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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Media Coverage of Iraq Falls Sharply

Anyone know what happened in Iraq yesterday? If we go to Juan Cole's Informed Comment, we see that a security agreement between President Bush and Nuri al Maliki is falling through. The "agreement" has all the earmarks of a treaty so, of course, it's not a treaty according to the White House -- if it were, Congress would have to ratify it. Bush is trying to do an end-run around the next President and Congress, roping them into continuing his stupid, brutal, and pointless war. It's hard to see the logic here -- treaties have the force of law, an "agreement" is basically nothing. No one would be legally bound by it. Bush's reasoning, as it so often is, isn't reasonable. His efforts on this front can't make any lasting difference.

Where Bush's respect for his Constitutional obligations is non-existent, al Maliki's respect for his parliament is much more present. He put the treaty -- excuse me, "agreement" -- to the Iraqi legislature and it's going nowhere. "Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that both Sunni and Shiite Iraqis have united to reject the draft of a security agreement proposed by the United States," Cole tells us. Since the agreement would give US troops complete freedom of movement in Iraq, lawmakers of that country see it as compromising Iraqi autonomy.

If you haven't heard of any of this, there's a reason. The media isn't covering it.

American Journalism Review:

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.

I came across this piece at Truthdig, who said, "If ever there was required reading, this article by Sherry Ricchiardi in the American Journalism Review would be it." Reading through, you wish you could require it of the media.

"During the first 10 weeks of 2007, Iraq accounted for 23 percent of the newshole fornetwork TV news," Ricchiardi writes. "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 media have now lost interest in Iraq. It's so five minutes ago.

Which should strike any observer as offensive, since the media played an indispensable part in getting us into this mess they're now ignoring. In his book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, former White House spokesman Scott McClellan calls the media "complicit enablers" of the invasion.

"What is most appalling," writes Greg Mitchell for Editor and Publisher, "is that it took McClellan’s book to produce a debate about this tremendously vital subject at all." The media, to absolutely no one's surprise, has been reluctant to even admit their role in the parade of lies that led us into Iraq. So it's even less surprising that they'd spend a lot of air time or column inches on how to avoid screwing up so royally in the future. Coverage of McClellan's book has been as an indictment of the Bush administration, ignoring the charges aimed at the mainstream media.

In fact, we now see the media making the same mistake in almost exact reverse. Where the pre-war coverage relied too much on spectacular and unsubstantiated claims by the administration, today's coverage relies too little on the facts on the ground. Iraq is a map on a television screen, a graph in a sidebar, not a country where people struggle and live and die. Iraq is being treated as a near-hypothetical. What coverage there is focuses on the trivial, the commemorative, or the martial. Coverage of Iraqi politics is practically non-existent.

"A daily tracking of 65 newspapers by the Associated Press confirms a dip in page-one play throughout the country," Ricchiardi writes. "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."

The fifth anniversary of the invasion is important, but really an almost arbitrary event. And most of that coverage wasn't about where we are in the conflict, but where we were five years ago. Coverage of Iraqi politics -- the only real measure of how long this will drag on -- barely exists. To find the story I used to open this post, I went straight to a blog by a middle east expert. It'd be too difficult and time consuming to find good coverage using a Google News search.

Of course, a big part of the problem -- at least, today -- is that we've got a high profile story sucking up all the oxygen here in the states. The Democratic primary goes on and on, with Hillary Clinton continuing her fight beyond all reason or hope. And, the nature of this primary requires a focus on inside baseball facts like delegate counts and obscure bodies like the Rules and Bylaws Committee. The dem primary has become a legalistic struggle over rules, not a debate about policy. The media follows this story and it leads them away from Iraq, to Florida and Michigan.

But that doesn't mean there isn't another debate going on. One more substantive and relevant to our lives and our world. John McCain is out there, competing with Barack Obama, and he's getting away with some extremely egregious BS.

Matthew Yglesias, The Atlantic:

Here's a good one, John McCain smacks Barack Obama around for not realizing that force levels in Iraq are already down to pre-surge levels. This shows, according to McCain, how Obama's not having taken a recent guided tour of Iraq makes him unqualified. But of course McCain's wrong about how many troops are in Iraq! It's almost as if being a cranky and arrogant old man isn't the same as possessing actual understanding...

I think the general idea is that if McCain asserts loudly enough that Obama doesn't know what he's talking about, that people will believe it.

Here's John McCain, who by naked odds alone stands a 50/50 chance of being president, either lying about the facts in Iraq or displaying an amazing ignorance of those facts. Either way, it's bad. But the press is off following Hillary Clinton around as if she stands a chance in hell. They can't be bothered with the senile ramblings of an old man who's going to be on the ballot in November, they've got the plucky fight of a woman who definitely won't be on the ballot to cover. The media must prioritize.

In fact, McCain and Obama have been exchanging rhetorical blows over Baghdad Johnny's ignorance (or lies) regarding Iraq. Not only is the media ignoring Iraq in favor of election coverage, they're ignoring an election year debate about Iraq in order to cover different election news. They're covering election news, by the way, which probably won't matter a bit in a matter of days -- or even hours.

I know that it may seem a little unfair of me to post this critique of media coverage of Iraq on the same day as the final two Democratic primaries, but the fact is that this isn't the only news that will be covered today. Pick up your newspaper or turn on your TV and I'll guarantee you'll see stories that have absolutely nothing to do with South Dakota or Montana.

What you won't see is very much about Iraq.


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