Top Story of 2006: Iraq

"Grave—and deteriorating" was the Iraq Study Group's grim diagnosis of the situation in Iraq. But anyone who watched the networks' coverage in 2006 knew this long before the bipartisan group issued its report last month.

Iraq was the story of the year for 2006, occupying fully 14% of the entire newshole, according to the year-end totals for the weekday nightly newscasts of the Big Three broadcast networks. The war reclaimed the top spot after being displaced in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, and it halted a steady decline in coverage since the war began in 2003.

Of the year's top five stories, four were continuations of long-running stories: the war in Iraq, the aftermath of Katrina, the aftermath of 9/11 and the climbing price of oil. The fifth concerned a fresh calamity: the four-week summer war between Israel and Hezbollah along the Lebanon border. Besides oil prices, the only other domestic stories to crack the top 10 were the midterm elections and the debate over illegal-immigration legislation.

The Bush administration—and supporters of its conduct of the war—has long complained that nightly news coverage of Iraq is dominated by the daily death tolls. This characterization had no basis in fact when the war started in 2003. But in 2006, for the first time, it was accurate.

Only 38% of the networks' Iraq newshole at the war's start was devoted to combat itself (alongside reporting on reconstruction efforts, political reforms and the fate of Saddam Hussein, among other stories). In 2004 and 2005, the focus on combat rose to 44%, and finally attained majority status at 56% in the past year.

The Iraq story selection on NBC Nightly News focused most heavily on the U.S. military combat angle (59% compared to 56% on CBS and 53% on ABC). Befitting the network that ostentatiously chose to call the violence a "civil war," NBC also concentrated more than its rivals on the sectarian violence (80 minutes compared to 54 on CBS and 51 on ABC).

Whether the focus on the spiraling violence unjustly crowded out "a lot of the good things that are happening that aren't covered," as First Lady Laura Bush suggested in an interview on MSNBC, is not clear. But let us not forget that 2006 was a grave year for journalists attempting to cover the situation on the ground in Iraq.

ABC's Bob Woodruff suffered severe head injury when the convoy he and cameraman Doug Vogt were traveling in was hit by an improvised explosive device. An attack in May killed cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan, and left CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier with crippling leg injuries. It's no wonder that their networks devoted more time to reporting on the dangers faced by correspondents (58 minutes on ABC and 73 on CBS versus 39 on NBC).

No doubt, all three networks' Iraq coverage is shaped by the experiences of their correspondents and crew members. The lack of security not only colors their reporting of the worsening violence—it often prevents them from covering the sort of non-combat stories that the first lady believes they are ignoring.