As goes the statue, so goes the war: the emergence of the victory frame in television coverage of the Iraq war.

Author:Aday, Sean
 
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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. Dickson (1995), for example, found that government sources defined the range of debate in New York Times coverage of the U.S. invasion of Panama. Entman and Page (1994) found similar results in coverage leading up to the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, showing that dissenters received less coverage than did officials who exercised some control over war policy and that the press rarely aired fundamental critiques of administration policy.

These findings hold important lessons for understanding coverage of the events in Firdos Square on April 9th, especially when one considers that the war in Iraq had even more elite Consensus, at least as defined by the number of senators voting to grant the President the authority to declare war, than did the Persian Gulf War in 1991. In 1991, the U.S. Senate voted 52 to 47, and the House 250 to 183, in favor of a resolution authorizing the president to use "all necessary means" to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. By contrast, a similar resolution in 2002 passed the Senate 77 to 33 and the House 296 to 133.

Although there is disagreement about whether it is functional or dysfunctional for the press to be intentionally patriotic (or, alternatively, objective) in wartime, our concern here is not with such normative questions. Rather, we are interested in understanding how journalists, consciously or unconsciously, framed a critical moment in the war, the fall of Hussein's statue in Firdos Square. Hence, the relevance of studies showing the press to be historically favorable to elite sources, especially during war, are relevant to this study because they provide a context out of which a victory frame might be expected to arise. That is, a press primed by administration officials to expect unqualified celebrations on the part of liberated Iraqis (as we will discuss in more detail later) might be particularly inclined to reflexively frame an event in similar terms.

Iconic Framing of Media Events

Many scholars have noted the relationship between historical analogies and iconic images in framing coverage of wars, foreign policy, and other dramatic events such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Shaw and Martin (1993) have shown how the press often seeks to understand wars and their seminal moments by looking backward. So, World War II's Battle of the Bulge was used as the analogy for the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, and Saddam Hussein became the living incarnate of Adolf Hitler before and during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. These analogies can frame media and elite debate, often at the exclusion of other legitimate frames that might have encouraged different policy choices (Dorman & Livingston, 1994).

The power of historical metaphor is not limited to semantics however. Zelizer (2002) argued that the invocation of value-laden iconic photographs can have similar effects, including the marshaling of public support for political and military action. Cottle (2002) further argued that the image of the collapsing Trade Center has now become itself an iconic image rife with meaning. As we will show, on April 9th the iconic historical reference point for the press was the image of East Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall in 1989, an image that helped feed a victory frame suggesting the war was over.

Indeed, one finds similar iconographic images associated with most modern wars. Sontag (2003) has called these "canonical images." Whether reflecting deeper cultural needs for symbolic catharsis, or the more immediate needs of the propagandist, a common feature of canonical images is their synthetic nature. They are often mixtures of actual events and stagecraft; for example, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders recreating their charge up San Juan Hill after the Vitagraph cameramen concluded the actual charge--which was also filmed--lacked sufficient drama (Sontag, 2003). Similarly, the photograph of U.S. Marines raising the flag atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima is regarded as one of the greatest photographs in American history, yet the scene captured by cameraman Joe Rosenthal was staged and the picture cropped to enhance its power (Sontag, 2003). In short, iconographic images often arise from a confluence of circumstances and, at times, various degrees of manipulation. American soldiers, for example, ended up being the ones who actually brought down the statue of Hussein in Firdos Square on April 9th. Whatever their origins, visual images can produce deep iconographic significance.

With this in mind, Bennett and Lawrence's (1995) discussion of news icons is particularly useful in understanding the dynamics of the Firdos Square coverage. They defined a news icon as "a powerful condensational image, arising out of a news event, that evokes primary cultural themes" (p. 22). They added that iconic images live on "beyond [their] originating event by being introduced into a variety of subsequent news contexts" (p. 20). In their conceptualization, icons can be either culturally affirming or challenging. Although Bennett and Lawrence focused on an instance in which an icon (a trash-laden barge that called attention to environmental issues) opened a policy window that challenged the status quo, the question this study explores is whether the image of the Hussein statue falling had just the opposite effect, pushing other challenging story lines (e.g., the continued resistance of Iraqi soldiers and the continued inability to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction) off the news agenda in favor of a narrative reinforcing the liberator and victory frames.

The Power of News Frames to Make Images Iconic and Set the Media Agenda

News framing offers a useful way of understanding the relationship between iconic imagery and the events they not only depict but come to define. A useful conceptualization--the one that will be used here--is provided by Entman (1993), who said that news framing involves reporters selecting certain information to include in...

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