As America heads into a Presidential election year where Iraq is a central issue, mainstream media outlets plan massive cutbacks in war coverage and reductions in resources and personnel dedicated to reporting on the conflict.

Sources within both broadcast and print media organizations tell Capitol Hill Blue the Iraq war is now a “back burner” to primary election coverage and no longer worth the massive expenditures for coverage of the past three years.

“Americans are war weary,” says one media consultant. “The war doesn’t sell and this is a business.”

An analysis of news coverage by the three broadcast news networks and the three primary cable news networks show Iraq war coverage now comprises less than five percent of nightly newscasts, compared to 16 percent just one year ago. On New Years Day, the war was not even mentioned on two of the three primetime evening newscasts.

Polls conducted by news organizations show the Iraq war ranks second to economic concerns as 2008 begins even though the death toll of American soldiers is expected to top 4,000 soon.

“Call it battle fatigue on the home front,” says the media consultant.

Downplaying the war benefits the Republican Party as the election season heats up and recent polls show an uptick in approval ratings for both the war and candidates who support President George W. Bush’s strategy in the conflict.

GOP Presidential candidate John McCain, whose candidacy was declared dead six months ago, is surging and among front runners in both parties, only Barack Obama has expressed strong opposition to the war.

Reports David Morgan of Reuters:

A recent decline in U.S. news coverage from Iraq coincides with improved public opinion about the war just as the 2008 presidential campaign heads to an early showdown, a study released on Wednesday said.

The study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism said the volume of coverage from Iraq fell from 8 percent of all news stories in the first six months of 2007 to 5 percent between June and October due mainly to a decline in news accounts of daily attacks.

The falloff coincided with a 14 percentage point climb — from 34 to 48 percent — in the number of Americans who believe the U.S. military effort in Iraq is going either fairly or very well, according to Pew.

Pew researchers examined 1,109 news stories from Iraq from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 by 40 news outlets including newspapers, Web sites and television and radio networks.

Data from the study, entitled “Portrait from Iraq: How the Press Has Covered Events on the Ground,” does not specifically identify the drop in press coverage as a cause of brightening public opinion about the Iraq war.

But Pew project director, Tom Rosenstiel, said declining coverage from Iraq, which follows a sharp fall in news about the Iraq policy debate in Washington, has likely played an important role.

“The report suggests the press has covered Iraq fairly steadily, with some ups and downs, and that’s had an effect on public opinion,” Rosenstiel told Reuters.

The study was published as other polling data has shown the Iraq war issue receding slightly as a voter issue in the presidential campaign, which will see its first contest in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.

“The people enjoying some respite from Iraq are probably now the candidates for president … because Americans appear to be less concerned with Iraq as an issue in the campaign than they were a few months ago,” Rosenstiel said.

The war in Iraq dominated U.S. news before June as President George W. Bush poured extra combat troops into the country in a bid to stabilize Baghdad and its environs.

News coverage, particularly accounts of daily attacks, began declining as violence levels dropped in late summer and early autumn. Pew said Iraq news resurged in October but mainly because of the controversy surrounding the Blackwater security firm and its alleged role in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

A later Pew analysis of November news stories found a renewed decline in volume and signs of a more promising tone as coverage focused on declining violence and the apparent success of Bush’s so-called troop “surge.”

“There are signs that November represented something of a turning point in coverage from Iraq. Whether it proves to be a temporary one will depend on the course of events,” the study said.

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