The past few months have witnessed a striking change in the fortunes of two well-known journalists: Anderson Cooper and Judith Miller. CNN’s Cooper, the one-time host of the entertainment show The Mole, who was known mostly for his pin-up good looks, hip outfits, and showy sentimentality, suddenly emerged during Hurricane Katrina as a tribune for the dispossessed and a scourge of do-nothing officials. He sought out poor blacks who were stranded in New Orleans, expressed anger over bodies rotting in the street, and rudely interrupted Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu when she began thanking federal officials for their efforts. When people “listen to politicians thanking one another and complimenting each other,” he told her, “you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.” After receiving much praise, Cooper in early November was named to replace Aaron Brown as the host of CNN’s NewsNight.
By then, Judith Miller was trying to salvage her reputation. After eighty-five days in jail for refusing to testify to the grand jury in the Valerie Plame leak case, she was greeted not with widespread appreciation for her sacrifice in protecting her source but with angry questions about her relations with Lewis Libby and her dealings with her editors, one of whom, Bill Keller, said he regretted he “had not sat her down for a thorough debriefing” after she was subpoenaed as a witness. The controversy revived the simmering resentment among her fellow reporters, and many Times readers, over her reporting on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In the Times’s account, published on October 16, Miller acknowledged for the first time that “WMD—I got it totally wrong.” Bill Keller said that after becoming the paper’s executive editor in 2003, he had told Miller that she could no longer cover Iraq and weapons issues, but that “she kept drifting on her own back into the national security realm.” For her part, Miller insisted that she had “cooperated with editorial decisions” and expressed regret that she was not allowed to do follow-up reporting on why the intelligence on WMD had been so wrong; on November 8, she agreed to leave the Times after twenty-eight years at the paper.1
These contrasting tales suggest something about the changing state of American journalism. For many reporters, the bold coverage of the effects of the hurricane, and of the administration’s glaring failure to respond effectively, has helped to begin making up for their timid reporting on the existence of WMD. Among some journalists I’ve spoken with, shame has given way to pride, and there is much talk about the need to get back to the basic responsibility of reporters, to expose wrongdoing and the failures of the political system. In recent weeks, journalists have been asking more pointed questions at press conferences, attempting to investigate cronyism and corruption in the White House and Congress, and doing more to document the plight of people without jobs or a place to live.
Will such changes prove lasting? In a previous article, I described many of the external pressures besetting journalists today, including a hostile White House, aggressive conservative critics, and greedy corporate owners.2 Here, I will concentrate on the press’s internal problems—not on its many ethical and professional lapses, which have been extensively discussed elsewhere, but rather on the structural problems that keep the press from fulfilling its responsibilities to serve as a witness to injustice and a watchdog over the powerful. To some extent, these problems consist of professional practices and proclivities that inhibit reporting—a reliance on “access,” an excessive striving for “balance,” an uncritical fascination with celebrities. Equally important is the increasing isolation of much of the profession from disadvantaged Americans and the difficulties they face. Finally, and most significantly, there’s the political climate in which journalists work. Today’s political pressures too often breed in journalists a tendency toward self-censorship, toward shying away from the pursuit of truths that might prove unpopular, whether with official authorities or the public.
In late October 2004, Ken Silverstein, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, went to St. Louis to write about Democratic efforts to mobilize African-American voters. In 2000, the Justice Department later found, many of the city’s black voters had been improperly turned away from the polls by Republican Party officials. Democrats were charging the Republicans with preparing to do the same in 2004, and Silverstein found evidence for their claim. Republican officials accused the Democrats of similar irregularities, but their case seemed flimsy by comparison, a point that even a local Republican official acknowledged to him.
While doing his research, however, Silverstein learned that the Los Angeles Times had sent reporters to several other states to report on charges of voter fraud, and, further, that his findings were going to be incorporated into a larger national story about how both parties in those states were accusing each other of fraud and intimidation. The resulting story, bearing the bland headline “Partisan Suspicions Run High in Swing States,” described
the extraordinarily rancorous and mistrustful atmosphere that pervades battleground states in the final days of the presidential campaign. In Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oregon and other key states, Democrats and Republicans seem convinced their opponents are bent on stealing the election.
The section on Missouri gave equal time to the claims of Democrats and Republicans.
