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AP Picks Terror, Iraq As 2004 Top Stories

by Jim Lobe

Did editors stress terrorism in 2004 to help Bush?

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- While President Bush's November re-election topped the Associated Press' (AP) annual listing of the top 10 news stories for 2004, the other leading choices suggested that the news media might have helped him in his quest.

The list, which reflected the votes of 234 national and local editors, news directors and similar "gatekeepers," whose media organizations are part of AP's vast U.S. network, played heavily into Bush's main campaign theme: that the world was an extremely dangerous place dominated by terrorists and related "evil-doers."

While the list also suggested greater-than-ever concern about events abroad, the focus of that worry was confined virtually exclusively to the threats posed by Islamist terrorism, as well as the bloody insurgency in Iraq.

Thus, for example, the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan -- which both Congress and the administration denounced as genocide in mid-year -- did not make into the top 10. In contrast, the AP's 1984 list, also headed by the re-election of a U.S. president (Ronald Reagan), featured the lethal gas leak at a Union Carbide factory that killed some 7,000 people in Bhopal, India in the number two spot, and the Ethiopian famine as number six.

Indeed, with the arguable exception of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, all five of the clearly international stories featured in this year's list, were Iraq or terrorism-related; none dealt with global issues, such as HIV/AIDS or other diseases, the global environment, or even the effect of rising oil and commodity prices on the world -- or even the domestic -- economy.

In fact, no economic issues, normally a staple of AP's top 10 lists and a decided weakness for Bush during the election campaign, appeared at all, despite the conventional wisdom that people tend to "vote their pocketbooks."

According to a Gallup poll released this week, local news media -- almost all of which depend on AP for their basic coverage -- remain the most relied on source of daily news for about two-thirds of U.S. citizens, significantly more than cable or network television news, talk radio, national newspapers such as 'The New York Times' or the Internet.

In that respect, the gatekeepers whose choices are represented in the AP poll represent as influential a group on how the U.S. public sees current events in the world as any other medium, and probably more so.

The top ten stories they chose were: 1. the U.S. election; 2. Iraq; 3. Florida hurricanes; 4. abuses of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison; 5. release of the final report of the Sept. 11 Commission; 6. homosexual "marriage;" 7. the death of Arafat; 8. the death of Reagan; 9. the seizure of a Russian school by Chechen guerrillas in Beslan; and 10. the train bombings in Madrid by Islamist militants and the subsequent election defeat of the pro-Bush government there.

To Steve Weber, an analyst at the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), the list, insofar as it represents the views of a representative group of news gatekeepers around the country, is somewhat encouraging. PIPA has tracked U.S. public opinion about world events and issues for some 15 years.

"It's interesting that five or six are international stories," he noted in an interview. "It may reflect how America is becoming more embedded in the world. When you think how little international news is covered in most American newspapers, it's surprising. It seems that the gatekeepers recognize that international stories are more important to citizens, and the media needs to catch up."

Weber also noted the irony that some of the stories -- particularly the Iraq war and the Abu Ghraib scandal -- were shown during the election campaign to have hurt Bush's standing in the public-opinion polls, but "it's clear that the larger role of terrorism in the past year worked for him."

Polls consistently showed public disapproval of Bush's handling of Iraq but a strong preference for him over Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry in the broader "war against terrorism" -- something that would have been reinforced by the prominence the nation's news gatekeepers gave to the Beslan school seizure and the Madrid bombings.

Of course, their prominence may be a reflection of the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" mentality that has dominated U.S. news coverage, especially local TV news, for at least two decades. And the fact that the world's news media were on the spot in both Russia and Madrid -- where some 330 and 200 people, respectively, were killed -- to offer hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-by-minute coverage of the mayhem in both events might explain why, for example, Darfur's "genocide" simply could not compete.

But the terrorism narrative, which suggests that the violence inflicted or provoked by the Islamist perpetrators is directed as much at the United States as it is at its Spanish or Russian victims, almost certainly played a major role in explaining the stories' "popularity" with the gatekeepers.

Interestingly, the list does not mention al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, also reflecting Bush's public utterances that the man who apparently directed the 9/11 attacks is no longer the U.S. main terrorism target.

The sense in which the violence is directed at "us" also feeds what some media analysts have referred to as the "narcissism" of U.S. news coverage.

"Americans are given the sense they are some kind of unique victims and heroes of the world," according to Dan Hallin, who teaches political communications at the University of California at San Diego. "Everything revolves around them."

That comes through very strongly in this year's list, particularly if the Beslan and Madrid violence were reported or understood in the context of the wider "war against terrorism." Only Arafat's death arguably stands on its own as something that does not necessarily affect the U.S. directly.

Thus, "Florida hurricanes," as the number three story is called, deals exclusively with the impact of Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne on "Florida and other southern states in August and September, killing 117 persons in Florida destroying 2,500 homes and causing more than 22 billion dollars in insured losses. Not since 1886 had one state been hit by four hurricanes in one season," according to the AP summary.

No mention here of Ivan's impact in the Caribbean, particularly on Grenada, where 90 percent of the island's structures were damaged, a third of its homes destroyed and its all-important nutmeg and cocoa crops completely wiped out, or on Haiti, where as many as 3,000 people -- about the same number killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- died in flooding that destroyed most of Gonaives, the third largest city in the Americas' poorest nation.

Perhaps if U.S. troops had been sent to help with relief operations in Haiti that story might have made it into the top 10, but such a mission would not have been consistent with the overriding anti-terrorism narrative that was at the heart of the Bush campaign.

AP's 1984 List:

l. The Reagan election landslide, 2. The Bhopal disaster, 3. Geraldine Ferraro (Democratic nominee for vice president), 4. Indira Gandhi's assassination, 5. The bombing of the U.S. embassy annex in Beirut, 6. The Ethiopian famine, 7. The summer Olympics, 8. Implants of a baboon heart and an artificial heart, 9. The economy, 10. The slaying of 21 people at the McDonald's in San Ysidro, California.

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Albion Monitor December 28, 2004 (

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