Nearly six months have passed since the presidential field narrowed to Barack Obama and John McCain. And so we have had nearly six months of largely campaign-controlled mainstream media debate at the expense of virtually every other topic.
The discussion has been all campaign, all year, since the primaries started in January. The Project for Excellence in Journalism creates weekly news indexes, measuring coverage across a wide variety of national mainstream outlets. The index documents the fact that only once throughout the entire campaign was the war in Iraq a primary topic of discussion, and it literally took a Baghdad visit from Barack Obama to make it so.
The drop can be seen across all media. We’ve seen 138 front-page stories datelined Iraq in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times since the start of the year. That number was 858 in 2003, when the war started, but it fell to 379 in 2007.
On network news, this year’s coverage has been almost cut in half, too. According to network news analyst Andrew Tyndall, the three networks aired 130 stories with Iraq datelines on the evening news between September 2007 and September 2008, compared with 242 during the previous 12 months. In the final months of the campaign, Baghdad-based network reporters would go weeks without getting a piece into the evening news.
And on radio, well, it’s much the same story. As NPR’s Baghdad bureau chief, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, told the Washington Post, "When you have other things going on in the world—a financial crisis, elections, and Afghanistan, which is now becoming a more serious conflict—it’s harder to get on the air. The bar is higher."
The decreased coverage is not only because of the increased priority of campaign and other news, but also shrinking news budgets, especially in the newspaper industry. The Los Angeles Times, for example, recently downsized its Baghdad bureau, leading to complaints from the paper’s Baghdad bureau chief, Tina Susman. "During my first 12 months here, it was unusual to get to bed before 4 and even 5 a.m. because the story was so huge and because of the likelihood that it was headed for A1," she told Ernesto Londoño and Amit R. Paley of the Washington Post. "That really has changed in the past few months. . . . That’s dispiriting. How do media bosses, especially the American ones, justify not maintaining a presence in a country where there are 145,000 U.S. forces and where 4,100 have died?"
Television networks have downsized, too: CNN now keeps just one crew in the bureau, when just a few months ago two or three was the norm, according to the Post.
Journalists continue to do heroic work from Baghdad. Leila Fadel, who is McClatchy Newspapers’ Baghdad chief and a recent Polk Award winner, for instance, has been ahead of the mainstream media pack in documenting the ongoing Status of Forces negotiations between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. These negotiations could dictate the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq for years to come—yet the proceedings are nearly invisible in MSM discussion. CBS News, for example, hasn’t mentioned "status of forces" since July, and ABC News only once since then.
But Fadel’s extensive reporting has been first-rate. She has documented the negotiations at every turn, and recently she published a list of services that the United States threatened to cut if Iraq doesn’t approve the agreement. Tariq al Hashimi, the country’s Sunni Muslim vice president, told Fadel, "It was really shocking for us. Many people are looking to this attitude as a matter of blackmailing." The independent scholar Gareth Porter, too, has proven an invaluable resource, providing keen analysis of the strategic implications of the SOFA text as it currently stands, available nowhere else in the MSM—or anywhere, for that matter, as far as we can tell.
It’s true these negotiations are deeply complex and not particularly "sexy" from a news editor’s point of view—that’s an explanation cited by numerous journalists assigned to covering the war. "It remains important and it remains interesting," said Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times’ acting bureau chief in Baghdad. "But what’s in front of us now is almost a static situation. There’s not a clear narrative line. The stories are more complex."
"Everyone realizes it’s an important story," said ABC correspondent Miguel Marquez, who has covered Iraq since 2005. "But it’s been six years of this. . . . The situation has become more nuanced. The U.S. doesn’t seem to have its hand in everything anymore."
The military has also been subtly depressing coverage; it has grown reluctant to embed reporters and take them to the front lines. "It’s very clear that they are trying to push us away from active areas of combat and trying to push us to places" where reconstruction and training are underway, said Associated Press bureau chief Robert H. Reid. "It’s very difficult to pick an embed unit and be relatively assured you will see active combat."
While any analysis of journalism must be sensitive to the increasing financial pressures on virtually every institution in the business, we must recognize the cost of allowing our government to fight a war without the scrutiny of the media and the citizenry it represents. The past eight years have demonstrated that this administration in particular cannot be trusted to carry out its business—much less the dirty and difficult business of war—in the dark.
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, was recently published by Viking.
George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.