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We’re in a War – Where are the Media?

Alex Constantine - May 4, 2008

By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist
May 4, 2008

THE REAL NEWS of April played second fiddle to the presidential campaign, the pope's visit to America, and the Texas polygamy case.

The death toll for the US military in Iraq hit 49 in April, making it the deadliest month since September, according to the Associated Press. Around Iraq, at least 1,080 Iraqi civilians and security personnel were killed last month, an average of 36 a day, according to the AP tally. While that's down from March's total of 1,269, or an average of 41 per day, those casualties certainly don't add up to a stable Iraq.

But Iraq isn't getting the prominent play of other news topics. The latest statistics from the Project for Excellence in Journalism back up the conclusion that coverage of the Iraq war is on the decline.

The Washington-based research organization studied roughly 1,300 stories from 48 news outlets during the month of April. The group's analysis found that during that time frame, the top news story was the presidential campaign, which accounted for 33 percent of news coverage. The economy came in second, accounting for 6 percent. The pope's visit accounted for 4 percent of the coverage, and the Texas polygamy case garnered another 4 percent.

Even as violence in Iraq increased, events on the ground in Iraq accounted for only 3 percent of news coverage, and the Iraq policy debate accounted for another 3 percent.

In April 2007, the Iraq policy debate was the second biggest story at 8 percent; and events on the ground in Iraq accounted for another 7 percent of the news, according to Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Jurkowitz attributes the downshift in media coverage to a number of factors that have played out since Democrats took control of Congress in November 2006.

First, he said, the media were prepared for a "battle royale" between Bush and a Congress that seemed determined to bring the troops home. Instead, in January 2007 Bush announced a military surge and went on to win a series of appropriations fights in Congress. At that point, "The media decided the political battle was over and that the administration, as long as it remained in office, would control the conduct of the war," said Jurkowitz.

With no political war to cover in Congress, the media were less interested in covering the actual war in Iraq. A downturn in media coverage can be traced to May 24, 2007, when Congress voted to fund the war without timetables.

Violence in Iraq did start to diminish in the last quarter of 2007. When it looked like the surge was reducing violence, there was less coverage of the situation inside Iraq, noted Jurkowitz. At the same time, the economy, from the mortgage market to gas prices, began to emerge as the number-one issue on the public's mind.

Meanwhile, the drawn-out presidential contest, particularly on the Democratic side, generates much media coverage, but not much focus on the Iraq war. The war is a small part of the debate, at least partly because the positions of the candidates are similar. That is likely to change in the general election, when the presidential contest is finally narrowed down to Republican John McCain versus the Democratic nominee, who is expected to be Barack Obama.

For now, the press is too caught up in Obama's belated renunciation of his former pastor's controversial statements to focus on Iraq.

Even the fifth anniversary of President Bush's 2003 appearance aboard the US aircraft carrier that displayed the now-infamous "Mission Accomplished" sign drew marginal attention.

There's the horse race to cover: How many superdelegates are in Obama's corner versus Clinton's?

And, there's the ratings race to exploit: Why did country singer Billy Ray Cyrus allow his 15-year-old daughter, Miley, to pose in a sheet for Vanity Fair? Was Barbara Walters driven by a desire for catharsis or book sales when she revealed an affair with former senator Edward M. Brooke that dates back to the 1970s?

It's enough to distract the media from writing an elegy for the war and its dead.


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