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Iraq: Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage and the Mortality Estimates

While "the Bush administration has complained about the tenor of media coverage of the war in Iraq ever since the April 2003 looting that followed the fall of Baghdad," negative stories in the U.S. media have only "outweighed positive ones by a factor of roughly 2.5 to 1 across several major outlets and in the course of the three years of the U.S. presence in Iraq." according to Michael O'Hanlon and Nina Kamp. The Brookings Fellow and his senior research assistant argue in the Washington Quarterly  (pdf) that the ratio between positive and negative stories is an accurate mirror of the negative developments in Iraq. Of course, the ratio is about the general media coverage; the ratio is different for each media outlet. They also write:
Many critics of the media believe that negative coverage could cost the United States the war. By their reasoning, the United States could fail in Iraq only if our national resolve falters, which could only happen if the American public gets an unfairly pessimistic view of the situation as a result of the media's fixation on violence and other bad news. If the United States and its coalition partners do not prevail, however, the failure will most likely result from events on the ground there, not from an untimely wavering of domestic political support. In fact, more than three years into the campaign, the U.S. body politic remains surprisingly tolerant of the mission in Iraq and, in general, resists calls for immediate withdrawal, despite far more bad news than anyone in the administration forecast or even thought possible when the war was first sold to the nation and launched. (...)
Indeed, even as President George W. Bush's personal popularity among the U.S. population has declined to well below 40 percent, a Pew poll conducted in the spring of 2006 found that 54 percent of U.S. citizens still expected some level of success in establishing a democracy in Iraq. If the media are so consistently reporting only bad news and creating an image of a failure in the works, it is not clear on what information this 54 percent is basing its guarded optimism.
US public opinion might have shifted dramatically since that poll was conducted in the spring of 2006...

The latest bad news from Iraq:
The Washington Post reports today (October 30, 2006) that "the U.S. military announced the death of the 100th servicemember in Iraq this month."
And NYT writes about a government report: "The American military has not properly tracked hundreds of thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces." Are US weapons killing US soldiers?

Mortality Estimate:
Shaun Waterman analyzes for United Press International the criticism of the Johns Hopkins survey about excess mortality in Iraq and also points out that "the U.S. military's own estimates suggest that the casualty rate for Iraqis is five times what it was at the beginning of 2004":
The U.S. military's estimates, buried in a little-noticed recent report to Congress, are drawn from a daily tabulation of "significant activity reports," about "incidents observed by or reported to U.S. forces," known as the SIGACT database. do not distinguish deaths from injuries, nor between Iraqi civilians and members of the army, police or other government security forces. The estimates "are derived from unverified initial reports submitted by Coalition elements responding to an incident; the inconclusivity of these numbers constrains them to be used for comparative purposes only," says the report, titled "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq." But the comparisons they enable show that average casualty rates for Iraqis have sky-rocketed from just over 20 per day in the first quarter of 2004, to nearly 120 per day between May and August of 2006. (...) By way of comparison, Human Rights Watch has estimated Saddam Hussein's regime killed 250,000 to 290,000 people over 20 years.
Let's not forget Afghanistan, writes Bradford Plumer:
Thanks to the colossal cock-up in Iraq, virtually no one has taken a hard look at the flailing occupation of Afghanistan and asked whether, in retrospect, it was also a mistake to invade that country. No one asks that. Afghanistan's the ultimate uncontroversial war—even liberals point to it approvingly to show they're not reflexively dovish. But Stephen Zunes is right -- the Afghan war's not going that well, Osama bin Laden has eluded capture, and second-guessing the various decisions made back in 2001 to go to war really shouldn't be out of bounds.
Related post in the Atlantic Review: Europe Loses Afghanistan and America Looks at Nice Pictures.


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Assistant Village Idiot on :

Well, the idea that a 2.5 to 1 ratio of negative to positive reports reflecting the reality in Iraq, not excessive negativity by the media, may be a cyclical argument. The idea that we are doing badly often leaves out the question "compared to what?" The cost has been far less than I, at least, expected to this point. I also expected failures and misjudgements, and a general inability of Iraqis to easily rule themselves. The point has been from the outset that the other options were worse. To the steady increase in jihadist success on many fronts up until 2001, I don't see any solution but democratization, no matter how hard that may be to achieve. 9-11 was not a one-off event but an escalation of what had been occurring for 20 or even 30 years previously. There were many other cheaper and gentler solutions, which had the dedcided disadvantage of having been tried and not working very well. As to the recent bad news, the increased killing of American soldiers is likely to be a blip for political purposes. That the conflict in Iraq has become more factional causes me more concern, and likely represents a real change in the struggle.

