BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On November 7th, The Wichita Eagle had this front page headline: "Troop Death Toll in Iraq Hits New High." It was true. With two months to go, 2007 had already become the bloodiest year of the war. But just a couple of paragraphs later came another fact. "Violence is sharply down in Iraq and the 38 American deaths in October were the fewest since March, 2006." So why the glass-half-empty headline?
In the wake of a military surge aimed at stemming violence, isn't the smaller number bigger news? Rush Limbaugh certainly thinks so. RUSH LIMBAUGH: That is news! That is huge news! But not to these guys because it doesn't fit the narrative, ladies. The narrative is burning cars, IEDS, people in the streets, mangled bodies, smoke wafting up from the streets. And none of that happened yesterday in Iraq. There's no news. BOB GARFIELD: Got it. We'll return later to the question of just who needs a predetermined narrative. But for the moment, let's say you don't need to be a talk radio demagogue to wonder if the liberal media are up to their old tricks. RICHARD BENEDETTO: When the death toll was going up, it was page one news, and when the death toll was going down, it was buried inside the papers. BOB GARFIELD: Richard Benedetto, who covered the White House for USA Today, teaches journalism at American University. RICHARD BENEDETTO: The reason why the majority of the American people say they think the Iraq war was a mistake at this point is because of the fact that they see, one, no end in sight, but they also see the American casualty list rising. It's the idea that if we could be over there and the troops were relatively safe and the death toll was very low, American support for that war would be much greater than it is today. And, therefore, if we are focusing on it by pointing out how high it's going, we have to focus on how low it's going too. BOB GARFIELD: Out of Benedetto's mouth the observation doesn't seem so unreasonable. Since the President's much-criticized troop buildup, the Iraq death toll has indeed dramatically fallen. Yet, there is little in the media to suggest an overall reversal of fortunes. On the contrary, reports from the war zone seem more pessimistic than ever. The question is — why?
Benedetto, who wrote a column on the subject in last week's edition of The Politico, believes one explanation is the growing anti-war sentiment among reporters. RICHARD BENEDETTO: Not necessarily in the newspapers or on television, but they do express them in a personal way very strongly, much more strongly than I'm used to hearing. BOB GARFIELD: Between that and online competition pressuring traditional media to provide news plus, he says, editors allow the basic facts of a story to be colored, or even preempted, by analysis. RICHARD BENEDETTO: I was taught that we as reporters provide people with information, factual information that they can use to make decisions for themselves.
Now I think with the Internet age that we have and this idea that somehow or other reporting falls by the wayside and everything has to become analytical, that when something that might be considered positive or good news out of Iraq comes along, the press is very skeptical of it, first of all, suspecting that the figures might be jiggered or, secondly, that it doesn't really mean anything for the long term and that over the long term it's still going to be bad. BOB GARFIELD: Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, does agree that the larger context of the political gridlock in Iraq has influenced coverage of the falling casualty figures. MARK JURKOWITZ: As you recall, the military aspects of the surge and the tactics of the surge were designed to create so-called breathing room so that the real strategic goal of American policy could be implemented. And that would be a functioning central government in Baghdad that could lead to reconciliation between the sectarian factions and ultimately allow for a self-governing entity here.
And we're not seeing that political goal. Reconciliation seems further away than ever. So part of, I think, the confusion of the story of the military success of the surge is the fact that the political objective that was to go hand in hand with it seems as far away, if not further away, than ever. And that's a complicated story to tell.
BOB GARFIELD: In his charge of undercoverage, Benedetto singles out the usual suspects - The Washington Post and The New York Times. Yet, those two papers have deforested acres explaining the lull in the sectarian war, including the dealmaking with militant Sunni leaders who ceased attacks in a thus-far vain attempt to win concessions from the Shi'ite-dominated government.
A Thursday piece by The Post's Tom Ricks quoted U.S. military officials as saying the window of opportunity is fast closing and the relative quiet, perhaps with it.
As for The Times, foreign editor Susan Chira says the paper is working assiduously - her word - to cover the reality on the ground from every angle. SUSAN CHIRA: Questions like, well is it sustainable, should troop levels fall, is it buying political reconciliation and what are the prospects that it will — we're trying to do ground level street reporting to understand the attitude of people who live in Baghdad in many different neighborhoods, as well as surrounding provinces. So I think it's just a very complex reality that deep reporting helps illuminate. BOB GARFIELD: Complex to her but not necessarily to the White House. Here's Presidential Press Secretary Dana Perino. DANA PERINO: Our troops are fulfilling their mission in spectacular fashion. They are working to bring down that violence in Iraq, to establish political reconciliation, to improve the economy. People are starting to return to Baghdad and to their homes. BOB GARFIELD: To the Bush Administration, the glass isn't half full, it's overflowing, which gets to Richard Benedetto's complaint about the media's reflexive skepticism. For instance, at The New York Times, having been suckered by the administration leading up to the war, is the paper now unduly dubious of government claims? Chira says no. SUSAN CHIRA: I think we've seriously reflected on what went wrong. I don't think, though, that we reflexively disbelieve anyone. You know, we get criticized for underreporting positive. We get criticized for failing to say, you know, oh, it's a total failure.
You know, when we reported that violence was down in September, there were many press critics saying that our reporting was credulous. So we get it from all sides. BOB GARFIELD: They do that. But let's just say it's true - the media are so certain the war is unsalvageable they are hyper skeptical of anything the government says. There remains, though, a more central question. Did the media bury the good news? Eh - not exactly. MALE CORRESPONDANT: The military statistics tell an unmistakable story. Violence in Iraq is down and down considerably. MALE CORRESPONDANT: Casualties are in steep decline, from a high point this year of 126 fatalities in May to October's current assessment in the mid-30s. For U.S. military deaths, the totals are encouraging. MALE CORRESPONDANT: According to the military, the total number of attacks on U.S. troops hasn't been this low in nearly two years. BOB GARFIELD: Oh, the story was out there, all right, pretty much everywhere. Furthermore, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, it continues to be mentioned in about 30 percent of all news reports on Iraq, and often quite prominently. CHARLES GIBSON: One item from Baghdad today, the news is that there is no news. The police told us that, to their knowledge, there were no major acts of violence. Attacks are down in Baghdad and today no bombings or roadside explosions were reported. BOB GARFIELD: A funny thing about Charlie Gibson's report on ABC's World News Tonight: that was the story that sent Rush Limbaugh into paroxysm of rage about the liberal media. He actually played it as he launched into his tantrum.
So on the subject of needing to fit your own political narrative, Limbaugh actually used a media story about the drop in casualties as evidence of a media coverup of the drop in casualties.
But let's never mind that, either. It's certainly true that compared to the coverage of the escalation of violence, the apparent good news story substantially petered out from there. The last 10 days have seen none of the blazing headlines that have chronicled car bombing after IED attack after beheading, day after day, after demoralizing day.
Well, of course not. If the news of the day was, as Charlie Gibson said, the absence of news, what neither Richard Benedetto nor Rush Limbaugh offers is a suggestion of how to follow it up. What exactly newsworthy is there to say the day after?
Sure, at some point, theoretically, if three months grows into six months and political accommodations diffuse the sectarian rivalries at the root of the violence, maybe this lull will prove to be a turning point. But don't worry. If that happens, you can't miss it. It'll be in all the papers. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]