Saturday, April 05, 2008

Making it too easy for the neocons: Media coverage and deaths in Iraq

When Eliot Spitzer was disgraced, Randall Parker lamented how much attention was given to the story while ignorance on some of the most basic facts pertaining to the situation in Iraq is so widespread. More than two-thirds of the American public is not aware that 4,000 US military personnel have been killed in the conflict, with nearly half believing the number to be under 3,000 and 23% thinking the total is higher than that.

Like most readers who turn to the internet for most of their news and virtually all of their commentary and analysis, I share RP's irritation with tabloid stories generally. I don't have cable or even functioning network access, and consequently haven't watched anything on TV for years. Last week when I was working out in a hotel exercise room early in the morning, I had the place to myself so I turned on the tube in the room. I flipped through to Fox News but after ten minutes (after I'd read through the news ticker cycle scrolling the bottom of the screen!) I simply could not take anymore of "Fox and Friends". CNN and MSNBC were hardly any better. I ended up, happily, on Animal Planet for the duration.

I knew it was bad so the attention devoted to the courtesan doesn't surprise me. What I am struck by is how major media outlets, who share RP's opposition to a continued military presence in Iraq, are in large part 'responsible' for that lack of interest in what's going on in Mesopatamia.

Pew Research has a feature called "The top story index" on the right side of its homepage. Pew, in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Jounalism, tracks what percentage of the public follows a story or subject most closely as well as what percentage of media coverage is devoted to each story or subject. For several months, the percentage of the public following Iraq most closely has been in the teens, even while media coverage has consistently been in the 2%-4% range (it has just recently shot up after what took place in Basra).

That variance, where media coverage doesn't keep up with public interest, is usually relegated to financial concerns or sporting events (for example, 9% of the public shows the most interest in the NCAA tournament, but only 1% of news stories are devoted to it).

So why the near-silence on Iraq after it had been pervasive in the news since the invasion began back in March of '03? US soliders haven't been dying as rapidly as they had been from '04-'06. Iraqis haven't been dropping as fast, either.

From the beginning of '07 when the surge was announced, through the funding victory the administration received in May of the same year, to the present Shiite central government's attempt to take control of Iraq's most important commercial city, fatalities and coverage have trended in the same direction.

The correlation, by month, between media coverage and American soldier deaths is .63. For media coverage and reported Iraqi deaths, it's .68. Click on the image below to see it more clearly. Media coverage and reported Iraqi deaths are scaled to US fatalities for the purpose of better visual representation.

The data include last September, when media attention spiked as General Petraeus announced that a drawdown of 30,000 troops would take place over the following year (Petraeus has since called for a "pause" in the planned pullout, making it likely that if/when one of the Democratic candidates is inaugurated in early '09, there'll be more US troops in Iraq than there were in November '06, when Democrats took both houses of Congress from the GOP on the war). Removing the September aberration, the correlation for media coverage and US deaths is .69, and is .83 for media coverage and reported Iraqi deaths.

When things are going (especially) poorly, they shine the spotlight on the destruction! When things are relatively calm, they sweep the whole thing under the rug!

That sounds like the criticism war boosters have made of the media for years. It is, because the criticism is valid. That is what has happened. Now that al-Sadr has been fighting with the central government forces and is urging a massive protest against the US occupation of Iraq next week, there's been a predictable return of media coverage.

I find this undesirable for a couple of reasons. It allows those who support a perpetual six-figure soldier presence "until the job is done" to accuse American media outlets of being responsible for over four-fifths of Iraqis wanting the coalition out and nearly half of the country's population supporting attacks on US troops. A couple of weeks ago Rush Limbaugh asserted that media coverage causes US fatalities, insinuating that if the media wouldn't pay so much attention, fewer parents would have to get that unexpected visit from a uniformed officer.

In the words of RP:

Poor strategic decisions are more important in their effects than what reporters say about them.

What they say might make a difference at the margins, but war supporters are arguing that it's potentially a deal-breaker. See, it's not the inherent incompatibility of Islam and liberalism, the enormous challenge of getting a society where the average IQ is estimated to be 87 to function freely, the historical failure of poor nations in transitioning to and remaining liberal democracies, or the barriers to uncoerced national unity (as well as competent military and police forces) that exist in a society with such high levels of consanguinety, where half of the men are married to a second-cousin or closer. Nope, it's the way the media have undercut everything we've tried to do that has prevented the creation of a post-war Germany in Iraq.

Much of the media, which won't touch the fundamental obstacles to a Western Iraq, pretty much believes the same thing. There's a fear that highlighting successes and reporting drops in casualties alongside stories of the soldiers who've died and the long-term costs of the war might make a turnaround possible. Yeah, the Bush administration has executed the war terribly, made lots of tactical mistakes, taken its eye off of the real threat hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border, the Iraqis won't stand up (they could if they'd choose to, but they won't), etc. But Amsterdam in Baghdad is surely attainable, if only we'd not botched everything up so badly and instead reached out diplomatically to Saddam.

The net result is a focus on tactics, rather than what Iraq is and who its people are. It's not New York and its people are not New Yorkers. People are different, and Western proscriptions do not work equally well across all places and populations.

Further, it obscures the fact that ethnic segregation has led to a reduction in violence between groups within Iraq. Military commanders have found walls separating Sunni and Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad to be effective in lessening the fighting and bringing relative calm.

And it generally reflects poorly on the state of major media outlets in the US, making evident (for the umpteenth time) that providing as much objective information as is attainable is not their raison d'etre.

We need to cut our losses. Why sink another $500 billion and 4,000 lives (and hundreds of thousands effected directly through injuries and through the loss of friends and relatives) for people who do not want us there? What's happening in Iraq is important, and we need a media that doesn't shy away from it when it fears paying attention may jeapordize US failure there.


al fin said...

Again, there are worse alternatives to war. Much worse. Watch and you will learn what they are.

Fat Knowledge said...

I share your concerns about cable "news". My greater concern is that just as many parents use TV as a baby sitter for their children, now cable news has become the "grandparent sitter" for the elderly. Too many retirees spend the majority of their days watching the news channels. If you look at the demographics for news watchers, almost 75% of viewers are over 55. Given that the elderly are the most likely voters, it concerns me that this is how they get their information.

al fin said...

Yes, and adolescent voters get their news from the Daily Show. Arab voters get their news from Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Hispanic voters get their news from La Raza and a wide array of Spanish language outlets. Part of the ongoing tribalism of western societies.

Audacious Epigone said...


Nightly news viewers are, on average, nearly sixty. Morning news is only a bit younger, in the early to mid-fifties.

But as AF points out, the fragmentation is more than just age-related. Thirty years ago, most people who followed current events read Time and watched CBS. No longer. Better, and more, communication/media outlets means more news/analysis segregation. Which means less held in common with those sharing geography (neighbors) relative to those sharing interests (bloggers) than ever before. Immigration and sacrosanct multiculturalism accentuates this even more.

Btw, how about the fact that O'Reilly's re-run beats everything on CNN's and MSNBC's primetime lineups except for Anderson Cooper? I knew FNC dominated, but I didn't realize how strongly.