Blue Ridge Journal
BRJ Front Page See all Essays Send a Comment
Suggested Related Essay:
"One-track Sympathy"

Media, Iraq & Perspective

September 2004

Both print and electronic media are failing to give balanced treatment to the reconstruction in Iraq. As usual, they direct our attention toward the sensational.
I recall some years ago in Sacramento, passing a newspaper rack on my way to work one morning, that my eye was caught by an illustration on the front page of the "Sacramento Bee". Or was it the "Union" I saw first? No matter, they were side by side, and both had the same picture: a good-sized full color photo illustrating a news story centered on the top half of the front page – the half that attracts buyers to the newsstand copies. The story, which was much smaller than the picture, told us that a man in Lima, Peru, had fallen to his death from a skyscraper. The picture, let it be said, was an excellent illustration of a man falling to his death from a skyscraper. The man, at the moment passing perhaps the 20th floor, was in fine focus, head somewhat down, body bent but arms and legs sprawling. It was no doubt the qualities of the photograph that made both these fine newspaper editors (and who knows how many others in other cities) give this important story its full due.

News editors, whether in newspapers or in the broadcast media, have a difficult job. An important part of that job is to pick a few stories from among the thousands of reports of world happenings that become available each day. These few stories become the "news" that we read and discuss. And the reporting of these stories – where they are placed in the program or paper, how much space they're given, the pictures chosen to illustrate them, and the selection of facts and the tone of writing by the reporter – form the basis for our social discussion, and often provide us with ready-made opinions, overtly or subtly encouraged by the news report. The current U.S./coalition involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq provides a pointed example of the influence that these individuals – editors – exercise over public opinion, and therefore over public policy.

To begin, we understand that the real job of a typical commercial news editor (I will use the example of TV news, but it is equally relevant to newspaper and radio media) is to attract viewers in order to contribute to the goal of the company, which is naturally to maximize profit for its investors. In the case of this editor, if he does his job well more viewers will be attracted to the program and the company can sell its commercial time for more money. The principle is simple. Faced with the demand to attract viewers, the editor chooses, places, illustrates, and edits stories according to a few criteria. Somewhere low on the list of criteria is "Does the viewer need to know this?" Far higher, far more important to the editor, is the key question, "Will this attract and hold the viewer?" To do his job, the (typical commercial news) editor therefore strives to provide the sensational, the exciting, the interesting, and above all, the visual. A sensational picture will make the story worth showing. The editor's favorite material is an ongoing "serial" story that meets these criteria and brings viewers back day after day. War and violence are to our editor like nectar to a bee, sure to attract many a viewer.

Now, to Iraq: Who in the US has not seen media coverage, and plenty of it, of individuals in Iraq threatened with death by kidnappers? Such a threat assures the kidnappers of a willing platform in the US media, precisely what they need to be successful in their goal, which is to influence US public opinion and induce war weariness here. Let's look at our editor's story choice on a typical day: 1) A man – perhaps a foreign national – is threatened with death in Iraq, or perhaps he has been killed by his kidnappers.  Or 2) Fifty Americans were murdered in the US today, as they are on any average day.  Which story will our editor go with? You know the answer. Day after day you hear about a hostage or two killed in Iraq. When was the last time you heard day-by-day reporting about the 50 or so murdered persons in the US each day? Nearly 20 thousand per year! Where's the news media on this story, which makes the violence in Iraq seem like a Sunday picnic.

