Monday, May 17, 2004

The G-Rated War

The media have covered up the casualties - and we've got the data to
prove it.

by Sean Aday, Senior Editor

Many have already lambasted the Bush Administration for trying to censor
images of coffins carrying U.S. soldiers at Dover Air Force Base, and
rightly so. It's hard to imagine a greater insult to these dead young
men and women than to willfully ignore them because their sacrifice
might be a political liability.

But it's important we remember that the administration has an accomplice
in this kind of censorship: the press.

And I'm not just talking about the photos from Dover, although it's
interesting that the successful FOIA case did not come from any
mainstream media organization but rather an intrepid website, Even more important is the self-censorship
practiced by the broadcast networks in their coverage of the Iraq war a
year ago.

Put simply, the war fought on television was devoid of blood,
particularly that spilled by U.S. soldiers.

A team of researchers at George Washington University's School of Media
and Public Affairs led by myself and my colleague Steven Livingston
recently analyzed 600 hours of coverage on CNN, Fox News Channel, and
ABC from the start of the war on March 20 to the fall of Baghdad on
April 9 to see how "real" the war looked on TV. We included the highly
watched morning shows from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., and afternoon and early
evening coverage from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

We even made it easy for the networks. Instead of including every story
they ran during that time (which would make percentages of casualty
stories look artificially low because many stories weren't about
fighting) we only examined stories that included images of battles
(including artillery firing and bombs falling on Baghdad), casualties of
any sort, or both.

What did we find? Let's put it this way: We have a newfound sympathy for
the Bush administration's hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

Of 1710 stories we analyzed, only 13.5 percent included any shots of
dead or wounded coalition soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, or civilians.
Similarly, of the 5087 individual shots of either battles or casualties
in those stories, only about 15 percent showed the latter.

Even rarer were pictures of the ultimate cost of war: Fewer than 4
percent of the shots we analyzed showed dead soldiers or civilians. And
even when the dead were shown, they were more likely to be hidden inside
a coffin, under a sheet, or represented by some surrogate image such as
a shoe.

These data become all the more noteworthy in contrast to the lofty
rhetoric offered by journalists who ran those gory pictures of charred
and mutilated contract workers hanging from a bridge in Fallujah a few
weeks ago. Those who used the images argued that it's the media's
responsibility to show audiences the grim realities of war. As Nightline
producer Leroy Sleavers put it:

"War is a horrible thing. It is about killing. If we try to avoid
showing pictures of bodies, if we make it too clean, then maybe we make
it too easy to go to war again. After all, these men and women are over
there in our names, whether you agree with the war or not. Shouldn't we
know what price we are asking them to pay?"

Of course, those particular images were not of soldiers, as Sleavers
seems to be suggesting, but he's right that the press shouldn't shy away
from telling the full story about a war. Yet virtually no one in the
press (with the notable exception of Nightline anchor Ted Koppel) made
this argument during the actual Iraq war a year ago. Back then the
networks willfully shied away from showing audiences the true cost of
war, opting instead for a sanitized, bloodless version less graphic than
a typical Los Angeles newscast.

In truth, rather than showing viewers "the price" of the Iraq war,
television instead transformed a war with hundreds of coalition and tens
of thousands of Iraqi casualties into something closer to a defense
contractor's training video: a lot of action, but no consequences, as if
shells simply disappeared into the air and an invisible enemy magically
ceased to exist.

That those shells ended up tearing people apart was clear to anyone who
gave it some thought, and certainly to the soldiers and civilians
embroiled in the fighting. But more to the point, it was obvious to the
reporters covering the war, many of whom were embedded with front-line
units and who saw this gruesome reality right in front of them. As CBS'
John Roberts said in Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson's oral history

"It was pretty horrible to see all those guys lying around. There was
this one guy whose feet were facing me; he's lying out of the back, his
feet were facing me, he was sort of spread-eagled on the ground. As I
walked up, his body was in perfect shape, but when I got right up on top
of him, his head was missing, like it had been removed. Then there was
another guy whose head was blown into three pieces and part of his body
had been ripped off by a shell."

Yet surely the argument that the press has a responsibility to show the
true cost of war is at least as relevant – and probably more so – during
wartime as it is now. After all, the scene Roberts describes isn't any
more unsettling than the charred and mutilated remains hanging from the
bridge in Fallujah. So what changed that led networks to embrace their
journalistic "responsibility" and air those images?

One likely explanation is that while the press tends to rally around the
flag and produce uncritical coverage early in a war, if the conflict
drags on in bloody and ambiguous fashion media coverage can get more
skeptical and realistic.

In Vietnam, for example, the change in media coverage occurred following
the Tet Offensive, which called into question administration claims that
America was winning the war and peace was at hand. Whether Fallujah will
become such a symbolic turning point in this conflict will depend, as it
always does, on the White House's ability to convince the American
people that the costs paid by U.S. soldiers (and now civilians) are
worth it.

But recognize the paramount journalistic failure inherent in this trend:
Only after a war goes to hell will the media tell you the truth. Before
that, reporters and, especially, producers are too cowed by the White
House, perceived audience pressure, and these days the Patriotism Police
in the right wing media to dare risk offense by simply doing their jobs
and reporting the whole story about a war.

Walt Whitman said of the horribly bloody Civil War "the real war will
never get in the books." Sadly, Americans saw more of the grim reality
of that war – the first American conflict in which photographs of dead
soldiers were available to the public – than they do on television today.

© 2004 New Progressive Institute Inc. All rights reserved.


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