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As Iraq War Pushes On, Media Coverage Shifts

March 24, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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As the U.S. military death toll in Iraq hit 4,000 and the war entered its fifth year, a study by the Pew Research Center found that the number of news stories about the Iraq war has fallen dramatically in the past year. Media analysts assess how the press is covering the conflict and the impact on public awareness of the war.

JEFFREY BROWN: The same study that Ray [Suarez] just cited about public awareness of the death toll in Iraq also took a hard look at the media coverage of the conflict.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the number of news stories about Iraq had fallen off dramatically since last year. The study shows the percentage of news stories devoted to the war dropped from an average of 15 percent of all stories last July to just 3 percent in February of this year.

We discuss the findings and their implications now with Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism; Marjorie Miller, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times; Terry McCarthy, ABC News correspondent based in Baghdad, he joins us tonight from New York; and Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, a magazine about the newspaper business, he’s also the author of a book about the media and Iraq called “So Wrong for So Long.”

Well, Mark Jurkowitz, let me start with you. You could flesh out the study a little bit more for us. When exactly did we see this falloff in the coverage? And how did that change the stories?

MARK JURKOWITZ, Project for Excellence in Journalism: We really saw it — it happened dramatically at the end of last year. And there were really two major components of the story that are worth talking about when you’re talking about Iraq coverage.

One of them is the political debate that was based in Washington that was really about control of the war, the purse strings of the war, the battle between the congressional Democrats and the White House over who was going to control the politics of the war.

You have to remember, in 2006, we had a new Democratic Congress that got elected. They thought they had a mandate to end the war. The president comes in with a surge in January. The media sees a real battle royale shaping up over who’s going to control strategy and purse strings, and coverage of that political debate was actually the highest component of the Iraq coverage that we studied.

Somewhere in the middle of last year, it became evident, as the president continued to win legislative battles and get funding for the war without timetables for withdrawals or deadlines, that that battle had effectively been won. And that kind of coverage began to drop off fairly dramatically.

By the end of last year, as the statistics showed, in the late fall, we started to see the surge working, to the extent that casualties on the ground and the violence inside Iraq began to diminish. When that began to diminish, so, too, did coverage of events inside that.

So you put the two of them together. And if you actually compared where we were in the first three months of 2007 and where we are in the first three months of 2008, we’ve got literally about 15 percent as much Iraq coverage this year as we had at this time last year.

Competiting news events

Marjorie Miller
Los Angeles Times
There's definitely a weariness. This is a story that people want to go away, and so we are constantly looking for new and interesting ways to tell the story and keep people engaged.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me turn to Marjorie Miller in Los Angeles, as someone -- you've been covering the war from its beginning. Do you see less, fewer stories in your paper? And if so, why?

MARJORIE MILLER, Foreign Editor, Los Angeles Times: Well, I would agree with what was said, and I would add two other factors. One is there's an extremely competitive and interesting national election campaign in the United States and we're competing for space with that story.

Secondly, there's a huge economic story, the mortgage crisis, that is affecting a lot of our readers. And it's an immediate story that people want every day. So we're competing for finite space in the newspaper.

JEFFREY BROWN: Staying with you, do you sense any weariness on the part of your readers or the part of the paper itself, in terms of covering the war?

MARJORIE MILLER: There's definitely a weariness. This is a story that people want to go away, and so we are constantly looking for new and interesting ways to tell the story and keep people engaged.

And, also, it's a story that -- the course of the story takes a little bit longer to play out and tell now. We're measuring things that take time.

Is the Shiite Mahdi Army cease-fire holding? Is the increase in U.S. troops, the so-called surge, working? Are the Sunni militia that are working with us going to stick? And these are things that you measure over months, not days and weeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Terry McCarthy, how does it feel to you when you're in Baghdad, in terms of the kind of stories that they might be interested back in New York among your producers or among your viewers?

TERRY MCCARTHY, ABC News Correspondent: Well, I think what we felt is that the suspense has gone out of the story this year. Insofar as last year, the stakes were very high. Was the surge going to work?

When Petraeus came back to the Congress in September and basically said the surge was working, we felt that from then on it was quite clear the administration was not going to change policy until the end of the current term, so we are now forced to find stories which tell the story in a slightly different way.

As Marjorie just said, it's really an incremental story now. There are no dramatic decisions which are likely to come out of the White House on Iraq from now until the end of this year. So we're looking at minor changes in death rates as we go from month to month. It's a much harder story to cut and dice than it was last year, when the decisions being faced were much more dramatic.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what's an example of the kind of story that you would do now that you might not have done at an earlier time?

