Monday, June 9, 2008

Media & Iraq: When The Abnormal Becomes Normal...

Armando Acuna, public editor of the Sacramento Bee, turned a Sunday column into a public flogging for both his editors and the nation's news media. They had allowed the third-longest war in American history to slip off the radar screen, and he had the numbers to prove it. The public also got a scolding for its meager interest in a controversial conflict that is costing taxpayers about $12.5 billion a month, or nearly $5,000 a second, according to some calculations. In his March 30 commentary, Acuna noted: "There's enough shame..for everyone to share."

He had watched stories about Iraq move from 1A to the inside pages of his newspaper, if they ran at all. He understood the editors' frustration over how to handle the mind-numbing cycles of violence and complex issues surrounding Operation Iraqi Freedom. "People feel powerless about this war," he said in an interview in April. Acuna knew the Sacramento Bee was not alone. For long stretches over the past 12 months, Iraq virtually disappeared from the front pages of the nation's newspapers and from the nightly network newscasts. The American press and the American people had lost interest in the war.

The decline in coverage of Iraq has been staggering.

During the first 10 weeks of 2007, Iraq accounted for 23 percent of the newshole fornetwork TV news. In 2008, it plummeted to 3 percent during that period. On cable networks it fell from 24 percent to 1 percent, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The numbers also were dismal for the country's dailies. By Acuna's count, during the first three months of this year, front-page stories about Iraq in the Bee were down 70 percent from the same time last year. Articles about Iraq once topped the list for reader feedback. By mid-2007, "Their interest just dropped off; it was noticeable to me," says the public editor.

A daily tracking of 65 newspapers by the Associated Press confirms a dip in page-one play throughout the country. In September 2007, the AP found 457 Iraq-related stories (154 by the AP) on front pages, many related to a progress report delivered to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Over the succeeding months, that number fell to as low as 49. A spike in March 2008 was largely due to a rash of stories keyed to the conflict's fifth anniversary, according to AP Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman.

During the early stages of shock and awe, Americans were glued to the news as Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad and sweat-soaked Marines bivouacked in his luxurious palaces. It was a huge story when President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, and declared major combat operations were over. By March 2008, a striking reversal had taken place. Only 28 percent of Americans knew that 4,000 military personnel had been killed in the conflict, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Eight months earlier, 54 percent could cite the correct casualty rate.

TV news was a vivid indicator of the declining interest. The three broadcast networks' nightly newscasts devoted more than 4,100 minutes to Iraq in 2003 and 3,000 in 2004. That leveled off to 2,000 annually. By late 2007, it was half that, according to Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the nightly news (

Despite the pile of evidence of waning coverage, news managers interviewed for this story consistently maintained there was no conscious decision to back off. "I wasn't hearing that in our newsroom," says Margaret Sullivan, editor of the Buffalo News. Yet numbers show that attention to the war plummeted at the Buffalo paper as it did at other news outlets. Why the dramatic drop-off? Gatekeepers offer a variety of reasons, from the enormous danger for journalists on the ground in Iraq to plunging newsroom budgets and shrinking news space. Competing megastories on the home front like the presidential primaries and the sagging economy figure into the equation. So does the exorbitant cost of keeping correspondents in Baghdad.

Los Angeles Times' foreign editor Marjorie Miller attributes the decline to three factors:

• The economic downturn and the contentious presidential primaries have sucked oxygen from Iraq. "We have a woman, an African American and a senior running for president," Miller says. "That is a very big story."

• With no solutions in sight, with no light at the end of the tunnel, war fatigue has become a factor. Over the years, a bleak sameness has settled into accounts of suicide bombings and brutal sectarian violence. Insurgents fighting counterinsurgents are hard to translate to an American audience.

• The sheer cost of keeping correspondents on the ground in Baghdad is trimming the roster of journalists. The expense is "unlike anything we've ever faced. We have shouldered the financial burden so far, but we are really squeezed," Miller says. Earlier, the L.A. Times had as many as five Western correspondents in the field. The bureau is down to two or three plus Iraqi staff.

Other media decision-makers echo Miller's analysis.

