Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Great Blackout of 2007

“The steady falloff in Iraq coverage isn’t happenstance. It’s a barometer of the scope of the tragedy. For reporters, the already apocalyptic security situation in Baghdad keeps getting worse, simply making the war more difficult to cover than ever.”

Thus the New York Times’s Frank Rich in July 2006, in an op-ed column with the handy recyclable title of “The Peculiar Disappearance of the War in Iraq.”

Though I avoid the overused term, “irony,” I do really find Rich’s complaint about a “steady falloff in Iraq coverage” ironic, because we’re in the middle of a much more substantial falloff in coverage right now. Who knows but that it may be studied years hence as the Great Blackout of 2007, ranking in enormity, perhaps even surpassing, the phantom “blacklisting” of Hollywood Reds during the McCarthy era.

Rich’s thesis in July 2006 was that the Iraq war was getting less and less news coverage because the American people were tired of watching it, suggesting, illogically, that news coverage decisions instantly track audience demand, nor even reflect it.

The truth is, and it's remained the case especially when it comes to trumpeting bad news from Iraq, that the news media shows their public exactly what they want them to see, for exactly the reasons they want them to see it, regardless of audience demand. No one ever asked for a year of coverage of Abu Ghraib. No one will ever learn about Medal of Honor winners nor stories of battlefield heroism from the nightly news.

And contrary to what Rich was griping about last summer, the falloff on coverage isn’t a “barometer of the scope of the tragedy” of the Iraq war, (nor was it last year--Rich’s Bush-hatred has made him a lunatic; compare his analysis of Iraq just this September). The present falloff is a barometer of the media’s embarrassment and chagrin at the strategic turnaround, and approaching triumph in Iraq, the good outcome the media had gambled everything on being utterly impossible.

As the Left never tires of saying about the Bush administration, the media has no Plan B if the quagmire/endless war/failed strategy version of events turned out to be, well--so WRONG.

The press’s response to this unexpected turn of events, (though it may slowly be giving way now), has been to emphasize the most negative stories they can find, and carefully avoid reporting the blaring good news of progress.

A case in point. Where we live in southeastern Michigan, the formerly great daily, The Detroit News, has done everything it could since early November to avoid reporting the dramatic improvement in Iraq, and especially in Baghdad.

On November 7, The Detroit News ran a prominent story headlined, “U.S. troop deaths set record in Iraq/Six fatalities push the total for 2007 to 853, making this the bloodiest year of the war.”

By the date it ran this story, The Detroit News already knew that there was a trend in Iraq of steadily decreasing fatalities, because it was reported in this very same article, far below the lead:

“The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, said last week that there had been a sharp decline in the number of explosively formed projectiles found in Iraq over the past three months. At the time, he and Gates said it was too early to tell whether the trend would hold.

“The noticeable drop in U.S. and Iraqi deaths in recent months follows a 30,000-strong U.S. force buildup, along with a six-month cease-fire order by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, among other factors. There were 39 deaths in October, compared with 65 in September and 84 in August.”

Even this story outlined an unmistakeable downward tredn in violence and fatalities. But the News instead chose to lead with the “grim milestone” angle, even though, in this context, it was meaningless--in fact, misleading. They liked these numbers so much they ran them again the next Saturday, with no explanatory context whatever:

Quick Read

Numbers in the news

853: Number of U.S. troops killed so far this year in Iraq, making 2007 the deadliest year of the war for American forces since combat began in March 2003. A total of 3,858 troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began.

On November 8, the day after the prominent "grim milestone" article, The Detroit News did actually report the profoundly historic announcement that U.S. forces had all but driven the last vestiges of al Qaeda from Baghdad. By "reporting" it, I mean they buried it in a 65-word News Brief paragraph, which I quote in its entirety:

Baghdad free of al-Qaida, U.S. says

BAGHDAD -- American forces have routed al-Qaida of Mesopotamia, the Iraqi militant network, from every neighborhood of Baghdad, allowing American troops involved in the "surge" to depart as planned, Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said Wednesday. "Murder victims are down 80 percent from where they were at the peak," and attacks involving improvised bombs are down 70 percent, he said.

That's it. And to immunize their readers against even this small germ of good news, they ran a prominent 585-word piece, with a photo, a smooshy soft-news thing proclaiming, as the “Toll of War”: “Advocates fear surge of homeless veterans”). You can decide for yourself if the article makes the case that the Iraq War is a shortcut to homelessness for returning veterans.

Since then, as the news from Iraq has only gotten better, (or the information, anyway, as the news media won’t cover it), The Detroit News’s own stubborn emphasis in its Iraq coverage is revealed in these headlines of related Iraq-articles:

More on this topic

Pakistan rebuffs U.S.
Blast kills Iraqi children, U.S. soldiers
Senate blocks measures to fund Iraq, Afghanistan wars
Roadside blasts decline
Peace group to award anti-war activist Sheehan at Cobo
Report: 14 of 17 Blackwater shootings unjustified
Dems: U.S. wars cost family of 4 $20,900
Guards kill Iraqi taxi driver
Iraq soldier's wife turns her worries into comedy
Peace returns to Baghdad district
Mich. native Woodruff, Springsteen honor military wounded
Easing unrest renews Iraq's taste for booze
U.S. troop deaths set record in Iraq
Bombs kill five U.S. soldiers in Iraq
Ranks of people displaced in Iraq swell, relief group says

Another clearly negative story not in this list included, on November 17, “Stressed GIs desert posts.”

So, out of 16 stories, 13 emphasize bad news from Iraq, and even the favorable ones have misleading headlines. For instance, “Roadside blasts decline: Military says explosive devices down by more than half from March high, but still considered significant.” Of course any roadside bombs are significant. But not as significant, at this point, as the dramatic decline. News people are supposed to be able to recognize the real story out of jumbles of facts.

In fairness, I note that last Tuesday, the News did run a prominent AP story, U.S. begins troop reductions”, fairly huge news, I’d say, considering that troop reductions are the only thing the Left has left to scream about.

But then again today’s big Iraq story, “U.S. agrees to further talks with Iran about security in Iraq,” is another red herring, an insubstantial piece reporting talks about talks, none of which is relevant to coalition progress in Iraq right now. Rather, it only reflect the nostalgia of the editors for the days when the Left still thought they could browbeat the administration into seeking peace terms on Iranian terms.

And look over today’s Iraq-related headlines from the News:

More on this topic

Stressed GIs desert posts
Dems tie Iraq funds, withdrawals
U.S. begins troop reductions
Levin says wars will tax future generations
State Dept. may phase out use of Blackwater
Blackwater scrutinized
Firms in Iraq face court jurisdiction
Congress grills Blackwater CEO
Dems push tax to pay for Iraq war
Report: Blackwater out of control
Levin keeps pushing Iraq policy changes
Iraq shootings scrutinized
War funds fight looms
Al-Maliki: Shooting tests Iraq autonomy
Iraq: U.S. company 'guilty' in shootings

One favorable story out of 15.

If I were a casual reader of the News, I guess I'd conclude that today, November 21st, all that's going on in Iraq is that soldiers are deserting their posts by the thousands, Blackwater is still running daily shoot-em-up tours through Iraqi villages, a brave Congress is valiantly trying to curb overspending on the war, and Carl Levin is still relevant. Oh, and I might notice that maybe a few troops are coming home.

The Detroit News has plainly decided that, if they can’t find bad war news, they'll report on Blackwater, the war tax on “future generations,” and alleged war crimes.

No question these profesional journalists are working very hard at all this. But are they doing their jobs?

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