Myth: Americans tuned out Iraq Fact: The press tuned out Iraq

During the recent commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, there was lots of media hand-wringing about how Americans no longer were interested in the war and how Iraq had recently fallen off the country's collective radar. The observations were usually tied to the fact that mainstream media coverage of the war has sharply declined.

During the recent commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, there was lots of media hand-wringing about how Americans no longer were interested in the war and how Iraq had recently fallen off the country's collective radar. The observations were usually tied to the fact that mainstream media coverage of the war has sharply declined.

Releasing a news study on the topic, the Pew Research Center reported, “As news coverage of the war has diminished, so too has public interest in news about Iraq.” A Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial noted how the Pew study had “found a steady falloff in public focus” and suggested “public fatigue” had set in. The Hartford Courant noted "[t]he waning interest" in the war, while the Fort Worth Star-Telegram bemoaned “the public's loss of interest in this war.”

The New York Times detailed the decline in Iraq coverage and suggested it “may be explained by” a “decline in public interest.” The implication was that news organizations pulled back this year because their readers and viewers were less keyed in on the story, that consumers were dictating the coverage.

The truth is that phony narrative simply serves to justify the media's wholesale retreat from Iraq, as well as the media's decision to disengage from the war regardless of how interested news consumers were. In recent years, there has been no indication that the press has ever taken interest level into account while drawing down from the conflict. So it's disingenuous now to suggest the press is simply following the public's lead regarding the war.

Even now, as news outlets scramble to revive their Baghdad bureaus in the wake of disturbing new violence, it's important to understand that despite the spin, American news consumers have not walked away from Iraq. The press has.

Has the level of awareness among Americans dropped off somewhat during that five-year span? Of course it has. Do news articles about Iraq not generate the same click-through rate online? Do the phones at talk-radio stations not light up the way they used to when the topic up for discussion is the war? I'm sure that's the case. That's to be expected given the longevity of the war and the fact that in recent years, there have been fewer dramatic and sweeping developments regarding the conflict.

But here's the bottom line: News consumers' interest in Iraq remains relatively high, while news coverage has basically vanished. How's that for a disconnect?

The significance, as Eric Alterman and George Zornick wrote, is that "[w]ithout sufficient war coverage and a full spectrum of viewpoints on the conflict, the American people will have no way to make an informed decision about how to proceed and the democratic process will fail to function."

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's News Coverage Index, reports about the situation in Iraq accounted for just 2 percent of total news coverage from January through March. Eight months ago, Iraq reporting accounted for 15 percent of the total news coverage. Yes, consumer interest in Iraq has crept downward since last summer, but it certainly hasn't plummeted by 87 percent, the way the news coverage has.

The level of commitment to war reporting has been, at times, insulting for a nation at war. For instance, during the week of January 21-27, actor Heath Ledger's death received twice as much coverage as did the unfolding events in Iraq.

Oddly enough, there have actually been weeks this year when a sizable portion of the American public selected the situation in Iraq as the news story they were following most closely, despite the dearth of reporting coming out of Iraq. For the week of January 28-February 3, 13 percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey said Iraq was the most important story of the week, making it the week's third most-selected topic. What percentage of the total news coverage did the Iraq story actually represent that week? Two percent.

That Americans are able to remain informed about Iraq at all is somewhat remarkable given the paucity of reporting these days. After all, only a few major-market newspapers put news of the 4,000th U.S. fatality in Iraq above the fold on Page One.

In fact, what started all the recent media chatter about Americans suddenly not being interested in Iraq was a Pew poll released March 12 that showed 28 percent of Americans could correctly identify the number of casualties the U.S. military has suffered in Iraq. In all previous surveys Pew had conducted asking the same question, the percent answering correctly routinely hovered around 50 percent. Therefore, according to Pew, awareness of the fatalities had “plummeted.”

