Bad News Bears Go Into Hibernation

Over the past two years, the media has taken plenty of heat for reporting only the “bad” news coming out of Iraq. With the weekend’s coverage (or lack thereof) of a major attack by insurgents, that criticism is looking a little ragged around the edges.

On Saturday, in what has been called the largest and most sophisticated insurgent attack in Iraq to date, a group of between 40 and 60 members of al Qaeda attacked Abu Ghraib prison, wounding 44 Americans and 13 prisoners. The attack, which employed mortars, rockets, several coordinated ground assaults and a car bomb, took the Marines guarding the prison over an hour to beat back with the help of Apache helicopters and artillery.

One might think that a major engagement with a high casualty rate (at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, no less) would grab some headlines back home — after all, even saturation coverage of the pope’s death leaves some room for other news. Yet the story has been largely buried on the back pages of our major dailies.

The attack merited a brief mention in Sunday’s papers, with the Washington Post dumping it on page A16, and the New York Times publishing a story on A11 that clocked in at a paltry 393 words.

The Post redeemed itself a bit with a front page story this morning which laid out the details of the attack, while finally providing correct casualty figures (the initial reports were off by about half). The Times however, hasn’t revisited the attack, other than to include it as a footnote to other Iraq stories.

The reporting on the story has been generally sloppy as well. Today, the Los Angeles Times runs an AP story that pegs the number of insurgents wounded at “about 50,” despite the general consensus among all other sources that only 40 to 60 insurgents were involved in the attack in the first place. This, while the paper itself on Sunday — in its only piece on the attack — wrote that 40 to 60 insurgents were involved. Fifty wounded out of an attacking force of “40 to 60” is hard to believe, considering that no one was left behind and no prisoners were taken.

There’s no doubt that reporting from a war zone is a messy, confusing business, and military authorities have reasons for withholding certain information. But the utter disregard the American media have shown this story is astonishing. Even with other news elbowing lesser stories out of the media spotlight, a major attack on an American military installation in an ongoing war seems like something that might be worth hearing as much about as, say, the latest accusations against a certain Southern California pop star.

Paul McLeary

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