Summary of Findings

The steady drip of negative news from Iraq is significantly undermining support for the U.S. military operation there. With the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq exceeding 1,700, there is widespread awareness of the rising American death toll. As a consequence, baseline public attitudes toward the war are gradually turning more negative. Support for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq continues to inch up ­ from 36% last October, to 42% in February, and 46% currently.

Calls for a troop withdrawal have been this high only during a brief period in the spring of 2004, following the intensification of the Iraqi insurgency and revelations of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Moreover, the idea that the Iraq war could turn out to be another Vietnam, which the public decisively rejected last year, has developed increasing traction. About a third of Americans (35%) say Iraq will turn out to be another Vietnam, while 47% think the U.S. will accomplish its goals there.

In several surveys in 2004, Americans dismissed parallels between Iraq and Vietnam by about a two-to-one margin. Nearly all of the increase in the belief that the war in Iraq will turn out to be another Vietnam has come among those following news about Iraq very closely.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted June 8-12 among 1,464 Americans, finds the public highly attentive to news from Iraq and to the continuing reports of mistreatment of suspected terrorists at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. About half of Americans (49%) say they have heard a lot about such reports. By a fairly substantial margin (54%-34%), most believe the reports of prisoner mistreatment represent isolated instances of abuse rather than a wider pattern of prisoner mistreatment.

Public news interest in Iraq remained strong during a period in which coverage of the 30-year-old events of Watergate overshadowed reports on the war. The weekly Tyndall Report, which monitors the amount of TV news coverage devoted to specific stories, showed that during the week of May 30 (prior to the survey field period), the three major broadcast networks devoted 50 minutes to the revelation that former FBI official Mark Felt was the Watergate source known as Deep Throat, and other related stories. By contrast, there was far less coverage of suicide bombings in Iraq (15 minutes) or military combat in the country (nine minutes).

Nonetheless, more than twice as many Americans say they followed events in Iraq very closely (41%) as tracked the Watergate stories very closely (16%). At the same time, however, there is some evidence that Americans are becoming less emotionally involved in the news from Iraq. More than four-in-ten (44%) say that people they know are becoming less involved emotionally with news of the conflict. That is the highest percentage expressing that view in the past year.

The public continues to demonstrate fairly broad awareness of the military death toll in Iraq; 54% answered correctly that there have been between 1,000 to 2,000 U.S. military casualties in Iraq. As is the case with news interest, there is a significant age difference in knowledge of the American death toll. Fewer than half of those ages 18-29 knew the range of U.S. casualties; majorities in other age groups knew the correct range.

Prisoner Abuse Not Seen as Widespread

In general, most Americans (54%) say the reports of prisoner mistreatment at Guantanamo do not represent a wider pattern of abuse.

As expected, there is a large partisan gap in opinions on the issue, with more than three times as many Democrats as Republicans saying that the Guantanamo reports represent a wider pattern of prisoner mistreatment (45% vs. 14%).

However, there are substantial differences among Democrats over the extent of prisoner mistreatment.

Conservative and moderate Democrats mostly view the reports of prisoner abuse as isolated cases; liberal Democrats, by about a two-to-one margin (65%-30%), believe they represent a broader pattern of mistreatment.

Age also is a factor in these attitudes. Young people are split over the extent of prisoner abuse, but people in other age groups, by fairly substantial margins, believe the reports of prisoner mistreatment at Guantanamo are isolated instances.

A plurality of Americans (39%) think the press is giving too much attention to reports of prisoner mistreatment at Guantanamo; 32% say the amount of press attention has been about right.

Attitudes regarding the amount of news coverage of prisoner mistreatment are strongly associated with views of the issue.

News Interest: Iraq, Social Security

News about the current situation in Iraq is the top story over the past month in terms of public attentiveness (41% very closely). Nearly as many Americans (36%) say they followed reports on President Bush’s Social Security proposal very closely; news interest in the president’s plan has remained fairly stable since March.

About one-in-five Americans (21%) paid very close attention to House passage of a bill allowing stem cell research; about the same number (20%) very closely followed reports of Newsweek’s retraction of a story about U.S. soldiers flushing the Koran down a toilet as part of a prisoner interrogation.

The stories on the revealed identity of Deep Throat attracted very close interest from 16% of Americans. Attentiveness to this story was modest even among those old enough to have clear recollections of the Watergate scandal; only about a quarter of Americans ages 50 and older paid very close attention to the reports on Deep Throat.

Just 13% paid very close attention to the Michael Jackson trial as it moved into its final stages. And even fewer (10%) tracked news of the rejection by French and Dutch voters of the European Union Constitution.