When Lara Logan, the high-profile chief senior foreign correspondent for CBS News, is rotated out of Iraq, she might not be replaced, says her boss, Senior Vice President Paul Friedman. The network is sending in fewer Westerners from European and American bureaus and depending more on local staff, a common practice for media outlets with personnel in Iraq. "We won't pull out, but we are making adjustments," Friedman says.

Friedman defends the cutbacks: "One of the definitions of news is change, and there are long periods now in Iraq when very little changes. Therefore, it's difficult for the Iraq story to fight its way on the air against other news where change is involved," such as the political campaign, he says.

John Stack, Fox News Channel's vice president for newsgathering, has no qualms about allotting more airtime to the presidential campaign than to Iraq. "This is a very big story playing out on the screen every night... The time devoted to news is finite," Stack says. "It's a matter of shifting to another story of national interest." Despite diminished emphasis on the war, Fox has no plans to cut back its Baghdad operation.

McClatchy Newspapers maintains a presence in Baghdad — a bureau chief, a rotating staffer generally from one of the chain's papers and six local staffers — but the decline in violence since the U.S. troop buildup last year has resulted in fewer daily stories, says Foreign Editor Roy Gutman. "We produce according to the news. New York Times Foreign Editor Susan Chira says she is content to run fewer stories than in the past. "But we want them to have impact. And, of course, when there are big running stories, we will stay on them every day." Editors did not sit in a news budget meeting and make a conscious decision to cut back on Iraq coverage, George says. He believes the repetitiveness of the storyline has something to do with the decline. "I see and hear it all the time. It seems like a bad dream, and the public's not interested in revisiting it unless there is a major development. If I'm outside the newsroom and Iraq comes up, I hear groans. People say, 'More bad news.' Stories about the economy are moving up the news scale."

The reader representative for the San Francisco Chronicle doesn't think placement of stories about Iraq makes much difference. He reasons that five years in, most readers have formed clear opinions about the war. They're not likely to change their minds one way or another if a story runs on page one or page three, says Dick Rogers. "The public has become accustomed to the steady drumbeat of violence out of Iraq. A report of 20 or 30 killed doesn't bring fresh insight for a lot of people." Americans might care if they could witness more of the human toll. That's the approach the Washington Post's Dana Milbank took in an April 24 piece titled, "What the Family Would Let You See, the Pentagon Obstructs."

When Lt. Col. Billy Hall was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in April, his family gave the media permission to cover the ceremony — he is among the highest-ranking officers to be killed in Iraq. But, according to Milbank, the military did everything it could to keep the journalists away, isolating them some 50 yards away behind a yellow rope. The "de facto ban on media at Arlington funerals fits neatly" with White House efforts "to sanitize the war in Iraq," and that, in turn, has helped keep the bloodshed out of the public's mind, Milbank wrote in his Washington Sketch feature. There have been similar complaints over the years about the administration's policy that bans on-base photography of coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"You can forgive the American public for being shocked at the recent violence in Basra [in March]. From the lack of press coverage that's out there, they probably thought the war was over," says Mitchell, who wrote about media performance in the book "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq." Both journalists point to cause and effect: The public tends to take cues from the media about what is important. If Iraq is pushed to a back burner, the signal is clear — the war no longer is a top priority. It follows that news consumers lose interest and turn their attention elsewhere. The Pew study found exactly that: As news coverage of the war diminished, so too did the public interest in Iraq.

Ellen Hume, research director at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media and a former journalist, believes the decline in Iraq news could be linked to a larger issue — profits. "The problem doesn't seem to be valuing coverage of the war; it's more about the business model of journalism today and what that market requires," Hume says. "There is no sense that [the media] are going to be able to meet the numbers that their corporate owners require by offering news about a downer subject like Iraq. It's a terrible dilemma for news organizations."

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, points to May 24, 2007, as a major turning point in the coverage of U.S. policy toward Iraq. That's the day Congress voted to continue to fund the war without troop withdrawal timetables, giving the White House a major victory in a clash with the Democratic leadership over who would control the purse strings and thus the future of the war. Democrats felt they had a mandate from Americans to bring the troops home. President Bush stuck to a hard line and came out the victor. "The political fight was over," Jurkowitz says. "Iraq no longer was a hot story. The media began looking elsewhere." "You could see the coverage of the political debate [over Iraq] shrink noticeably. The drop was dramatic," says Jurkowitz, who believes the press has an obligation to cover stories about Iraq even when the political landscape changes. "It is hard to say that the media has spurred any meaningful debate in America on this."