Anonymous on :

More about the "Untracked Guns of Iraq" (New York Times) "About the last thing the United States ought to be doing in Iraq is funneling weapons into black-market weapons bazaars, as sectarian militias arm themselves for civil war. Yet that is just what Washington may have been doing for the past several years, thanks to an inexplicable decision that standard Pentagon regulations for registering weapons transfers did not apply to the Iraq war. Of more than 500,000 weapons turned over to the Iraqi Ministries of Defense and Interior since the American invasion — including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, assault rifles, machine guns and sniper rifles — the serial numbers of only 12,128 were properly recorded. Some 370,000 of these weapons, some of which are undoubtedly being used to kill American troops, were paid for by United States taxpayers, under the Orwellian-titled Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund. This chilling information comes to us from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, which has distinguished itself as the most vigilant agency monitoring the money spent on the Iraq conflict. The agency, led by a Republican lawyer who once worked in the Bush White House, has previously reported on the contracting lapses and failures of supervision that allowed billions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted instead of being used to rebuild Iraq." [url][/url]

Chris on :

Interesting stuff. I wonder if they broke this down into very specific ratios at given time periods. For instance, during the election was the ratio favorable? It would be interesting to note which media outlets best matched the situation on the ground in terms of coverage. Any blame cast at the media is tossed by a nitwit. If anything, managing the media is pretty easy. It was done very well in 2002 - 2003. I guess a robust insurgency and sectarian death squads are harder to discount.

David on :

"the U.S. body politic remains surprisingly tolerant of the mission in Iraq" The mood has changed significantly since that report last spring. Every poll now shows that a plurality of Americans want US troops out of Iraq within 12 months. I have been calling voters in my state as part of the Democratic Party GOTV effort, and the top 3 topics of concern are Iraq, Iraq and Iraq. The anger is palpable and the political landscape will look very different in just one week.

Assistant Village Idiot on :

David, the anger has been palpable for years, it is just more so now. I don't know why Democrats keep putting significance into the idea that they are angrier, nor the treating of polls as proof of rightness when they go in their favor. There are several possible explanations for that anger besides Iraq, including their own continuing sense of having been robbed and cheated. Future success in Iraq may be a function of the public mood, but mood can never be an accurate measurement of how well we're doing - positive or negative. I was on record multiple times in 2003 that the American public would be able to sustain about 3 years of the constant drumbeat by the Democratic opposition with support from the MSM before support for the war would erode. It's right on schedule, which is part of why I assign little credence to it as an evaluation of how well we are actually doing. Chris, I don't think the media was managed in 2002-3 as opposed to now. Of course I have not been getting my news from the MSM since 1998, and may miss something with my secondhand knowledge.

Mike Perry on :

I agree with an earlier poster. The conclusion that: "negative stories in the U.S. media have ONLY "outweighed positive ones by a factor of roughly 2.5 to 1 across several major outlets and in the course of the three years of the U.S. presence in Iraq" is absurd. The most brutal and aggressive dictatorship in the Middle East was thrown out and a democracy put in its place, the only majority Arab democracy in all of human history, and our mass media still churns out over twice as many negative stories as positive. We should also never forget that CNN had an official policy at the highest level of not running negative stories about human rights violations under Saddam. Notice too that when that policy came out, CNN didn't lose any standing with their peers. Their behavior was unexceptional. In short, brutal murderous dictators get a hefty positive spin in our mass media while democratization, however difficult, gets a 2.5 to 1 negative spin. That is beyond sick and beyond twisted. And newspaper and TV executives wonder why their audience declines month by month. --Michael W. Perry, Editor of The School of Journalism by Joseph Pulitzer.

JW on :

"The most brutal and aggressive dictatorship in the Middle East was thrown out and a democracy put in its place" Others say that Iran is more brutal and aggressive. Or Saudi Arabia, which is exporting hate around the world, incl. 15 of the 9/11 hijackers. How long will Iraq remain a democracy after the US leave? Besides, a country is only a real democracy, if it is also sovereign. Iraq is not sovereign right now due to the large number of US troops and because of the internal violence. Such a huge level of internal violence means that the government is not sovereign.

Don S on :

"Others say that Iran is more brutal and aggressive" Iran may be more aggressive - now. Saddam was more aggressive in 1978 and 1989. I don't believe the current regime dating from Khomeni could ever have been regarded as more brutal than Saddam was. A fine point is that Iraq is not a dictatorship. It is an oligarchy in many ways, really a cross between an oligarchy and a democracy.

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