The Perils of Compassion Fatigue

Can reporters cover the daily grind of death and destruction in Iraq with an unwavering urgency, while not falling into a war-as-entertainment approach?

The fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is swiftly approaching. According to a recent Pentagon assessment, attacks against American and Iraqi targets averaged almost 960 a week this past summer and fall. The death toll for U.S. troops in Iraq hit 3,000 earlier this month. And, according to a report issued yesterday by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq in Baghdad, 34,452 civilians were killed in Iraq in 2006 — an average of 94 each day.

These numbers, the frequency of the violence, are enough to steel a person to it all after a while; the reports of bloodshed reduced background noise, easily and perhaps eagerly tuned out. It’s (part of) a reporter’s job to try to prevent that numbing of the public, to keep Americans engaged in this hugely important story. But how does one cover the weekly — the daily — grind of death and destruction with an unwavering urgency? How can one guard against a creeping callousness, a hint of “ho-hum” in tone or treatment (or, perhaps worse, a war-as-entertainment approach, graphic-heavy and overly produced?)

The answer is: one can’t (always).

Remember the Daily Show segment, “This Week in God” — once hosted by Steven Colbert, now sporadically done by other Daily Show “correspondents” —that summary of “everything God did this week,” complete with its own carefully-designed graphics and music? On Fridays at 7 p.m. CNN airs a program called “This Week at War,” a summary, it seems, of “everything War did this week” (and one that reminded us instantly of the Daily Show segment, from its conceit, to its presentation, to the showy demeanor of its host).

We’re admittedly late to this, since “This Week at War” has been on air for over six months. The show was initially hosted by Wolf Blitzer when it launched in late June of 2006 under the name, “Iraq: A Week at War.” A few weeks later, John Roberts had taken over hosting what was now called “This Week at War” (the name change reflecting, perhaps, a certain resignation or throwing-in-of-the-towel — yet another Week at War).

And what struck us first was the name — that resignation, as if “War” were always and inevitably a permanent state, a fixture requiring its own weekly report akin to “This Week in Weather” on the local news, complete with an oversized calendar graphic, each day of the week jumping out at the viewer as John Roberts recaps — day-by-day, in a sentence or two — the main happenings in Iraq and other war-torn locations (or areas where the forecast calls for War.) In theory, it’s not a bad idea to give cable viewers a weekly run-down like this. The devil, of course, is in the delivery and, after watching a few episodes of “This Week in War,” the show is, at times, a caricature of itself (host included).

Much like Steven Colbert on “This Week in God,” John Roberts seems to like repeating his program’s name throughout the show at least as often as it appears on-screen in some form or another (Large! Small! Now in gold!). In mid-December, Roberts began referring, in his towering voice, to the CNN correspondents who elaborate on Roberts’ recaps — Ed Henry, Arwa Damon, Suzanne Malveaux, and others — as “our elite ‘This Week at War’ troops’.” All the show needs now is its own version of the “God Machine” — a red, game-show-like button-on-a-stick which Colbert would dramatically slap at the beginning of “This Week in God” to determine which topic would be the focus of his report.

From “This Week at War” to “Today at War” — or “Today in Violence.” The malaise is not limited to TV news.

We noticed a jarring transition in a Baghdad-based story by the New York Times’ Marc Santora last week. The focus of Santora’s 300-word piece was the appearance online of “graphic new video of Saddam Hussein’s dead body, apparently taken shortly after he was hanged” and posted online by “a group sympathetic” to Saddam. The penultimate paragraph describes the video, also online, of Saddam’s hanging. And then, almost as an afterthought, comes the final paragraph (emphasis ours): “In daily violence, more than 20 people were killed in attacks across Iraq on Monday. In one episode, gunmen ambushed a bus bringing workers to Baghdad international airport, killing four passengers and wounding nine. Elsewhere, five members of one family were killed in the Dora district of Baghdad.”

“In daily violence” as a transition, a lead-in to a three-sentence summary of the day’s destruction? We understand the Times had to get the “daily violence” in its news report somewhere and that every bloody incident in Iraq can’t receive A1 treatment. (There’s more than a whiff of editor induced, deadline driven, paper of record-ness in this knit we’re picking.) And none of this is meant to imply that the press has stopped covering the horrors of Iraq (see today’s front page of the Times). Still, the longer the war drags on and the more the story becomes How The Hell Do We Extricate Ourselves From This Mess, the greater the temptation to minimize, in ways large and small, the fact that 94 people are dying on average every day over there.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.