Iraq, We Hardly Knew You

The nation's media outlets seem incapable of covering both the war in Iraq and the conflict between Lebanon and Israel.

As the spokesman for my generation — Ferris Bueller — once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris’ bit of wisdom came back to us this morning when, in the blur of violent news from the Middle East, we saw a headline that read: “Iraq: The forgotten war.” (Hat tip to Atrios for flagging it.)

Iraq, forgotten? Is that possible? While calling the war “forgotten” is a little too extreme (we’ll save that title for Afghanistan), recent coverage of the constant, staggering daily death toll has begun to take on the pall of boilerplate copy in the nation’s newspapers. In one sense, it’s understandable: After three years of grinding conflict and daily body counts, eyes may begin to gloss over when reading a story about the latest suicide bombing in Baghdad.

That is, until you step back and realize the massive toll the sectarian violence in Iraq has exacted. Earlier this month, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq estimated that during the first six months of 2006 the civilian death toll in Iraq shot up more than 77 percent, from 1,778 deaths in January to 3,149 in June. During May and June alone, 5,818 Iraqi civilians were killed in sectarian violence and a horrific 14,338 civilians have been killed so far in 2006, which adds up to an average of 100 deaths a day.

Former CJR Daily staffer Brian Montopoli has written about “Iraq fatigue” and TNR’s Ryan Lizza has had some interesting observations about the placement of stories dealing with civilian casualties in Iraq over the last several months.

Writing about the relatively scant media coverage of the bombings in Mumbai, Montopoli asked: “Can we now say that the growing list of terrorist acts in recent years — 9/11, Madrid, London, to name but a few — have blurred into normalcy?” He speculated that “we seem to be moving towards a situation in which we view world events as we might a violent movie — dimly aware of each individual death, but not terribly affected, thanks to the desensitizing regularity with which we absorb them.”

A good point, and one made even before the recent fighting in Lebanon and Israel (which was what the CNN headline referred to), which pushed Iraq off the front pages, or at least bumped it below the fold. But it’s a chilling comment on the news these days that the bloodletting in Iraq has become so common as to be relegated to the inside pages, and, aside from a few media monitors, few seem to notice.

Part of that may be due to unease with the fact that neither the U.S. nor anyone else appears to be making much progress in Iraq. For how long can anyone remain interested in what increasingly seems a stalemate? But part of it is also the seeming inability of the press to pay attention to more than one big story at a time. As Howard Kurtz put it yesterday on his CNN show Reliable Sources:

“Hundreds of innocent people killed by bombs in an awful war with huge civilian casualties. No, I’m not talking about Lebanon. The carnage in Iraq continues day after day, but that conflict has largely been blown off television and newspaper front pages by a newer story, the fighting in the Middle East.

“The media seemed unable to handle two wars at the same time.”

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.