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No Iraq News (Still) Isn’t Good News

Media coverage of Iraq declined dramatically in late 2007, just in time for the run-up to the presidential election that could change our policy there.

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Ten days into 2007, President Bush announced that he was sending an additional 20,000 U.S. troops into Iraq—a “troop surge” that quickly dominated news cycles, earning 1,325 mentions in major U.S. newspapers in January 2007 alone, according to Lexis.

Yet despite the record number of U.S. troop deaths and increase in Iraqi civilian deaths that followed, the media coverage on Iraq, which entered 2007 like a lion, left like a lamb.

A new study from the Project for Excellence in Journalism has found that, media coverage of violence in Iraq decreased after peaking in May. Through the end of October, daily accounts of violence in Iraq accounted for 47 percent of all the coverage studied, but many of the stories were short and accounted for only 27 percent of the air time and print space, or “newshole,” of that coverage.

Journalists still covered the violent attacks in Iraq happening on a regular basis in 2007, but reporters made “many of the accounts of these attacks brief, and limit[ed] the interpretation they contain[ed],” says the study, noting that half of the stories were simply recitations of the facts. In other words, journalists began treating the violence as routine.

For example, Tucker Carlson declared on MSNBC in March, “Up and down the country scores more Iraqis dead in a series of drive-by shootings, plain old-fashioned murders and bomb blasts from around Baghdad right into the north. So really nothing special in Iraq today to make the four year anniversary, just violence as usual.”

The decline in emphasis on violence in Iraq doesn’t square with the events on the ground. The number of Iraqi civilians killed increased from the year before to 16,232, up from 12,371. But reporting on the lives of ordinary Iraqis accounted for only 5 percent of the 2007 “newshole.”

Last year was also the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Iraq since the invasion, with 899 killed. The military attributes this increase directly to the surge that was heavily covered by the media in the beginning of the year. Yet the same newspapers that wrote about the surge over 1,300 times in January mentioned it only 410 times in December. Why not cover the results of this strategy with as much vigor?

One journalist polled in the survey offers the following explanation: boredom. “The greatest tragedy of the war has been how the media has in some way bored its audience with the violence.”

But is the public really “bored” with accounts of violence in Iraq? That’s unknown, and perhaps unknowable, since news organizations are so reluctant to invest in the coverage to prove it one way or another. As my Media Matters colleague Eric Boehlert noted, ABC News’s “Nightline” recently ignored Iraq every night for 18 straight weeks, while it found the time to report on such crucial stories as twin skateboarding stars, “Frenemies,” Couchsurfing.com, and pole dancing as exercise, just to pick four.

The PEJ study does posit that, in any case, the decrease in both the number of stories about Iraq and their depth may have brightened American attitudes about the war. According to survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press cited by the Project, starting in June—exactly when the Iraq coverage began to decline—there was an increase in positive views about how the U.S. military effort is going.

But no news from Iraq is not, in fact, good news—except, maybe for those war supporters who would like to keep the disaster’s profile as low as possible. Whether militarily successful or not—and who can really tell given how little reliable information is being provided—the so-called “surge” is masking deeper problems just beneath the surface of coverage: political problems with no readily imaginable solution.

As Marc Lynch of George Washington University explains, “Without institutionalized control over the means of violence and a meaningful political bargain at the center, I just do not see any way to prevent a spiral into sectarian warfare. … The current strategy is accelerating Iraq’s descent into a warlord state even if violence is temporarily down.”

As the 2008 presidential election intensifies and voters prepare to choose a new president, and potentially a new strategy in Iraq, information about the war will be vital. The question is: Will the media give us the information we need to function as democratic citizens and to debate and decide for ourselves? Or have the men and women who make these decisions deemed democracy too boring to justify the investment?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will be published in March.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

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Eric Alterman

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