Once again Fox News has polled on questions other news organizations have not seemed to explore, for example, "is Iraq part of the war on terror?" or "does supporting the troops mean bringing them home, or giving them more money?" And the results are -- well, essentially incoherent. A majority of Americans (but just barely) agree with the Bush administration's argument that conceptually the war in Iraq is a part of the overall War on Terror. An majority believe that "support the troops" means -- bring them home. This is staggering. It means the leftist rhetoric that essentially portrays the soldier, the armed US combat soldier, the strongest, most competent, best trained, best equipped, most professional soldier in the history of the world, as an infantilized victim, needing us to protect them, by fighting for them in the political arena where they are presumably helpless, so we can bring them "home" -- in other words, protect them by returning them from danger to saftey is persuasive to a majority of the Americans those soldiers protect. It is a rhetoric that portrays us as the only ones who can protect them since they cannot maneuver in the political realm. Yet a sizeable majority also believes that the right thing to do is to see things through in Iraq, which is obviously only possible if the soldiers stay in danger.
How can this jumble of incoherent, indeed, contradictory, beliefs, be held by the same public? Remember, the consensus of research on combat casualties is clear. The American people will tolerate casualties unless they begin to believe that the deaths of the troops are meaningless. But consider what happens with Iraq coverage when, for example, fire coverage takes over, or a political story masquerading as Iraq coverage. This is not about the balance between good news and bad news, as much as it is about the way bad news is presented. Rushed, but not wanting to cut the human interest pieces, the news you can use, whatever it is that fills the back half of the program, the networks pretend to cover Iraq many nights. They do this by having the anchor "report" the Iraq news, rather than throwing to a reporter actually in Iraq. That's a signal that rather than stories, we are about to get a series of headline length sentences, things so important they don't dare ignore them -- generally combat casualties fall into that category.
What is the result? "Two soldiers died in Iraq today when their humvee was hit by an RPG near Baghdad." There is no narrative, no context, nothing more than a technical cause of death -- a location and a weapon. Was that death "meaningful?" How can we tell? Forget the larger debate for the moment. What about that death reported that night. Was the action on our instigation, offensive, or were US forces ambushed? Was it a raid that netted a huge arms cache and three terrorists -- or was it a convoy that got ambushed, and all the bad guys got away? There is a debate to be had over whether or not the deaths in Iraq are meaningless or not, but that debate is impossible when all narrative, thus all possibility for meaning, is stripped out in this fashion. How could people possibly perceive these as anything other than meaningless deaths when the press give them no meaning?
But the other thing this data set seems to suggest is that it is not too late. People still think what we are doing is the right thing to do. They want to believe. The question is whether the administration can still make a persuasive argument with or without them seeing adequate evidence in the coverage they see night after night.