The L.A. Times Is Too Pessimistic About The Iraqi Elections By Patterico

Yesterday I told you about two stories, one from the Washington Post and one from the L.A. Times, which covered the same event (the release of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s annual report on the judiciary) in very different ways.

Today I want to provide another example of two stories from the L.A. Times and Washington Post covering similar topics. We’ll do it quiz-style. I’ll give you the headlines of the stories and some relevant excerpts. Your mission is to guess which story appeared in the Post and which was in the Times.

One story is titled: An Election Day That Could Be a Close Call. The sub-head reads: “Worried about unrest, a volatile Sunni Muslim area of Iraq is bracing for this month’s vote. Most candidates skip a chance to tape ads.” It opens:

BAQUBAH, Iraq — At the former Baath Party headquarters known as the Blue Dome, everything was set for candidates in the upcoming elections to come in and tape political ads for local TV. . . . But recording the campaign spots this recent morning didn’t take long.
Only three people showed up.

The story is full of pessimism, and suggests that Iraqis may be reluctant to vote:

A boycott here in central Iraq in the area known as the Sunni Triangle could undermine the elections. Some Sunni Muslim politicians say that continued violence, especially in the central and northern parts of the country, will make it difficult to hold a fair election.
. . . .

Many Iraqis worry the elections will spur even more violence.

“We are fearful,” said one Iraqi woman. “Maybe because of the election, it will be worse.”

. . . .

Throughout Baqubah and its southern suburb of Buhriz, insurgent groups are distributing leaflets that promise death to those who vote. Freshly painted graffiti spell out “Praise Be Fallouja” — the insurgent stronghold recaptured in November — and “Join the Jihad.”

All of this leaves Schnell, the intelligence officer, to ponder whether he would vote if he were an Iraqi.

“I think I would,” he said. “But I don’t live here.”

The article ends with this cute story:

Still, the three who showed up had enough time to deliver their messages. Candidates from the Communist Party and the Elites of Diyala explained their parties’ platforms — improving local infrastructure and irrigation, an interpreter said. The third candidate, from the Socialist Arab Movement, read from a script as U.S. soldiers watched him exercise his right to free speech: “No to the American occupation,” he told the camera.

The story from the other newspaper is titled: Iraqi Officials Cite Rise Of Interest in Elections. The sub-head reads: “In Final Week, Many Act to Ensure Registration.” And the first sentence says:

The number of Iraqis making sure they are properly registered to vote has surged dramatically, officials said Saturday, calling the rise evidence of enthusiasm for the Jan. 30 elections despite continuing security concerns that have blocked the process in two provinces.

The story is optimistic in tone:

Officials said more than 2.1 million people went to local election offices to assure that eligible members of their households could vote. About 1.2 million forms were submitted to add names to the voter lists, an involved process that requires providing proof of identification and residence.
“That’s a definite marker of voter interest,” said an expert with the Independent Election Commission of Iraq who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Because Iraqis do not have to take any steps to register to vote — food rationing accounts serve as voter rolls — requests for corrections are essentially the only gauge of voter involvement in the registration process for the Jan. 30 election.

“This is a very good indicator,” said Hussein Hindawi, who heads the election office. “We are very optimistic.”

Your mission: to guess which story appeared in the Washington Post and which was in the L.A. Times.

If you guessed that the first story was published in the L.A. Times and the second one appeared in the Washington Post, you win the grand prize: a hearty “Attaboy!” from Patterico.

Is the Washington Post story simply being too optimistic? Not at all. It reports that the percentage of likely voters is lower in the Sunni areas, and spins this news in an unnecessarily negative way:

In such Sunni provinces where insurgents remain active, the level of voter preparation will remain unknown until officials break down the nationwide tally by province, which could take several more days. But in a poll for the International Republican Institute, more than 40 percent of residents surveyed in Sunni areas said they did not intend to vote.

In the poll, conducted in late October and early November, more than a quarter of Sunnis surveyed responded with the most adamant option: “Not intend at all.” Only 20 percent said they “strongly intend” to vote.

Here’s another way to look at the results of that poll. Looking at the poll’s most recent results (from November), the poll said that 67% of Iraqis believe that the country will be ready to hold elections by the end of January. 84% said they intend to vote — and of those, 71.4% said they “strongly” intend to vote. In the Sunni areas, the percentages of likely voters are far lower — but nevertheless, the majority of Sunnis surveyed (53%) said they intend to vote.

But the L.A. Times chooses to focus on the Sunni areas exclusively — and tries to make it sound like as though almost no Sunnis are going to vote. As you can see from the above excerpts, the paper does this by taking isolated quotes that suit this purpose — quotes from a woman on the street worried about violence, or a military official who isn’t sure he’d vote if he lived there.

By the way, I’d like it if either of the stories had put these percentages in perspective. Historically, voter turnout in the United States for presidential elections has hovered at just above 50%. In non-presidential federal elections, turnout is generally under 40%. And turnout for presidential primaries was recently as low as as low as 7.2%.

So why would it be tragic if “only” 53% of Sunnis voted?

I understand that we want Sunnis not to feel excluded. I would like to see Sunnis turn out for the elections in large numbers. But if “only” 53% of Sunnis vote, I won’t see that as a failure — especially if the rest of the country is voting at levels of 70% or more.

Unfortunately, none of this context is provided by the L.A. Times, which is simply spinning the events to make it look as negative as possible. But the Times does accomplish one impressive feat with this story. It makes the Washington Post look like a down-the-middle newspaper. That’s a tough thing to do, so you gotta give ’em that.

Content used with permission of Patterico from Patterico’s Pontifications. You can read more of his work here.

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