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With Petraeus as Star, Iraq Debate has its Biggest Week

For months, expectations built around General David Petraeus’ September progress report on the Iraq war. The moment was billed, at least by some, to be a turning point in the struggle over war policy raging between the Democratic-led Congress and the Bush White House.

And by sheer numbers, the event was indeed big. The debate over the war last week commanded more inches of newsprint and more time on TV than any week so far in 2007.

Yet after the House and Senate testimony by Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, as well as a prime-time address by President Bush, some media post-mortems wondered what—if anything—had changed in the battle for control over the war.

A primary outcome appeared to be the administration getting “more time,” to pursue its policy, USA Today declared. The Washington Post reported that “what seems increasingly clear is that Washington will remain locked in an endless war over Iraq…” Said former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta: “The headline for the last week is that the war is pretty much going to be on a stay-the-course path…”

Why the long-awaited September status report on the war did not seem to prove the turning point once anticipated offers something of a lesson about the media culture today, about the art of communications, the behavior of the media, and the complexity of the war.

In retrospect, four elements seemed to help turn the event into something less dramatic. First, much of what occurred last week had already been foreshadowed, or leaked, by partisans on all sides. Second, the Administration’s placing of so much emphasis on a highly respected general in the field made challenging him, or debating the policy, more difficult last week. Third, much of the press coverage of last week’s testimony featured words like “withdrawal” and “cutbacks” rather than Petraeus’ determination to continue present policy and eschew any major reductions. And finally, the press itself offered some enterprise reporting on the eve of the testimony, which highlighted the complexities of the situation.

None of this means the story was ignored. When the week was over, the Iraq policy debate filled 36% of the newshole, as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index for Sept. 9-14, a universe that includes newspapers, web sites, TV newscasts and radio talk and news. That marked the biggest week of coverage of that subject in 2007, eclipsing the previous high of 34% from Jan. 7-12 when Bush announced the “surge” in the first place.

That number is so high it means the policy debate over the war last week was the second-biggest story of the year to date, behind only the Virginia Tech massacre, which accounted for 51% of the newshole from April 15-20.

Indeed, when combined with the second-biggest story of last week, coverage of events on the ground in Iraq, the war filled 42% of the newshole in PEJ’s Index. That was the heaviest week of overall Iraq coverage in 2007.

Iraq loomed so large last week that only two other stories filled more than 2% of the newshole. The 9/11 commemorations were the third-biggest story (5%) and the 2008 presidential campaign was next, also at 5%. The fifth-biggest story (2%) was the investigation surrounding Madeleine McCann, the four-year-old UK girl who went missing in Portugal in early May.

With Petraeus as Star, Iraq Debate has its Biggest Week