The cover story in American Journalism Review this month was “Off the Radar — How the media lost interest in the Iraq war.” If you had gotten the impression that coverage of the war had changed you would be correct. According to AJR the decline has been staggering. A daily tracking of 65 newspapers by the Associated Press confirms the dip in page one position throughout the country. The AP found 457 Iraq-related stories in September 2007 and the number fell to a low of 49 over succeeding months. A similar reversal is occurring in broadcast where the number of minutes on the evening news devoted to Iraq is less than half.
Why the dramatic drop-off? Media executives offer a variety of reasons. They range from the enormous danger for journalists on the ground in Iraq, to competing mega-stories like the presidential primaries. Marjorie Miller, foreign editor at the Los Angeles Times, said we had a woman, an African-American and a senior running for president — that is a very big story. The sagging economy also is part of the mix as news organizations are feeling the pain as the costs of keeping journalists in Iraq continue to be exorbitant. Miller said the expense is unlike anything we have ever faced. Senior Vice President Paul Friedman at CBS News echoed Miller’s comments. He said when Lara Logan, the senior correspondent is rotated out of Iraq she may not be replaced.
There are exceptions, but for the most part Iraq remains the biggest non-story of the day unless major news is breaking. Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, points to May 24, 2007, as the major turning point in the coverage of U.S. policy toward Iraq. That’s the day Congress voted to continue to fund the war without troop withdrawal timetables. The Democrats felt they had a mandate from America to bring home the troops, but it turned out they did not have the votes. President Bush stuck to a hard line and would not budge and the opposition simply could not make him. The Democrats could not muster the two-thirds vote needed to override a presidential veto. Indeed, with a narrow 50-49 margin in the Senate they often could not generate the 60 votes needed to bring an issue to a final vote. The political fight was over and Iraq was no longer a hot story. From the time of the May vote until the war’s fifth anniversary on March 19, 2008, coverage plunged by about 50 percent, the PEJ said.
Some social and psychological experts are asking is there such a thing as war fatigue or a numbing that comes with rote reports of violence. Friedman of CBS News said one of the definitions of news is change, and there are long periods now in Iraq when very little changes. Harvard University professor, Howard Gardner, explains that when a news story becomes repetitive, people “habituate” — the technical term for what happens when they no longer take in information. Gardner argues that if the number of American deaths was rising or there were to be a reinstitution of the military draft, there would no longer be an acceptance of the status quo.
The expectation that Iraq would be the top story during the presidential primaries never materialized. Instead, the campaign itself became the top story. Now it is the sagging economy that is drawing all of the media’s attention. To me the idea is incongruent. The war is costing Americans $12.5 billion a month. How that staggering sum can not be an integral part of the dialog and report on the economy is puzzling.
The Iraq story is as important as it has ever been. It is clear that the current administration plans on passing the current situation on to its successor, whom ever that may be. It is no longer an issue of which candidate was in favor of the invasion and which one was against it. The United States is deeply involved there and the public needs to know the plan of each candidate for what comes next. It is not as simple as staying the course until victory is achieved, or bringing the troops home on Inauguration Day. The war needs to be back in the headlines because our future in Iraq will not be easy no matter which candidate wins.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.