May 25, 2008
The year of my birth - 1971 - the New York Times successfully challenged the government's "prior restraint" attempt to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
In his concurring Supreme Court opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote: "only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."
Thirty-seven years later, as millions of news consumers commemorate Memorial Day by remembering the war dead, it's also a good time to reflect on the casualty of war news coverage, idolatrous worship at the altar of righteous violence aside.
As noted by Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) (https://www.journalism.org/node/10365), the day Congress voted to fund the continued occupation of Iraq without troop withdrawal timetables (May 24, 2007), it marked "a turning point in media coverage of the third-longest war in U.S. history."
From January 2007 - when Bush announced the "surge" - through May 2007, Iraq garnered more media attention than any other single news item, accounting for 20% of all news coverage, as measured by PEJ's News Coverage Index (https://journalism.org/node/10345).
But, since Congress voted to fund the war in May 2007 - through the 5th anniversary of the invasion this spring - Iraq coverage plummeted by about 50%.
"In that period, the media paid more than twice as much attention to the presidential campaign than the war," Jurkowitz notes.
To the extent "the surge" tamped down violence (which is deceptive when you're talking about guerilla warfare because guerrillas lay-low when a superior military force surges), some might wonder why there haven't been more stories about life in Iraq, outside the general vicinity of the Green Zone.
Part of the answer is found in another recent PEJ survey (https://www.journalism.org/node/8621) of the 111 journalists who worked in Iraq in 2007. The survey tells us that "basic security concerns limited the scope of their reporting."
More than half (57%) reported having colleagues in Iraq murdered or kidnapped in the previous year. And 87% said that at least half of Baghdad itself was too dangerous for a Western journalist to operate. "Unable to venture far, journalists identified the lives of Iraqi civilians and that country's economic and political situation as among the most under covered stories of the war."
Those results jibe with a Poynter Institute survey (https://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1512), released last week, about how news consumers rate Iraq news coverage. Of the 8,683 adults surveyed earlier this month, while 75 percent said they were "well-informed," the majority indicated they were far from happy with the coverage - 80% rated Iraq news coverage as "fair" or "poor."
The survey, funded by the McCormick Foundation, also asked respondents what types of stories they'd like to see more. At the top of the wish-list (68 percent of those surveyed): "information about the Iraqi government" and "stories about the Iraqi people."
Now, connect the survey dots. Like Family Feud host Richard Dawson used to say, survey says (ding!): News consumers want more stories about life in Iraq that reporters in Iraq say is too dangerous to produce.
Again, that's only part of the reason why the public isn't getting the war coverage they want. The back story is that financially-struggling news organizations are shuttering foreign news bureaus faster than homes are being foreclosed.
Or, as Jurkowitz punctuates it, "in an environment in which newsroom cutbacks and decreasing resources may make it more difficult for news outlets to stay atop two ongoing mega-stories, the media, for now, have made their priorities clear."
There's a lesson here for all of us. Reporters in Iraq can't even cover half of Baghdad without risk of being killed or kidnapped (probably because, like ordinary citizens, they don't get to walk around the streets of Sadr City surrounded by an elite military battalion to fend off Madhi Army insurgents). What does that tell you about "the success of the surge?"
And, assuming news industry string-pullers actually want to save their financial necks, there's a lesson for big media owners too - the same lesson Rummy never seemed to get. More boots on the ground. As if the danger of covering Iraq weren't enough, news demand calls for more foreign bureaus; not less, which challenges the wisdom of an industry buzzword - "hyperlocal."
It's been said that the first casualty of war is truth. The last casualty may be war news coverage itself - something Justice Black would undoubtedly see as the dereliction of press duty "to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."
Sean Gonsalves is a news editor and columnist with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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