TERRY MCCARTHY: Well, what we've been trying to do, for example, with Baghdad is we'll go out to different neighborhoods and we'll show how the footprint of relative safety -- and I say relative safety, because nowhere is really safe in Baghdad -- but how the footprint of where people can go, where they can go shopping or where they can go to coffee shops and stay out a bit, how that's expanding slowly.

And we can slowly push out the area that we can operate in and show through that how the situation is changing. But as I say, that is an incremental story. It's not very dramatic. It's more a lifestyle issue than a huge political story.

Stories still untold

Terry McCarthy
Correspondent, ABC News
It's still quite dangerous for foreign journalists to go out and around in Iraq. You know, the peace dividend that Iraqis are enjoying to some extent with the surge haven't been passed on to foreigners.

JEFFREY BROWN: Greg Mitchell, you have been very critical in the past and in your book about the media's performance in the run-up to the war. Give us your assessment now of where things stand.

GREG MITCHELL, Editor, Editor and Publisher Magazine: ... over the years and taking a harder look at the war and what's going on there. But I would still argue that, even in the past year, there has been -- there's no excuse for a lot of the falloff in the coverage.

I think all the reasons that the other guests have given are valid; I think they're real. But I think you still have to look at yourself in the mirror and sort of say, "This is the story of our time; this is still the tragedy of our time; this is still the worst episode that the United States has been involved in, in probably my lifetime or at least going back to Vietnam."

And the coverage calls for being incredibly nimble, for being incredibly creative, and for devoting the inches on the front pages and the minutes on the network broadcast to tell that story.

And I think, just to give one brief example, it's really only until recent that we've seen any kind of focus on the financial costs of the war. It sort of popped up just in recent weeks.

And, you know, these reports could have been done long ago, because that is an issue that is bipartisan. It's an issue that affects every American. It's going to affect all of us for the rest of our lives and probably until the end of the century. And yet we didn't see a lot of focus on the absolutely staggering long-term cost of the war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me go back to Marjorie Miller in Los Angeles to respond to some -- a story like that, are we missing those kinds of stories now?

MARJORIE MILLER: I think that we haven't missed an opportunity to do them. I think there are many more to be done, and we're constantly digging and looking at ways to tell that story.

On the ground in Iraq, we're still somewhat restricted by our ability to move around and look at projects and look at where money went or where it didn't go. But there's an awful lot of paperwork that we can still dig through. And I don't think we're done telling that story by any stretch of the imagination.

JEFFREY BROWN: But are there stories that you regret not having been able to get to because of these other things that you cited before and the weariness that you perceive?

MARJORIE MILLER: There are many stories I regret not having gotten; I still hope to get them.


Terry McCarthy, same thing. What do you think we are missing in the story from Iraq now?

TERRY MCCARTHY: Well, quite clearly, the story that is so hard for us to tell is the story of Iraqi civilians, how Iraqis are living through this war. And that's for two reasons, really.

One is it's still quite dangerous for foreign journalists to go out and around in Iraq. You know, the peace dividend that Iraqis are enjoying to some extent with the surge haven't been passed on to foreigners. We still have a substantial kidnap threat there. As we saw just last month, we lost a colleague from CBS who was kidnapped in Basra. Hopefully we're going to get him back soon.

The other issue, of course, is that Iraqis themselves are somewhat hesitant about appearing on American television. You know, there's a significant danger that they might be seen and then targeted by militants.

We had a camera crew who were killed last year, unfortunately, in Baghdad. And with the permission of their families, we aired their pictures on air with a eulogy that night. Those pictures were picked up by local TV and, within hours, there was a huge crowd outside the house of one of those -- one of the crew, the soundman, who said, "We want to kill the whole family, because we didn't know that your son was working with the Americans."

We had to quickly yank that picture off Iraqi TV. But it just shows you the risks involved not only for foreigners reporting there, but also for Iraqis themselves appearing on American television. That makes it very hard for us to tell their story properly.

Declining foreign bureaus

Mark Jurkowitz
Project for Excellence in Journalism
This is a five-year war. And it's an expensive and exhausting proposition to keep reporters and bureaus in faraway places at a time when the industry is cutting back dramatically on all aspects of the newsroom.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, Terry, even the number of Iraqis killed -- it's just interesting, on a day when we're talking about the number of Americans killed, and I was looking for citations of the number of Iraqis, and it ranges from 50,000 to -- WHO has a number of about 150,000, on to much higher. Even that kind of thing is hard to tell.

