Monday, August 6, 2007

Liberal Media? Hardly. Government Reports on Iraq Deaths Go Unchallenged

On July 31, every major news agency reported that American deaths in Iraq were greatly reduced in July. AP, AFP, and Reuters, along with the Christian Science Monitor and CNN, just to name the big guys, all published articles that essentially said that government and military officials pointed to the recent "surge" as a factor in the reduction of the violence in Iraq.

With such media saturation, there is no doubt that the American people were left with the idea that something was moving in the right direction because American deaths in Iraq were, they were told, down in July.

Here's the problem: They weren't.

More accurately, the surface of what the government claimed was true. Yes, fewer American soldiers were killed in July than in previous months. But, as a news item in Editor and Publisher pointed out, American fatalities have always gone down in the month of July, and, in fact, the death toll in July 2007, 78, shattered the previous record for casualties in that month, 54 in both 2004 and 2005.

That is a very different story now, isn't it? One that nearly nobody is reporting.

You see, not one of the major news agencies bothered to do the tiny amount of research necessary to figure out what Editor and Publisher did. Journalism is not taking what the government says and printing it without investigation or questioning. There is a word for that process: "propaganda." Instead, journalists are required to analyze government statements to see if they are factually correct, as well as if they are placed in the proper context.

Consider this analogy. What if Tom Brady gets off to a bad start this season and only throws four touchdown passes in the first four games of the year in September. Then, the Patriots' publicity department puts out a press release saying that Brady threw the most touchdowns in a single month since the previous December. No newspaper would run an article with the headline "Pats Point to Record Month for Brady." Rather, reporters would point out that the Patriots were claiming a record month for Brady, even though he could not throw touchdowns in months the NFL is not in season, and compared to the previous September, Brady's touchdown numbers were way down. The reporters would mock the Patriots for trying to make such a silly comparison.

How messed up is it that sports reporters have greater journalistic skills than the news services covering the war in Iraq?

As I've written many times in this space, democracy requires a free press that reports on what the government is doing. Performing that service demands journalists to do their own homework, not to take the word of government officials as if it was law. What if Woodward and Bernstein had blindly reported the Nixon administration's explanation of the Watergate break-in? Fortunately, they chose to do their own research and to question what was being said by the government. And, as a result, the scandal was revealed.

With the statistics on the July deaths in Iraq, no Woodward and Bernstein-level of sleuthing was necessary. Rather, some simple research and reasoning would have allowed the numbers to be explained more fully and put into context. The failure of the media to do that basic work has had a tremendous effect. The average American on the street now thinks things were better in Iraq in July, when, in fact, it has been by far the worst July in Iraq since the war began. Blame for that basic disconnect from the facts, and an important one at that, lies squarely in the lap of the news outlets. And, if this "news" helps the Bush administration to prolong the war and send more American soldiers to their deaths, the news organizations will have blood on their hands.

We are currently experiencing a crisis in journalism that threatens our democracy. News has shifted from coverage of politics and war to celebrities and scandals. The Hollywood Reporter (via Yahoo!/Reuters) reported that the Pew Research Center for People & the Press did a survey and found that 87% of respondents believed that celebrity scandals get too much coverage. (Shockingly, 2% said that they don't get enough coverage, which caused me to wonder, "Do publicists and tabloid employees really make up 2% of the population?") Sure, maybe the news networks' ratings would differ with these numbers, but the fact remains that there has been a cheapening of news.

When the culture has reached a point in time when every angle of Lindsay Lohan's brushes with the law and trips to rehab are covered and dissected, but the government's spins on war fatalities are vomited out without any analysis, something is clearly wrong. Can it be fixed? Sure, if Americans stop watching the celebrity crap and demand better journalism. Of course, that seems as likely as Fox News challenging the Bush administration on its conclusions.