The survey received widespread attention, including mentions on NBC's Today and National Public Radio and in The New York Times, The Des Moines Register, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. Almost all the outlets pointed to the polling data to suggest Americans were suddenly no longer engaged in the still-unfolding war. The BBC, for instance, reported that “only about a quarter of Americans [knew] roughly how many of their own soldiers had died.”

It's true the percentage went down to 28, but I think most of the media's dour interpretations of the poll were misleading. If you look at the actual data, the truth is that combined, 86 percent of Americans knew that between 3,000 and 5,000 members of the U.S. military had died in Iraq. It seems misleading to report that most Americans don't know “roughly” how many of our troops have died in Iraq. I'd suggest 86 percent know “roughly” how many have died, which indicates Americans are still very much engaged in the unfolding war story.

Secondly, and more important, it seems perfectly obvious that one of the reasons fewer Americans could pick the actual number is that news reporting from Iraq has essentially vanished; it's disappeared. How else are news consumers supposed to get that information, osmosis?

More excuses

One common argument made by news producers and editors is that bigger ongoing stories, such as the 2008 campaign and the unfolding mortgage crisis, have taken priority inside newsrooms and pushed Iraq aside. “We're competing for finite space in the newspaper,” Marjorie Miller, foreign editor for the Los Angeles Times, said during recent a PBS roundtable discussion on the dramatic decrease in Iraq coverage.

That's certainly true and would even explain a steady decline in war coverage. But there's no way that can explain the almost complete collapse in Iraq reporting we've witnessed over the last nine months. Nor does it explain the wildly distorted ratio of news coverage.

For instance, during the week of March 3-9 , the primary season grabbed 52 percent of the news coverage, compared with a minuscule 1 percent set aside for Iraq.

FYI: On cable TV for that same week of March 3-9, the political primaries accounted for a mind-numbing 80 percent of all the news coverage, compared with basically 0 percent set aside for Iraq.

And note this: According to the Tyndall Report's research, presidential primary coverage in January and February totaled 932 minutes on the three nightly network newscasts. That compared with the 61 minutes devoted, collectively, to Iraq on the same networks during the same two months. That's a 15-to-1 ratio.

But go back and compare the interest level among news consumers who were following either the campaign or Iraq most closely during January and February, and you'll see the ratio of those who favored election news over Iraq news was roughly 4-to-1, not the absurd 15-to-1.

Another point raised during that PBS roundtable discussion, and one that's been discussed at length since the war began, was that Iraq is simply too dangerous for most journalists to travel freely and to do independent reporting. The 180 Iraqi and foreign journalists who have been killed covering the story are testament to that grim fact.

But what about stateside stories regarding the war that can be safely reported? What's the excuse for ignoring them? On PBS, Greg Mitchell, author of So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq, pointed out that the press has been relatively silent -- for five years running -- regarding the astounding financial cost of the Iraq war. “It's an issue that affects every American,” he said. “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.”

Still, news executives lay out their spin and insist they're giving Iraq all kinds of attention and that they're devoted to covering the story long term. ABC News president David Westin recently told The Hollywood Reporter that "[Iraq] is obviously a major strategic initiative for the United States, and how it will go will affect the entire region. That makes it a very important story."

ABC News sure has a funny way of showing its commitment to that “very important story.”

Last November, I noted that ABC's Nightline, its long-running signature news program, had essentially boycotted Iraq as a news story. I found that over an 18-week span, from mid-July through late November, Nightline aired approximately 230 separate news segments, only one of which was about events on the ground in Iraq. In the 17 weeks since then, Nightline has continued to look the other way, which means that over a nearly nine-month span, during which time more than 300 reports aired, Nightline has effectively ignored the war in Iraq as a news event.

It. Does. Not. Exist.

Just imagine what kind of uninspired effort ABC News would put forward if Iraq were not a “very important story.”

We all know that the run-up to the Iraq war represented a colossal failure for the Fourth Estate. Now the media's collective disregard for the war five years later represents the second inexcusable breakdown of the press corps.