Wars on the Back Burner

It’s no longer news that the Iraq war is, well, no longer news. We’ve heard again and again about—and we ourselves have noted again and again and again and again (and again and again and again)—the dearth of that war’s coverage, especially lately. It gets to the point where one starts to feel like a broken record even to point out the deficit.

Still, the existence of that deficit is worth reiterating. Over and over and over.

Today’s New York Times, to that end, offers an admirable effort to do something that shouldn’t require an admirable effort to accomplish: make news of the lack of war coverage in the three major networks’ evening news broadcasts. The piece, by Times television reporter Brian Stelter, is pegged (interestingly in itself) to The Daily Show—and, in particular, to the appearance that CBS’s chief foreign correspondent, Lara Logan, made on that show last week.

Stelter leads with Logan half-joking with Jon Stewart about the lengths she must go to to get a story she’s reported about Iraq or Afghanistan on the air (her segment is worth watching, here; the short version is that she cajoles her editors into running her stories with the help of rocket-propelled grenades). The Logan blurb is a good anecdote, and all. But it buries Stelter’s lede, which doesn’t come until the fifth graf:

According to data compiled by Andrew Tyndall, a television consultant who monitors the three network evening newscasts, coverage of Iraq has been “massively scaled back this year.” Almost halfway into 2008, the three newscasts have shown 181 weekday minutes of Iraq coverage, compared with 1,157 minutes for all of 2007. The “CBS Evening News” has devoted the fewest minutes to Iraq, 51, versus 55 minutes on ABC’s “World News” and 74 minutes on “NBC Nightly News.” (The average evening newscast is 22 minutes long.)
CBS News no longer stations a single full-time correspondent in Iraq, where some 150,000 United States troops are deployed.

Paul Friedman, a senior vice president at CBS News, said the news division does not get reports from Iraq on television “with enough frequency to justify keeping a very, very large bureau in Baghdad.” He said CBS correspondents can “get in there very quickly when a story merits it.”

In a telephone interview last week, Ms. Logan said the CBS News bureau in Baghdad was “drastically downsized” in the spring. The network now keeps a producer in the country, making it less of a bureau and more of an office.

Which is all big news (and news Stelter is breaking, as far as I can tell). And the story goes on to quote non-CBS reporters discussing their personal experiences with this massive scale-back of war coverage. (One fear expressed by journalists at all three networks, attributed to reporters who “spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid offending their employers,” was that “their news organizations would withdraw from the Iraqi capital after the November presidential election.”) Which is both frightening and illuminating.

But the anecdotes also tilt the story’s axis: the apparent point of Stelter’s article quickly becomes “these poor reporters aren’t getting their stories aired”—rather than “these poor members of the American public are getting cheated of crucial information” or, even worse, “these poor victims of war are getting cheated out of having their stories told.”

“I’ve never met a journalist who hasn’t been frustrated about getting his or her stories on the air,” Terry McCarthy, an ABC News correspondent in Baghdad, is quoted.

Even the piece’s headline—“Reporters Say Networks Put Wars on Back Burner”—suggests this off-kilter focus. (Reporters don’t just say the networks put wars on the back burner, after all; the networks do do that. This is fact, documented not merely in Stelter’s piece itself, but elsewhere. To outsource that fact to “reporters,” suggesting that the backburner-ing is a viewpoint, rather than a reality, minimizes its impact and cheats the story of its real substance.) Compare that headline to the title given to Stelter’s TV Decoder blog post on the same subject: “As War Coverage Subsides, CBS Scales Back Baghdad Bureau.” The blog’s title gets it right; the straight piece misses the mark.

But I don’t mean, necessarily, to criticize that piece itself. Its intention—and its overall effect—are generally good: any story that brings attention to the wars’ lack of press coverage is, in the larger sense, beneficial. And aggregating the reporters’ perspectives is both constructive and instructive. Stelter’s story isn’t defective overall so much as it’s revealing in its minor defects: it’s telling that the piece doesn’t just come out and make its point about the paucity of war coverage. It’s telling that that point has been outsourced and attributed, rather than declared as fact. It’s telling that our wars’ lack of press coverage is, apparently, no longer a story in itself.

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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.