Troubled by this outcome, Silverstein sent an editor a memo outlining his concerns. The paper’s “insistence on ‘balance’ is totally misleading and leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge,” he wrote. In Missouri, there was “a real effort on the part of the GOP…to suppress pro-Dem constituencies.” The GOP complaints, by contrast, “concern isolated cases that are not going to impact the outcome of the election.” He went on:
I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should…attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. “Balanced” is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.
This is not to deny that the best newspapers run many first-rate stories, Silverstein said, or that reporters working on long-term projects are often given leeway to “pile up evidence and demonstrate a case.” During the last year, he has written articles on the ties between the CIA and the Sudanese intelligence service; on American oil companies’ political and economic alliances with corrupt third-world regimes; and on conflicts of interest involving Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha. When it comes to political coverage, though, Silverstein told me, newspapers are too often “afraid of being seen as having an opinion.” They fear “provoking a reaction in which they’ll be accused of bias, however unfounded the charge.” The insistence on a “spurious balance,” he says, is a widespread problem in how TV and print organizations cover news. “It’s very stifling.”
As Silverstein suggests, this fear of bias, and of appearing unbalanced, acts as a powerful sedative on American journalists—one whose effect has been magnified by the incessant attacks of conservative bloggers and radio talk-show hosts.3 One reason journalists performed so poorly in the months before the Iraq war was that there were few Democrats willing to criticize the Bush administration on the record; without such cover, journalists feared they would be branded as hostile to the President and labeled as “liberal” by conservative commentators.
The Plame leak case has provided further insight into the relation between the journalistic and political establishments. It’s now clear that Lewis Libby was an important figure in the White House and a key architect of the administration’s push for war in Iraq. Many journalists seem to have spoken with him regularly, and to have been fully aware of his power, yet virtually none bothered to inform the public about him, much less scrutinize his actions on behalf of the vice-president. A search of major newspapers in the fifteen months before the war turned up exactly one substantial article about Libby—a breezy piece by Elisabeth Bumiller in the The New York Times about his novel The Apprentice.
In reporting on the government, the Los Angeles Times, like other papers, faces another serious constraint. As a result of budget cuts imposed by its corporate owner, The Tribune Company, the Times recently reduced its Washington staff from sixty-one to fifty-five (of whom thirty-nine are reporters). Doyle McManus, the bureau chief, says the paper is stretched very thin. Since September 11, 2001, he has had to assign so many reporters (eight at the moment) to covering news about national security that many domestic issues have been neglected. The Times has only four daily reporters to cover everything from health care to labor to the regulatory agencies, and it has no regular reporter in Washington dealing with the problems of the environment. “It’s nuts for a California paper to have its environmental job open this long,” McManus says. The Chicago Tribune, he said, has a full-time agriculture writer whose beat includes agribusiness and its activities in Washington. Despite the huge national political influence of agricultural interests, the Los Angeles Times, like most other big US papers, lacks the resources to report on them regularly.
The same is true of most of official Washington. At no time since before the New Deal, perhaps, has corporate America had so much power and so much influence in Washington. Between 1998 and 2004, the amount of money spent on lobbying the federal government doubled to nearly $3 billion a year, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group. The US Chamber of Commerce alone spent $53 million in 2004. During the last six years, General Motors has spent $48 million and Ford $41 million. Before joining the Bush White House, chief of staff Andrew Card worked as a lobbyist for the big auto companies. To what extent have such payments and activities contributed to the virtual freeze on the fuel-efficiency standards that have long been in effect in the US and which have helped to produce the current oil crisis? More generally, how have corporations used their extraordinary wealth to win tax breaks, gain no-bid contracts, and bend administrative rules to their liking? On November 10, The Wall Street Journal ran a probing front-page piece about how the textile industry, through intensive lobbying, won quotas on Chinese imports—an example of the type of analysis that far too rarely appears in our leading publications. “Wall Street’s influence in Washington has been one of the most undercovered areas in journalism for decades,” according to Charles Lewis, the former director of the Center for Public Integrity.
