Missing in Action

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

The past several weeks have seen a near television blackout of any story not related the passing of either Terri Schiavo or Pope John Paul II. These stories are, of course, important ones, but because of so much of the mainstream media's inability to focus on more than one narrative at once, important ought-to-be front pages stories are buried inside newspapers and ignored entirely in the broadcast media.

One of the stories that was shuffled off to near-obscurity this past week in its own way cuts to the heart of the right wing's contention that the "liberal media" has failed to report good news coming out of Iraq.

Ignoring the fact that open warfare rarely provides many happy stories, conservative critics have, for the past two years, pointed to what they perceive as the lack of stories covering reconstruction projects in Iraq. But as Reuters recently reported, while the security situation is currently improving, "red tape and graft could offset the improved security situation, executives taking part in a huge reconstruction expo [in Jordan] said…. Many Iraqi businessmen say a major problem is that a sizeable amount of money the U.S. has set aside for rebuilding is being squandered by cronyism. This has been a factor in delaying reconstruction even in relatively stable areas of Iraq." Given both the violence, and the corruption that is plaguing reconstruction efforts, it's not hard to see why "positive" stories about Iraq are not as prominent as the war's die-hard supporters may wish.

In a story that should have made above-the-fold headlines in our major dailies, last Saturday a group of insurgents attacked Abu Ghraib prison, wounding 44 Americans and 13 inmates in the process. In what has been called the largest and most sophisticated insurgent attack in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003, a group estimated at about 40 to 60 insurgents – al Qaeda's wing in Iraq later claimed
responsibility – battled American Marines for over an hour.

One might think that an attack of this magnitude with such a high casualty rate – and on so symbolic a target as the prison where first Saddam, and then the U.S. military tortured innocent Iraqis – would generate some dramatic reporting as well. Alas, one would be wrong. This story, too, has been largely buried on the back pages of our major dailies – it appeared on page A16 of the Washington Post while the New York Times stuck the story on page A11, and it was ignored entirely on cable and broadcast news.

To its editors' credit, the Post did finally run a front page story on the attack on Tuesday, which finally gave all of the particulars of the fight and the alleged involvement of Abu Musab Zarqawi, while finally providing the correct casualty figures (the initial reports in both the Post and the Times were off by at least half). Meanwhile, Times readers remain in the dark about the act's significance and implications, save mentions of it as a footnote to other Iraq stories.

In last place comes the LA Times, which ran a short piece in its Sunday edition, and followed up on Tuesday with an AP story that listed the number of insurgents wounded at "about 50." This, despite the fact that on Sunday the paper said that only 40 to 60 insurgents were involved in the attack in the first place. That's a pretty high casualty rate, and one that hardly squares with other accounts which failed to guess as to insurgent casualties, since no prisoners were taken.

Another story that many probably didn't hear much about last week was the "election" in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's ruling party secured a majority in that country's parliamentary elections. This story, unlike the Abu Ghraib attacks, did receive considerable coverage, at least in the print media. Its quality, however, raises the question of whether this is a blessing or a curse.

CNN ran with a highly neutral headline that read "Zimbabwe ruling party wins majority." Yet the details of the story demonstrated that the election was less "won" than stolen.

While the piece intermittently makes it look like the election was on the up and up, it also includes some salient facts that should have dominated the coverage in the first place, and which make the headline look misleading. It notes, "Western countries and the
opposition have already declared the electoral process as unfairly tilted in favor of ZANU-PF. Some observers have said they found irregularities on election day – like the electoral centers being based in people's homes, in chief's homes rather than in neutral places like schools or fields. But in terms of the counting itself, so far there have been no complaints."

CNN also cites "[a]n independent poll monitoring group" as saying that about 25 percent of voters had been turned away from polling stations in six of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces either for lacking proper identity documents or being at the wrong voting center. There were also reports of residents in poor rural areas being told they could forfeit food aid if they voted for the opposition. Despite this, CNN tries to play the story both ways, painting the election as both fair and corrupt at the same time.

In a similar fashion, the New York Times ran an even worse story on Saturday, writing, "Mugabe's party routed its opponents in parliamentary elections … dashing forecasts of an opposition surge…. Reports of irregularities were scattered but persistent."

Given the evidence of intimidation that CNN reported in between writing as if the election were fair, the Times' coverage looks absurd. Painting the election as a win for Mugabe, the Times all but ignores the intimidation and voting irregularities that human rights groups have reported on. Alas, the meek and inaccurate reporting the Times engaged in carried the day in most of the American media – when the story was covered at all.

Of course the most significant absence in the media last week was the lack of discussion of the report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Imagine, we need a $10 million, 14-month, 600-plus-page investigation to tell us that the country was taken to war on the basis of a nonexistent threat. I've written a critique of this coverage for The Nation, and that column can be found here beginning Thursday evening. Suffice it to say that the fact that so much of the coverage of the report was drowned out by the deaths of first Schiavo and then Pope John Paul II may have proven a kind of divine intervention. Missing in most of the coverage was a sense of how the fix on this report was in from the start. As commission Co-Chair Laurence Silberman explained, the report was barred from investigating the only question that still matters: why the United States went to war on the basis of clearly corrupt evidence. "Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policy makers, and all of us were agreed that was not part of our inquiry," Silberman notes. And absent as well was any discussion of the role of the media in selling to the nation – rather than questioning – a policy based on deliberate deception.

Perhaps they'll get it right in the next war…

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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