ended on the morning of April 9, 2003. Early that day, reporters in Baghdad began noting that Iraqi government officials, including the "minders" who followed and tried to censor foreign journalists, were not reporting to work. As the sun set in Iraq and rose in America, television audiences were told that the regime of Saddam Hussein had come to an end.

Still, government workers not showing up to work does not make for gripping television, or for a fitting symbolic denouement to war. In addition, there was the contradictory fact that intense fighting continued throughout Baghdad during the entire day and into the night of April 9th. Major operations were yet to be staged in the still unsettled northern part of the country, including Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Hussein himself would not be captured for months. Between the apparent conclusion to the political war and the continuation of the military one lay a narrative gap for the news to bridge. Into that void came what the press quickly identified as the picture that symbolized the war's end: the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad's Firdos Square, located across the street from the Palestine Hotel, where many international journalists were staying.

This study analyzes how that image, due largely to its iconic status, introduced a "victory" frame into news coverage of the war on CNN and Fox News Channel (FNC) and how that frame in turn led to the war falling largely off the news agenda. In doing so, this study adds to a literature merging framing and agenda-setting research. Specifically, we argue that the coverage of the statue falling employed a historical narrative that revealed the mind-set of many journalists covering the story and contributed to the victory frame's power in shaping the news agenda. As has become apparent in the succeeding 2 years, this had profound implications for both international policy and the domestic political landscape in America.

The Press and Patriotism During War

Press coverage during wartime is something quite apart from the adversarial, detached role that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black envisioned when he wrote: "Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell" (Sharkey, 2001, p. 21). Although antagonism between the media and the military is well documented (Aukofer & Lawrence, 1995; Wilson, 2001), prior research shows that press coverage during war is typically uncritical and often patriotic, even jingoistic (Kellner, 1992; Newhagen, 1994; Pyle, 1979). As Hallin (1984) has demonstrated, this includes coverage of the Vietnam War, despite its reputation as being reported on by a hostile media.

This comports with prior research into press coverage of foreign policy and war, which has found that the news tends to parrot official sources and party lines, especially those from the White House. Most notably, Bennett (1989, 1994) has shown that news coverage of war and foreign policy is indexed to the limited range of elite opinions, at least in the short run. …