Five Years Today…What About Tomorrow?

Marking an anniversary is fine. But what happens when it's over?

I have mixed feelings when it comes to the press and anniversaries. On the one hand, the marking of those anniversaries often feels forced and trite, a kind of ongoing Hallmark holiday for the media; there’s a slight perversion, it seems, in filtering our memory of a monumental event—Hiroshima, My Lai, September 11—into the convenient news peg of a single day or week. As if the lessons of those events are somehow more legitimate when they’re re-taught and remembered 365 or 730 or 1,825 days after the fact.

On the other hand, though, there’s value in the condensation of memory: to the extent that remembering can be engaged in the collective, the more the people who share in it at a given time, the more powerful that memory can become.

In the coverage of the Iraq invasion this week, I’ve found both sides to be true. The marking of the invasion’s five-year anniversary seems somewhat trite in its attempt to frame as history an ongoing event; there’s a certain absurdity in using the present-perfect tense when the simple present would do. (Why talk of scars when the wounds are still fresh?) But in doing its double duty—addressing both history and legacy—this week’s Iraq coverage has also been especially meaningful. It’s salt in the wounds, to be sure, but perhaps we need to feel the sting.

Clint, yesterday, provided a good rundown of some affecting treatments of this week’s grim anniversary; see that list here, updated today to include CPJ’s package on the subject. The coverage, overall, has been good and powerful. But the very strength of this week’s Iraq stories has also served as a reminder of those stories’ overall scarcity. In mid-January, PEJ reported, only 1 percent of all news coverage was dedicated to the Iraq war. Last week (March 10 to 16), it jumped up to 4 percent. This week’s percentage will be higher—but not, likely, by much. Which is baffling. Its anniversary this week is a fine way to step back and consider the Iraq war’s place in history; but that doesn’t permit us to ignore—or, worse, forget—the urgency of its present reality. The story of Iraq is, for better or worse, evergreen. We need to treat it that way.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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