The Alpha Story

Given how grave things still are in Iraq, why is the war not an Alpha Story for the media?

On the third anniversary of the Iraq war this week, the press made a great noise and offered up the usual timelines, ticktocks, and look-backs.

The war coverage always ramps up for these landmarks.

It happened when the 2,000th American death occurred last year, and it will happen for the next notable number.

These markers are meant to shine a brighter light on the war. But if you think about it, they also underline the way news from Iraq comes and goes. Although the war is constant, the war coverage is inconstant. Oh, stories are always flowing out of Iraq, but the war arrives in a big way only when really big events happen, be they bad news (a mosque bombing) or, less frequently, good news (elections).

In one way, this is just situation normal for the media. News is all about the new, and, let's face it, this is getting to be an old war.

Yet, as everyone in this post-O.J. age knows, some news stories get absolute top billing day after day after day. September 11 did. Hurricane Katrina did. The Clinton-Lewinsky story was huge for so long, it became a way of life.

Each of these was what you might call an Alpha Story, one that effectively blots out the rest of existence. And each retained that status until the crisis or scandal that created it had definitively subsided. When the Katrina story shifted to rebuilding, it dropped down several pegs. When the impeachment vote was over, Clinton-Lewinsky faded.

Given how grave things still are in Iraq, an obvious question arises: Why is the war not an Alpha? It certainly was during the invasion, when all of those American reporters were embedded with U.S. troops. But over time, the story has morphed into something less. Often it's a Beta, and occasionally a Gamma or a Delta. Even the Academy Awards coverage felt bigger for a day or two.

In a fundamental way, this doesn't make sense. As the polls clearly show, Iraq is eating away at Americans. Many have lost faith in the administration. Right now, no other story matters half as much.

The problem is not the resources and energy that American media outlets are devoting to Iraq. The commitment is gigantic, and the coverage is consistently good, especially considering the danger that reporters are in.

The gap is emotional, and it's at the Washington end of things. When Washington reporters are truly hot on a story, nothing can stop them from playing it large. In the Clinton-Lewinsky period, even when polls showed that much of the public was fed up with the story, the media drumbeat continued. After all, the press argued—persuasively, in my opinion—the president of the United States was in a terrible mess. That implicitly mattered.

President Bush is in a terrible mess right now. Iraq is a thousand times more significant than Clinton's worst scandal. Yet the pitch of the Washington war coverage doesn't approach that of the Clinton impeachment. The press corps seems weary and beaten down. Somehow, even when this president is riding low with the public, he still has a way of making the journalists who cover him seem small and powerless—as if they fear that the mandate he claimed after the 2004 election is still firmly in place.

It isn't, and this week it became clear that if the journalists don't realize this, nonjournalists do. News outlets reported that in Bush's travels around the country, he has been encountering more hardball questions from ordinary citizens. In a headline, USA Today called these meetings "feisty forums."

The day before his White House news conference, Bush spoke to one such group in Cleveland, and a number of war zingers reportedly came his way. At the news conference—where only Helen Thomas seemed to be in an Alpha mood—one reporter told Bush how unhappy those feisty Clevelanders seemed about the war, as if this gave his question heft. And it did.

Once upon a time, journalists told the people which stories mattered most. Now the people are leading the media.