Is there anything to the concept of war fatigue or a psychological numbing that comes with rote reports of violence? Susan Tifft, professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, believes there is. She reasons that humans do adapt when the abnormal gradually becomes normal, such as a bloody and seemingly endless conflict far from America's shores. Tifft explains that despite tensions of the Cold War, America's default position for many years had been peace. Now the default position — the environment in which Americans live — is war. "And somehow we have gotten used to it. That's why it seems like wallpaper or Muzak. It's oddly normal and just part of the atmosphere," she says.

Does an acceptance of the status quo indicate helplessness or rational resignation on the part of the public and the press? Is it a survival mechanism? Harvard University Professor Howard Gardner, a psychologist and social scientist, has explored what it is about the way humans operate that might allow this to happen. Gardner explains that when a news story becomes repetitive, people "habituate" — the technical term for what happens when they no longer take in information. "You can be sure that if American deaths were going up, or if there was a draft, then there would not be acceptance of the status quo," Gardner wrote in an April 17 e-mail. "But American deaths are pretty small, and the children of the political, business and chattering classes are not dying, and so the war no longer is on the radar screen most of the time. The bad economy has replaced it, and no one has yet succeeded in tying the trillion-dollar war to the decline in the economy."

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof is one who has tried. In a March 23 op-ed column, he quoted Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as saying the "present economic mess" is very much related to the Iraq war, which also "is partially responsible for soaring oil prices." Stiglitz calculated the eventual total cost to be about $3 trillion. Kristof tossed out plenty of fodder for stories: "A congressional study by the Joint Economic Committee found that the sums spent on the Iraq war each day could enroll an additional 58,000 children in Head Start or give Pell Grants to 153,000 students to attend college... [A] day's Iraq spending would finance another 11,000 border patrol agents or 9,000 police officers."

In Denver, Jason Salzman has been thinking along the same lines. The media critic for the Rocky Mountain News suggested in a February 16 column that news organizations "treat the economic costs of the war as they've treated U.S. casualties." After the death of the 3,000th American soldier, for instance, his newspaper printed the names of all the dead on the front page. To mark economic milestones, Salzman would like to see page one filled with graphics representing dollars Colorado communities have lost to the war. "It's hard for me to realize why more reporters don't do these stories about the impact of the cost of the war back home," he said in an interview.

Another aspect of the war that could use more scrutiny is the Iraqi oil industry: Where is the money going? Who is benefiting? Why isn't oil money paying for a fair share of reconstruction costs? Similarly, much more attention could be paid to the ramifications of stretching America's military to the limit.

And what about the impact of the war on the lives of ordinary Iraqis? In April, Los Angeles Times correspondent Alexandra Zavis filed a story about a ballet school in Baghdad that had become an oasis for children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. "Now, more than ever," Zavis wrote in an e-mail interview, it "is the responsibility of journalists to put a name and a face on the mind-numbing statistics, to take readers into the lives of ordinary Iraqis, and to find ways to convey what this unimaginable bloodshed means to the people who live it."

Jurkowitz agrees. That's why he's predicting a renaissance in Iraq coverage in the coming months. Battle lines already have been drawn: Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican candidate, has vowed to stay the course in Iraq until victory is achieved. The Democrats favor withdrawing U.S. forces, perhaps beginning as early as six months after taking the oath of office. "When we get in the general election mode, Iraq will be a big issue. The candidates will set the agenda for the discussion and the media will pick it up. This could reinvigorate the debate," Jurkowitz says. "The war will be back in the headlines." Despite the litany of reasons, some journalists still take a "shame on you" attitude toward those who have relegated the Iraq war to second-class status. Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, faults newsroom leaders for shortchanging "the biggest political and moral issue of our time."

- Sherry Ricchiardi (Excerpt: "Whatever Happened to Iraq?" American Journal Review, June/July, 2008. Image: -Chrysaora:Flikr, TV Set In Black, 2007).

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