Well, not quite a Sunday picnic. Iraq is a violent place, and the media have popularly labeled it "chaos". But what kind of chaos is it, compared to the US? According to the respected web based military news magazine "StrategyPage", "The anti-government violence in Iraq is causing a annualized death rate of 15 per 100,000 population for terrorist activities alone."  This, added to the non-terrorist murder rate (but not including military actions), "produces a rate of about 20 per 100,000 per year." That's pretty high, though only about a third of the murder rate in Washington, D.C. But let's compare it with the US as a whole: Here, the murder rate has gone down substantially over the last decade, and now stands at about 6 per 100,000 per year. But this is not what it appears. The University of Massachusetts (Amherst) reported (7/7/02) on recent work by four researchers at U.Mass. and Harvard U.: "The level of violence from assaults in America has risen dramatically over the past 40 to 50 years ... But because of the vast improvements in the nation's access to and quality of emergency medical care ... the outcome of these assaults is far less likely to be lethal." The report concludes in part that "... we estimate that without this technology, the U.S. would presently be experiencing 45,000 to 70,000 homicides a year instead of an actual 15,000 to 20,000."  That is to say, that the level of lethal violence in the US would result in a murder rate three or more times higher than the reported rate if we did not have the "911" system with rapid medical response and state-of-the art emergency treatment, which of course does not exist in Iraq. In other words, our level of lethal violence is almost exactly that of Iraq's with its terrorist activities. So do we have "chaos" in this country? What kind of perspective is it that allows media editors to completely ignore the equivalent level of violence in our own society and play up that in Iraq? I'm afraid I see only two likely answers, both unfortunate: The media's chase after profits outweighs any concern for fairness or for what US viewers really need to know about; and/or worse, they are attempting to affect the US presidential election – without admitting bias – by presenting the Iraq venture as a failure.

So is there any harm in the media puffing up terrorist news from Iraq? Let's remember first a little of 1980, where we might have learned a lesson: The government of Iran – through surrogates – had attacked and seized the US embassy in Tehran in November of '79, taking most of the occupants hostage. Before long, ABC began a nightly TV show called "America Held Hostage: Day 255" (or whatever number it was that day), that ran until the hostages were released in January 1981. The show was a ratings magnet. Its title reflected the importance that ABC placed on this ongoing event, and indeed, their prophesy fulfilled itself: The nation became transfixed with this problem, and gradually became as hostages as President Carter and the country appeared unable to give full attention to anything else. The hostage-takers, who probably didn't know the value of what they had when they began the operation, discovered from ABCs show that they had not 52 hostages but 250 million. And as ABC (and other media, to be sure) emphasized and strengthened the grip that this action had on the US, and as the terrorists learned to use these willing American outlets to threaten the hostages and lambast the US, the value of the hostages grew. It's not possible to say what would have happened if the US media had not willingly given voice to the terrorists, but in the event the nation was paralyzed for over a year, economic doldrums set in, and President Carter went down to defeat.

In Iraq we unfortunately see the same cooperation of the news media with terrorists, especially with kidnappers, which helps these to reach their aim. Why is it that the media give these people special coverage if it is not simply to attract viewers with sensationalism? Surely our editor understands that the death or threat of death of a few individuals means nothing to a war effort. Would Eisenhower have called off D-day if the Germans had threatened to shoot a US captive? Of course not; such a threat would have had no effect, and without the media's complicity it would have no effect in Iraq. Without publicity hostage takers have nothing. Their hostages have value only to the extent that the media give it to them. And the media, as in Iran in 1980, have sadly been more than willing to provide the publicity – and thereby the assistance – they need.

So what ought to be reported about Iraq, beyond bombs, killings and hostage taking? First, place the news in perspective. If the level of lethal violence in Iraq is comparable to ours in the US, say so. Ask how the current Iraqi death rate compares with that during Saddam's years. It's quite possible that there were fewer non-military deaths in Iraq over the past year than during any year in the past 25; in other words, Iraq may be safer than it has been. And isn't one of the most prodigious efforts ever attempted at quickly rebuilding a nation now taking place in Iraq? We certainly don't hear much about it, but hundreds of schools have been built or repaired and reopened. With female students and with a new, nondemagogic curriculum. Libraries have opened, water treatment and sewage treatment plants that had been neglected for 25 years are being rebuilt and repaired. The electrical grid is being restored and extended. Iraqis are for the first time enjoying free speech on the radio and in newspapers. Brave souls are doing their best to build nonpolitical police forces for the first time. Participation of women in society is being revolutionized. Free elections are around the corner. There truly are a lot of things to report on, and all these are far more vital than a few kidnappers. Only after hearing fair reporting on all these aspects of the reconstruction of Iraq can the American public make well-informed political choices this November. Alas, the time is short, and there is unfortunately little historical reason to be sanguine about the media's quick conversion to the idea of giving the public information they need, from a balanced and fair perspective. But I'm an optimist, and I believe in miracles, and sometimes in the need to nudge miracles into being.

© 2004 H. Paul Lillebo
BRJ Front Page See all Essays Send a Comment