Muted Success in Iraq

For four years, the mainstream media’s Iraq narrative emphasized one theme above all others:  the corruption of the American military.  Whether it was dubious stories of the U.S. military’s mistreatment of prisoners or scurrilous accounts of American soldiers massacring innocent Iraqi civilians, if it reflected negatively on American soldiers or the U.S.-led effort in Iraq, one could always count on a detailed account of American transgressions on the front pages of our most esteemed publications. 

Recently, however, there has been a remarkable drop-off in the number of Iraq-related stories gracing the front pages of newspapers like the New York Times. Have the media suddenly realized the dishonesty of lambasting the American military while presenting America’s enemies as righteous freedom fighters?  Sadly, no.  Instead, the conspicuous drop off of mainstream media attention to the military situation in Iraq happens to correspond with the inescapable reality that things have changed dramatically in Iraq.  In other words, the surge is working.

But while the mainstream media have largely ignored or downplayed the good news from the frontlines, polls show an increasingly hopeful public. 

Here are some of the encouraging developments.  Murders are down 80%, attacks from improvised devices are down 70% and 67,000 Iraqi citizens have volunteered to join the security forces.  On Monday, U.S. command in Baghdad said rocket and mortar attacks have dropped to their lowest levels in 21 months.  Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki has said suicide attacks and other bombings have declined significantly.  In all, coalition forces have seen reductions in violence in what were some of the most hostile areas of Iraq, from Diyala to al-Anbar to Baghdad.    

What’s more, the number of coalition soldiers killed in action has fallen for five straight months and is now at the lowest level since February 2004. The number of fatalities among Iraqi civilians has also dropped, and Iraqis are now returning to their homes.  46,030 displaced Iraqis returned last month from outside the country to their homes in Baghdad, where shops and schools are re-opening.  

As a result of their success, U.S. troops are starting to come home.  Last Saturday, American commanders announced that the Third Brigade is leaving Diyala province, reducing the number of U.S. brigades in Iraq to 19.  Four more brigades are expected to leave Iraq by the summer. 

These achievements have impressed Republicans and Democrats alike.  Lindsey Graham told the Politico, “I think momentum has been lost for the argument that the surge has failed.”  Democratic Senator Ben Nelson acknowledged, “People understand that there has been a military success in Iraq. …There is an expectation that more of that will happen.”

Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has been loathe to highlight the progress.  A recent Pew survey found that coverage of the war in Iraq decreased markedly just as conditions started to improve.  According to Pew, “In January, roughly a quarter (26 percent) of the overall news hole in newspapers, TV newscasts, websites and radio was devoted to news about Iraq.  In October, the war received only half as much coverage on average (13 percent), according to data compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index.”

A recent analysis by Richard Benedetto found that when it was reported that U.S. troop deaths in Iraq in September were at their lowest monthly total since March 2006, none of the leading newspapers covered the story on their front pages.  Some, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, failed to mention it at all, while printing other stories highlighting bad news in Iraq.  The media’s disregard is curious given that when the American death toll reached its 2007 peak in April, most of the media featured the story prominently on their front pages.

The diminished press coverage of the Iraq war has not gone unnoticed by the public.  Pew found, “a growing number of Americans say news organizations are devoting too little, rather than too much, coverage to the war.”  A third of Americans polled said the media is under-covering the war, a 10-percentage point increase since June (23%).  Fifty-two percent said “efforts to improve conditions” get too little coverage, while only 7 percent said they get too much coverage.  Perhaps most revealing, Pew recently reported that only 16 percent of Americans name the Iraq war as the news story that first comes to mind, a dramatic change from last January, when a majority, 55 percent, of respondents said Iraq was foremost on their minds.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the mainstream media’s sudden disinterest in Iraq, polls show a notable upturn in public support for the war, the first upturn since 2003.  While a majority of Americans continue to believe that the war is going badly, polls reveal a public that has softened its opposition to the troop surge. 

All of which proves that in spite the media’s disregard for the good news in Iraq, as well as congressional Democrats’ ongoing efforts to discredit the surge, events on the ground matter most.  Clearly, the mainstream media’s worn out narrative of defeat no longer resonates with a growing share of the public.  One is left to wonder how much stronger public opinion would be if the mainstream media covered the good news in Iraq with the same alacrity with which they report the bad news.