Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Is the news media telling us what we need to know?

By Nancy Jane Moore

Check out this number: 23,416.

That's how many US soldiers have been killed or wounded in the Iraq War, as of today.

Did you know the number was that high? I didn't. I had a general idea that just short of 3,000 troops had been killed -- Forbes puts the number of dead at 2,729 -- but I didn't have a handle on the wounded.

I'm pretty sure that a large percentage of the wounded have very serious injuries -- modern medicine is saving a lot of soldiers who would have died in earlier wars, even in Vietnam.

Outside the number of dead, US losses in Iraq aren't getting much newspaper coverage. I've seen a few features on brave soldiers learning to deal with their injuries, but I haven't seen any big picture stories detailing how many soldiers we're losing to life-derailing injuries.

Juan Cole points out today that if you want coverage of US casualties, you need to read local papers -- which, of course, tend to focus on individual stories. He goes on to say:
Usually the national cable networks spend hours and hours covering local murder mysteries and emergencies while ignoring vital national and international stories. In this case, they mainly cover Iraq by reporting what the Bush administration says about Iraq, but they almost never cover the local impact of the war or concentrate on the wounded veterans struggling to make their lives.
I realize that the Defense Department is not making it easy to get this information -- remember all the flap about whether journalists could cover the bodies being shipped into to the Dover, Delaware, air force base -- but the news media could do a better job of covering this story. I'd really like to know how many of our troops are going to spend the rest of their lives struggling with a significant disability such as a brain injury.

Which brings us to a detailed report in the Columbia Journalism Review by Eric Umansky on coverage of torture by US soldiers and other officials. Umansky says good reporters like Carlotta Gall of The New York Times were digging out the torture story as early as 2002 during the Afghanistan war -- Gall discovered that some of our prisoners were killed in custody.

But as the CJR reports, The Times dithered over running Gall's story on this matter, only running it eventually, on an inside page, because one editor fought for it and Gall provided very detailed background reporting. The CJR story contrasts The Times' handling of the torture story to the way it covered weapons of mass destruction:
"Compare Judy Miller's WMD stories to Carlotta's story," says [then Times editor for investigative reporting Doug] Frantz. "On a scale of one to ten, Carlotta's story was nailed down to ten. And if it had run on the front page, it would have sent a strong signal not just to the Bush administration but to other news organizations."

Instead, the story ran on page fourteen under the headline "U.S.Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody." (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall's digging.)
Umansky's article points out the complexities of covering a subject like torture and the difficulty that editors have in deciding whether something is really news. It's not a blame story, but it does point out the weakness in the coverage. Here's one observation he makes that really caught my eye:
There is a final factor that has shaped torture coverage, one that is hard to capture. In most big scandals, such as Watergate, the core question is whether the allegations of illegal behavior are true. Here, the ultimate issue isn't whether the allegations are true, but whether they're significant, whether they should really be considered a scandal.
And he does make clear that part of the problem is that the Bush administration and its tame Congress have made it difficult for journalists to report on this issue:
As a result of the administration's stonewalling, the abuse story has been deprived of the oxygen it needs to move forward and stay in the headlines. There are still occasional revelations, but without the typical next steps -- congressional hearings, investigations, resignations -- the scoops themselves start to lose their pop and the story grows cold.
The result of this is that we the people get the wrong idea -- which is perhaps one reason that the detainee torture bill slid through Congress so easily. Umansky writes:
It is impossible to quantify the effect of congressional inaction and the administration's efforts to quash details about abusive interrogation tactics. But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press did ask a question in a poll that might give a glimpse. In October 2005 -- eighteen months after the disclosures of memos redefining torture, and after the appearance of official reports concluding that much of the abuse photographed at Abu Ghraib had indeed been based on tactics approved elsewhere in the system -- respondents were asked what they thought caused the "cases of prisoner mistreatment in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay." About a third said it was "mostly the result of official policies." Nearly half said it was "mostly the result of misconduct" by individuals.
There's a saying from the 60s: "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers." Maybe it should be updated to "If they can get you to believe lies, they don't have to worry about your actions."

We have never needed good journalism more than we need it today. Blogs are valuable -- I've just pointed you to some information that you won't find in today's paper -- but what we most desperately need are reporters with the support and resources to find the stories and media of all kinds with the will and clout to publish them even in the face of government disapproval.

Unless we know what's really going on, how can we rein in the abuse being done in our name?

1 comment:

Jamie Lynk, Sarasota FL said...

23,416 US causalities (2,729-KIA) in Iraq/Afghanistan:
Troops sent to fight terrorism. Many who volunteered and believed they were fighting to prevent another 9/11 and/or to track down those guilty of perpetrating 9/11.
These men and women serving in Iraq (and Afghanistan) deserve our honor and our respect and our support. They are warriors having sworn allegiance to the Constitution (not to any political party) and serving on the front lines defending the USA from what they were told was the scourge of terrorism. If the “loyal opposition” learned anything from Vietnam, it was to separate the troop in the field from the policy of the elected government that put them in harms way.

