In Search of Lost Timelines

The Iraq drawdown extension and the end of the age of the "newsdump"

Yesterday afternoon, during the buildup to last night’s State-of-the-Union-in-all-but-name, the administration leaked some rather important information to the press: President Obama has reportedly decided on a new timeline for the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Per the modified plan, U.S. forces will draw down nineteen months from now, in 2010.

If implemented (an official announcement likely won’t come until Friday), the amended timeline—”a compromise between commanders and advisers who are worried that security gains could backslide in Iraq and those who think the bulk of U.S. combat work is long since done,” the AP reports—will keep the current presence of some 142,000 military personnel in Iraq three months longer the sixteen months Obama had promised, repeatedly, during the campaign. The new blueprint will also maintain a residual force of 30,000 to 50,000 personnel—between a quarter and a third of the current troop level—in the country.

Which two developments, combined, mean that the administration’s decision was pretty much guaranteed to anger the growing contingent of anti-war, pro-drawdown Americans, many of whom helped elect Obama. “Pledging to end the war in 16 months helped to build enormous grass-roots support for Obama’s White House bid,” the AP notes.

In the past, the timing of the administration’s pseudo-announcement would seem to have implicated it in the practice traditionally known as “taking out the trash” or “dumping”: releasing unsavory information either right after a deadline or right before the press will be occupied with something else. (Or both: thus, the traditional post-file, pre-weekend Late Friday Afternoon Newsdump.) The Iraq leak came right before all of Washington—and its press corps—descended on the Capitol to hear a speech that, for all its grandiose discussion of community-building and dream-restoring for Americans, barely mentioned how we will be engaging in such activities when it comes to the commitments we’ve made in other countries. (“We are now carefully reviewing our policies in both wars, and I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war,” President Obama said in the speech. And then he moved on.) The president’s message last night was about reclaiming America’s promise to itself; the Iraq war, so flagrantly at odds with our own preferred self-conception, didn’t fit. So: cut away.

Whether yesterday’s delayed-drawdown leak was accidental or intentional, its timing alone would seem to suggest that the timetable “announcement,” made on the day of Obama’s much-anticipated and much-covered address to Congress, had itself a flair of non-ness about it. The leak revealed itself, apparently, with the intention of being ignored.

But then! Today, news of the timetable extension is here. And here. And here and here and here and here. It’s been talked about on TV. It’s been blogged about. It’s been on Drudge. It’s, you know, A Story. And a big one.

There’s a lesson in this, for politician and power-broker alike: Burying a story in the dregs of the news cycle works only when there’s a meaningful news cycle to do the burying. And, currently, by any practical measure, there is not. There is only news—news that’s emitted to the ether, news that jostles and jockeys for space, news that spreads not according to a manufactured construct of deadlines and air times, but according to its own merit. That doesn’t mean worthy stories always get the attention they deserve, to be sure. But it does mean that the collateral benefit of a media landscape that is (to borrow a phrase) hot, flat, and crowded is that, paradoxically, it’s difficult for important information to hide, unseen, within it. Newsworthy stories, much more than they have in the past, generally find their way to sunlight.

So, great. But while the timeline-extension story offers proof of the sunlight rule, its own broader context—the coverage of the Iraq war in general—is in many ways an exception to that same rule. Generally speaking, meaningful news about Iraq has been lost in the fray of the economic crisis and the environmental crisis and the “first 100 days.” As such, the war has been largely sequestered from the hearts and minds, as it were, of most Americans. As Michael Crowley wrote of the extension,

My gut says it sunk in for Americans long ago that Obama wouldn’t get every last soldier out of Iraq anytime soon and that even withdrawal of “combat troops” at a slower pace than he promised in the campaign—particularly with Iraq nearly off the front pages—won’t cause much of an uproar.

My gut says that, too. As does even a cursory study of the meager media attention the Iraq war has received since the start of the new administration. Indeed, the media’s detached treatment of the war these days—as something that is no longer a “big story”—has eroded public interest in, and public outrage about, the long war we’ve waged in Iraq. Out of sight, out of mind, and everything. Discrete breakthroughs like yesterday’s are reason for hope, to be sure; but withdrawal will be only one point in the broad and messy constellation of the U.S.’s commitment to Iraq. We need a better sense of the bigger picture. And we shouldn’t rely on the administration to give it to us. If Obama’s speech last night offered something of a new beginning—in attitude, if nothing else—then the press themselves, in Washington and elsewhere, should take its spirit of resurgence to heart and redouble their efforts at bringing Iraq’s story to light. The honeymoon is over. And the war rages on.

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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.