We’re At War; That’s Front-Page News Every Day

If ever there were a case for journalism to give the people what they need, even if sometimes they say they don't want it, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are it.

Typically, it’s not our job to tell editors what stories they should run in their publications — it’s only when they screw up that we swoop in with some “humorless media scolding”, as our friends at Gawker recently put it. That said, we do occasionally call editors out for ignoring, or under-covering, important stories, if only to nudge them into thinking about the holes in their coverage. So stop smiling, here comes the schoolmarm.

At different points over the past of couple of years, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — especially Afghanistan — have for a variety of reasons fallen from the front pages of our major daily newspapers. And even with the recent increase in the number of troops fighting in Iraq, we inexplicably seem to be in another such stretch now.

There are exceptions, of course, like the Times’ Richard A. Oppel’s powerful front-page story this morning from Iraq, or Newsweek’s Rod Nordland’s piece this week.

But if you wanted some news from Iraq or Afghanistan this weekend, you weren’t going to find much in the New York Times or the Washington Post.

On Sunday, the Post featured just one story datelined from Iraq — on page 22 — and one on page 4 about supplemental funding. Nothing about what American troops are doing, where (and how) they’re fighting and dying, what reconstruction or humanitarian projects they’re involved in, etc.

Things weren’t much better on Saturday, with just a short piece on page 10 about Moqtada al-Sadr’s call for protests in Baghdad.

Following suit, the New York Times ran one short story on Saturday, a page 8 echo of the Post’s al-Sadr piece, and another short one on page 10 on Sunday about the bombings that killed 152 people on Friday.

That’s it. One-hundred and sixty-six thousand troops in Iraq, another 20,000 in Afghanistan, and a new “surge” operation in Baghdad that either is, or isn’t, showing signs of success, and these stories are all the country’s two top newspapers can muster? It’s not like the stories aren’t out there every single day. McClatchy continues to do a fantastic job in its Iraq coverage, and both Newsweek and Time have written excellent pieces from Iraq over the past week.

We’ve said before that those few news outlets — including the Times and the Post — that continue to support bureaus and deliver serious and sustained coverage from Iraq and Afghanistan are to be commended. The cost of such operations is staggering, especially at a time of extreme caution and retrenchment in the news business. Despite the many and varied sources of news, comment, and information on the Web about both war zones, the mainstream newspapers and TV news operations remain the primary source of war news for most people.

On Friday the Huffington Post’s Eat the Press suggested a creeping sense of Iraq fatigue. The HP was referencing last week’s Newsweek package which featured letters home from fallen American service members — a package that by Friday only registered a pathetic seventy-six links on Technorati. That means that only seventy-six blogs linked to the package over the course of the week. By Sunday, that number had climbed to just 120.

Murmurs about Iraq fatigue have been floating around for about two years now, so we don’t think that’s the answer — at least as far as the interest in the story among journalists. As a rule, blogs tend to be more partisan and political, and less willing to kick around the daily tick-tock about life and death at the front, so the weak Technorati results for the Newsweek package may be less significant than they seem.

There is more going on in the world than our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our agenda-setting media are going make their daily choices based on a set of values and priorities that we won’t always agree with. But if ever there were a case for journalism to give the people what they need, even if sometimes they say they don’t want it, this would be it. Every day Americans are fighting and dying while trying to stand up police forces, armies, and humanitarian missions. We need to hear their stories, every day.

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