Yet how has this administration served them?
General Reported Shortages In Iraq
Situation Is Improved, Top Army Officials Say
By Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2004

Ricks reported that on December 4, 2003, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez (the senior commander on the ground in Iraq from the summer of 2003 until the summer of 2004) wrote a letter to top Army officials in which he stated, "I cannot continue to support sustained combat operations with rates this low." Sanchez elaborated by saying that Army units in Iraq were "struggling just to maintain . . . relatively low readiness rates" on key combat systems. In addition, Ricks reported that Sanchez told those officials that his soldiers “still needed protective inserts to upgrade 36,000 sets of body armor but that their delivery had been postponed twice in the month before he was writing.” At that time, the US had 131,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Rick’s wrote that “Sanchez concluded, ‘I cannot sustain readiness without Army-level intervention.’"

Here was the Senior Ground Commander in Iraq practically begging the Pentagon for greater material support for the troops in the field in December of 2003; while, in April 2003, President Bush had said, "I have pledged, as has the secretary of defense, to give our troops everything that is necessary to complete their mission with the utmost safety," Finally, Ricks wrote that in October 2004, Bush said: "When America puts our troops in combat, I believe they deserve the best training, the best equipment, the full support of our government."

The Year 2006:
• Army shuns anti-RPG system
Sept. 5: NBC's Lisa Myers investigates. Rocket-propelled grenades have killed nearly 40 Americans in Afghanistan and more than 130 in Iraq. Israel has developed a system that effectively thwarts them, so why isn't the U.S. using it in the war on terror? …Essentially, the Army is willing to wait 5-years until Raytheon can develop it’s own system; while at Dahlgren, VA the Navy is working with General Dynamics on another system.

The New York Times, Thom Shanker reports the following: "Tucked away in fine print in the military spending bill for this past year was a lump sum of $20 million to pay for a celebration in the nation's capital ‘for commemoration of success' in Iraq and Afghanistan."

From Juan Cole’s INFORMED COMMENT, Oct. 3, 2006.
Lies and Cover-Ups are not "Being in Denial"
Foleygate, Ricegate and Insurgencygate

The right wing of the Republican Party has a problem with the truth. The American press corps has an addiction to euphemisms.
Bob Woodward called his book "State of Denial." The press around the book raises the question of whether President George W. Bush and his highest officials--Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice-- are unable to face the truth ("in denial").
Yet the sort of anecdote Woodward tells, and the new information surfacing on Tenet's briefing of Rice and Hastert's inaction on Foley-- all these do not point to denial or lack of realism. They point to lying and to deliberately spinning and misleading the US public.

To the acts of mal- and misfeasance above, add: the attempt to suppress the NIE/Nation Intelligence Estimate Report, the passage of The Military Commissions Act of 2006; and the recent expanding scandel involving Mark Foley and who knew what and when.

Juxtapose the Christianity -- the faith -- the quiet dignity -- of the Amish community in Pennsylvania these past few days with the lies and the blatant hypocrisy of these so-called GOP leaders and Christian defenders of family values: George W. Bush; Dick Cheny, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Karl Rove, Dennis Hastert, Lewis “Scotter” Libby, Tom Delay, Bob Ney, Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed.

Bill Moyers summed it up perfectly in his closing address to the National Conference on Media Reform, St. Louis, Missouri, on May 16, 2005:

….We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age old ambition of power and ideology to squelch -- to punish the journalist who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable….
….Who are they? I mean the people obsessed with control using the government to threaten and intimidate; I mean the people who are hollowing out middle class security even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the working class to make sure Ahmad Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq’s oil; I mean the people who turn faith-based initiatives into Karl Rove’s slush fund; who encourage the pious to look heavenward and pray so as not to see the long arm of privilege and power picking their pockets; I mean the people who squelch free speech in an effort to obliterate dissent and consolidate their orthodoxy into the official view of reality from which any deviation becomes unpatriotic heresy. That’s who I mean. And if that’s editorializing, so be it. A free press is one where it’s okay to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence….
….the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news….
….I came to see that news is what people want to keep hidden, and everything else is publicity….
….And the problem was that we were telling stories that partisans in power didn’t want told, and we were getting it right, not rightwing.
Let me tell you something – and we can argue about this at some other time – I’ve always thought the American eagle needed a left wing and a right wing. The right wing would see to it that economic interests had their legitimate concerns addressed. The left wing would see to it that ordinary people were included in the bargain. And both would keep the great bird on course. But with two right wings or two left wings, it’s no longer an eagle, and it’s going to crash.

Moyer’s concluded by quoted from a five-page hand-written letter he received from a woman whose husband, a New York Fire Fighter, was off-duty and who reported for duty and was one of those killed when the towers collapsed:

But my Charlie took off like a lightning bolt to be with his men from the special operations command. ‘Bring my gear to the plaza,’ he told his aid immediately after the first plane struck the north tower. In comparison to using semantic technicalities, passing the responsibility or not having all the facts, he took action based on the responsibility he felt for his job and his men and for those towers he loved. In the Fire Department of New York chain of command, rules extend to every captain of every firehouse in the city. If anything happens in the firehouse at any time, even if the captain isn’t on duty and is on vacation, that captain is responsible for everything that goes on there twenty-four/seven. Why then,” she asks, “are the people in Washington responsible for nothing? Why do they pass the blame for what happened that day, for the failure of the system, for the torture at Abu Ghraib, for sending young soldiers into an immoral war,under-equipped, under-trained and under-protected? Why is there no leadership?

Unfortunately, we’re still asking these same questions today in 2006.

Note: Read Bill Moyer’s entire conference address (here’s the web site):