Beyond Two Percent

To repeat: we need more—and more extensive—coverage of the Iraq war

In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman laid out the current conventional wisdom about the war in Iraq:

In 2003, the United States, under President Bush, invaded Iraq to change the regime. Terrible postwar execution and unrelenting attempts by Al Qaeda to provoke a Sunni-Shiite civil war turned the Iraqi geopolitical space into a different problem — a maelstrom of violence for four years, with U.S. troops caught in the middle. A huge price was paid by Iraqis and Americans. This was the Iraq that Barack Obama ran against.

In the last year, though, the U.S. troop surge and the backlash from moderate Iraqi Sunnis against Al Qaeda and Iraqi Shiites against pro-Iranian extremists have brought a new measure of stability to Iraq. There is now, for the first time, a chance — still only a chance — that a reasonably stable democratizing government, though no doubt corrupt in places, can take root in the Iraqi political space.

That is the Iraq that Obama is inheriting. It is an Iraq where we have to begin drawing down our troops — because the occupation has gone on too long and because we have now committed to do so by treaty — but it is also an Iraq that has the potential to eventually tilt the Arab-Muslim world in a different direction.

Friedman’s simple summary pretty much hits the nail on the head, orthodoxy-wise. The larger story of Iraq right now—the story that’s emerged from a melting pot of individual dispatches and analyses, bubbling up from blogs and wire reports and magazines to radio and broadcast and cable news to permeate the general cultural atmosphere—is basically Friedman’s things-in-Iraq-were-really-crappy-but-they’re-getting-better-now narrative. Indeed, the only thing the columnist’s succinct little recap really omits is the truism, repeated so often that many of us have stopped questioning its truthfulness, that The Surge Is Working.

None of the above is to say that the press hasn’t been skeptical when it comes to the situation in Iraq. But our skepticism, in many ways, has turned into apathy. The fact that President Bush’s surprise visit to the country last week—one the administration apparently intended as a valedictory, a more subdued version of “Mission Accomplished”—received, overall, such a tepid response suggests that transformation. As does the fact that the coverage Bush’s trip received was extensive only because of The Shoe Heard ‘Round the World. Indeed, the press’s lame-duck treatment of the president—which often translates into an ignore him until he goes away attitude—seems to have filtered into its treatment of that president’s war.

And that, in turn, translates to a bigger problem in the war’s coverage—there’s not enough of it. The media are simply not providing—and the American public, therefore, is simply not getting—enough coverage of events in Iraq. Yes, it’s been said before; but the fact that that’s so shouldn’t make us stop saying it. Complacency shouldn’t stop us from being indignant at the fact, for example, that, per studies from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the war regularly wins less than two percent of the weekly U.S. news hole. (For the week of December 1-7, PEJ reports, coverage of the war rang in at a high point of a full two percent—tying the attention it received with the attention given to O.J. Simpson.) And complacency shouldn’t keep us from being fairly shocked when, after Iraq’s cabinet approved a 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq—suggesting a measure of resolution to the “timetable” debate that had been raging in Washington for years, not to mention a de facto end to the war—the agreement was all but ignored in the media. (It was beaten out for press attention, in this instance, by the all-important Somali pirate story.)

The problem is partially logistical: on-the-ground reporting from the country is both exceptionally expensive (The New York Times’s Baghdad bureau cost, last year, over $3 million a year to maintain) and incredibly dangerous (Iraq, for the sixth year in a row, has been named the deadliest country in the world for journalists). Still, while those facts may explain for the dearth of original, on-the-ground reporting from the country, they don’t explain the paucity of general coverage. We could still use much more—and much more thorough—analysis of the Iraq war; what we need nearly as much as hard news reports are explanations of the situation there from perspectives political, military, and cultural.

We’re largely missing, in other words, the nuanced treatments of Iraq that would flesh out our simplistic things were bad but they’re getting better narrative into something more substantial and therefore more valuable. (And, therefore, more accurate.) Treatments that measure “success” and “victory” in Iraq not by a reduction in human casualties alone, but by the much more complex—and much more viable—metric of political stability. We see commendable examples of this kind of journalism every so often in our Iraq coverage; we need, however, to see more of it. And, in turn, the cable news networks and aggregative Web sites and other Gatekeepers to the National Zeitgeist need to do a better job of filtering it to the general public.

In November 2006, The New York Times published ninety stories whose headlines included the word “Iraq.” In November 2008, that number dropped to thirty—a decline of 67 percent over a mere two years. For The Washington Post, the breakdown was ninety-six stories in November 2006 to thirty-three stories in November 2008. The numbers are striking, but they’re hardly necessary here: even the most casual and passive of news consumers would likely agree that story of Iraq is, if not fading altogether from our collective consciousness, then at least fading generally from our collective conscience.

And while the decline in the urgency of our coverage implies that the situation in Iraq is currently improving, long-term success there—which is to say, long-term stability—is by no means a given. While, in terms of casualties alone, we may be seeing short-term improvement in Iraq—the kind we’ve seen when it comes to the surge, the kind that has led to the proliferation of “the surge is working” truisms—it’s an open question whether the relatively low levels of violence in Iraq will last. Just as it’s an open question whether we’ll achieve some semblance of victory in and for that country—and an open question how, ultimately, we’ll define that victory. There may well be hope for Iraq’s future, as Friedman and so many others have said. Or it could be that the 150,000 U.S. and coalition troops currently stationed in Iraq are serving as, among other things, a collective keystone, keeping Iraq’s precarious, faction-dominated political structure intact—and that, when the keystone is removed, the archway will topple. We don’t yet know. But while the history of Iraq is being made, and the history of its most recent war written, let’s make their first drafts as extensive and as nuanced—and, therefore, as valuable—as possible.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.