The nation is facing a historic moment in our occupation of Iraq. Within the past week, the United States entered the sixth year of the war, and the 4,000th American soldier died in the conflict. The troop surge—and all of the new allies, goals, and budgets that came with it—has been in effect for over a year. And yet the violence continues to increase and sectarian conflict again appears likely in this war with no end in sight.
The Bush administration continues to defend its decision to continue operations in Iraq indefinitely. General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will testify on April 8 about its progress. But contrary to the recent well-covered views of the vice president, the American people still have a say in the direction of this war—they can still, through their elected representatives, pressure Congress and the federal government to ensure that their will is felt and heeded.
President George W. Bush will have to ask Congress for more war funding sometime this year. The president deserves an answer.
In order to offer one, the public needs reliable, trustworthy information about the war’s progress—something the Bush administration has been unable to provide. So how has the media been doing? To what extent are its members facilitating this democratic process?
The answer is largely disappointing. The quantity of coverage about Iraq has declined steadily since the invasion. A study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in all of 2007, the topic of the Iraq war occupied an average of 15.5 percent of the “newshole” in the media; in the last quarter it fell to nine percent, and then to 3.9 percent in the first quarter of 2008. According to the Agence France-Presse, “even the perils of troubled pop star Britney Spears overshadowed the war since late last year, graphs of news mentions on Google’s Trends Labs show.”
The broadcast networks’ nightly shows devoted more than 4,100 minutes to Iraq in 2003 and 3,000 in 2004, before going down to 2,000 a year, according to Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the broadcasts and posts. He says that by the last months of 2007, the broadcasts were spending about half as much time on Iraq as they were in the beginning of the war.
The media’s loss of interest in the war—a war that is costing taxpayers $5,000 a second—is at least somewhat excusable given other major news developments of late. The amount of ink or airtime that the media can provide is finite, and when the economy starts to rapidly head south, and when there is a drawn-out, historic presidential primary season, a lot of coverage is needed and that will necessarily reduce the amount of time spent on the war.
Coverage of the war also “has become a much more complicated proposition,” saysJames Glanz, Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. Obtaining reliable reporting has become more difficult and dangerous inside Iraq; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 127 journalists and 50 media workers have been killed in Iraq since the war started in March 2003.
News organizations are doing a definite draw-down of their own forces: according to the New York Times, while there were hundreds of journalists embedded with troops at the start of the invasion, “the number has been measured in tens in recent months.” What’s more, given the abysmal state of security in Iraq, the cost of coverage can be prohibitive for most organizations. The annual cost of the New York Times Baghdad bureau, for instance, is over $3 million.
But this is not to totally excuse the decline in coverage. How is it that only two newspapers noted the 4,000th combat death of a U.S. soldier in Iraq, to say nothing of the countless wounded, civilian deaths, and support workers?
What’s a more pervasive problem than even the amount of coverage, and potentially a more damaging one, is the lack of strong anti-war voices in the discussion. As blogger Glenn Greenwald wrote this week and has documented repeatedly on his blog, “In the American media’s discussions of Iraq, when are the perspectives expressed here about our ongoing occupation—views extremely common among Iraqis of all types and grounded in clear, indisputable facts—ever heard by the average American news consumer? The answer is: ‘virtually never.’”
The experts, pundits, and reporters who got the story wrong in 2003 by failing to question the Bush administration’s clearly unrealistic plans for Iraq, are unfortunately still controlling the mainstream discussion on the war. Most of the pundits asked to look back on the first six years of the war in mainstream organs like The New York Times op-ed page and the online magazine, Slate, were people who got the decision wrong in the first place.
And then there is the question of rewards and consequences. We all know of William Kristol, whose completely wrongheaded predictions about the war resulted in his landing a plumb position at the Times. In addition, Spencer Ackerman notes in the Washington Independent that Jeffrey Goldberg and Stephen Hayes—two journalists who passed along false reports about the Iraqi threat that were then exploited by the administration in its relentless march to war—“have seen their careers flourish. Goldberg traded his New Yorker post for a lucrative spot at The Atlantic. Hayes wrote a lengthy hagiography of Cheney for major New York publisher, HarperCollins. Publicity for the book got him a special spot on “Meet The Press,” befitting his status as a high-profile television pundit who is never treated as the conspiracy theorist he is.”
Without sufficient war coverage and a full spectrum of viewpoints on the conflict, the American people will have no way to make an informed decision about how to proceed and the democratic process will fail to function.
Next week, we’ll look closer at the media voices that delivered us the Iraq war in 2003, and the prominence they continue to maintain in our national discussion—and some of the key issues and facts about Iraq that are largely being obscured when the nation is forced to debate a war with only one side calling the shots.
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 http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, has just been released by Viking.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.