TERRY MCCARTHY: That's right. And, as you know, those figures are very controversial. There was a study in a British medical journal, the Lancet, last year which put Iraqi casualties up at 600,000, which was way out of the ballpark of what everyone else thought.

And, of course, the real problem is that the institutions of the Iraqi Health Ministry, the Interior Ministry are pretty much decrepit. They don't really have a very efficient way of collecting information.

So we have to go on piecemeal information. We get some from the American military. We get some from the local police force. But, frankly, no one really knows how many Iraqis have died in this war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Jurkowitz, what do you make of the changing narrative that has been brought up here, in terms of the story that's being told and what isn't getting told?

MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, first of all, all the evidence suggests what was just mentioned is correct. We interviewed a group of -- bunch of journalists who had spent time in Baghdad during the war and two things came out, that stood out.

One was the sense of physical danger that they felt, which incredibly limited their ability to move. And second was their sense of frustration with not being able to tell the story of the Iraqi people, which left them largely telling the story of the day-to-day violence.

We also have to remember: This is a five-year war. And it's an expensive and exhausting proposition to keep reporters and bureaus in faraway places at a time when the industry is cutting back dramatically on all aspects of the newsroom.

So it really takes a sustained commitment at this point in time for a news organization to still be in Iraq five years later, looking to tell some kind of story.

I will say this: For the decrease in coverage that we've seen, I think there's a reasonable expectation that when we get into the general election frame, where differences over Iraq policy are clearly going to come to the fore again, I think we will see Iraq back on the front pages in a way we haven't seen for a while.

Keeping Iraq in the headlines

Greg Mitchell
Author, "So Wrong for So Long"
People talk about the public's lack of interest these days, but the public often, right or wrong, takes their cues from the media. So if the media puts the stories on page 29 ... the public may take a cue that Iraq isn't that important anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you respond to that, Greg Mitchell? Because you cover the industry, you know about the larger context here, the financial pressures and cutbacks, especially in foreign coverage.

GREG MITCHELL: Well, it's sort of a tragedy that they have cut back in this important area. Again, I think it's valid what Mark said about that, and that's definitely going on. But I just don't think that's a good enough excuse for cutting back the coverage.

People talk about the public's lack of interest these days, but the public often, right or wrong, takes their cues from the media. So if the media puts the stories on page 29 or doesn't run the stories at all, the public may take a cue that Iraq isn't that important anymore. And so I think there's a certain amount of justification going on there.

We even saw last week, in all the hundreds of stories and hours of network news devoted to the fifth anniversary of the war, you know, assessments were made of everything, fingers were pointed, blame was laid. And we saw very little media self-assessment.

And I think that's kind of revealing, also, at the fifth anniversary to have the media not give a tremendously in-depth look at its own performance over these five years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as a student of the business and the institutions, what do you see that it would take to elevate the story once again?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, I think that, you know, focus on what's actually going on in Iraq, in terms of political progress, in terms of benchmarks that supposedly were supposed to be met by now, and also looking at the human toll back in the U.S.

There have been improvements in the past year in looking at the incredible number of injuries to our veterans, the plight of the veterans in the hospitals, just the sheer number of mental problems, brain injuries, and so forth.

So I think a broad look at the entire impact of the war, every bit of the cost, every bit of the price that we're paying by having it go on. You know, the surge -- this was a funny surge that has gone on for over a year. I thought surges were supposed to be six months and then decline. Instead, we've seen sort of a permanent surge.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Marjorie Miller, same question, because you have followed this for the duration and no doubt have seen shifts in interest and levels of coverage. Do you see the potential for a return of elevating this to front-page status?

MARJORIE MILLER: Well, it's on the front page today, and it is several times a week in our paper. And our story today on the death of the 4,000th service members, more than 4,000 now, is on at least 16, 17 front pages around the country today, so it hasn't completely fallen off.

And I think it will remain there and it's our job to write stories that are compelling enough to keep it there. And one way to do that is to continue to write about Iraqis and the impact it has on their lives and their country and then the whole region. I mean, it's had a huge spillover affect in geopolitics and the way Americans are viewed in the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Marjorie Miller, Terry McCarthy, Greg Mitchell, and Mark Jurkowitz, thank you all very much.