Of course, corporations are extensively covered in the business sections of most newspapers. These began growing in size in the 1970s and 1980s, and today The New York Times has about sixty reporters assigned to business. The Times, along with The Wall Street Journal, runs many stories raising questions about corporate behavior. For the most part, though, the business sections are addressed to members of the business world and are mainly concerned to provide them with information they can use to invest their money, manage their companies, and understand Wall Street trends. Reflecting this narrow focus, the business press in the 1980s largely missed the savings and loan scandal. In the 1990s, it published enthusiastic reports on the high-tech boom, then watched in bafflement as it collapsed. Of the hundreds of American business reporters, only one—Fortune’s Bethany McLean—had the independence and courage to raise questions about the high valuation of Enron’s stock. The criminal activities in recent years of not only Exxon but also WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and other corporate malefactors have largely been exposed not by the business press but by public prosecutors; and the fate of the companies involved, and of those who were damaged by their lies, has been only fitfully followed up.
While business sections grow larger, the labor beat remains very solitary. In contrast to the many reporters covering business, the Times has only one, Steven Greenhouse, writing full-time about labor and workplace issues. (Several other Times reporters cover labor-related issues as part of their beats.) Greenhouse seems to be everywhere at once, reporting on union politics, low-wage workers, and corporate labor practices. More than any other big-city reporter, he has called attention to Wal-Mart’s Dickensian working conditions. Yet he could surely use some help. When, for instance, General Motors recently announced that it was scaling back health benefits for its workforce, the story appeared on the Times’s front page for a day, then settled back into the business section, where it was treated as another business story. As a result, the paper has largely overlooked the painful social effects that the retrenchments at GM, the auto-parts company Delphi, and other manufacturing concerns have had on the Midwest. More generally, the staffs of our top news organizations, who tend to be well-paid members of the upper middle class living mostly on the East and West Coasts, have limited contact with blue-collar America and so provide only sporadic coverage of its concerns.
This summer, Nancy Cleeland, after more than six years as the lone labor reporter at the Los Angeles Times, left her beat. She made the move “out of frustration,” she told me. Her editors “really didn’t want to have labor stories. They were always looking at labor from a management and business perspective—’how do we deal with these guys?'” In 2003, Cleeland was one of several reporters on a three-part series about Wal-Mart’s labor practices that won the Times a Pulitzer Prize. That, she had hoped, would convince her editors of the value of covering labor, but in the end it didn’t, she says. “They don’t consider themselves hostile to working-class concerns, but they’re all making too much money to relate to the problems that working-class people are facing,” observed Cleeland, who is now writing about high school dropouts. Despite her strong urging, the paper has yet to name anyone to replace her. (Russ Stanton, the Los Angeles Times’s business editor, says that the paper did value Cleeland’s reporting, as shown by her many front-page stories. However, with his section recently losing six of its forty-eight reporters and facing more cuts, he said, her position is unlikely to be filled anytime soon.)
On August 30—the same day the waters of Lake Pontchartrain inundated New Orleans—the Census Bureau released its annual report on the nation’s economic well-being. It showed that the poverty rate had increased to 12.7 percent in 2004 from 12.5 percent in the previous year. In New York City, where so many national news organizations have their headquarters, the rate rose from 19 percent in 2003 to 20.3 percent in 2004, meaning that one in every five New Yorkers is poor. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I—and many editors of The New York Times—live, the number of homeless people has visibly grown. Yet somehow they rarely appear in the pages of the press.
In 1998, Jason DeParle, after covering the debate in Washington over the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as well as its initial implementation, convinced his editors at The New York Times to let him live part-time in Milwaukee so that he could see Wisconsin’s experimental approach up close. They agreed, and over the next year DeParle’s reporting helped keep the welfare issue in the public eye. In 2000, he took a leave to write a book about the subject,4 and the Times did not name anyone to replace him on the national poverty beat. And it still hasn’t. Earlier this year, the Times ran a monumental series on class, and, in its day-to-day coverage of immigration, Medicaid, and foster care, it does examine the problems of the poor, but certainly the stark deprivation afflicting the nation’s urban cores deserves more systematic attention.
In March, Time magazine featured on its cover a story headlined “How to End Poverty,” which was about poverty in the developing world. Concerning poverty in this country, the magazine ran very, very little in the first eight months of the year, before Hurricane Katrina. Here are some of the covers Time chose to run in that period: “Meet the Twixters: They Just Won’t Grow Up”; “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America”; “The Right (and Wrong) Way to Treat Pain”; “Hail, Mary” (the Virgin Mary); “Ms. Right” (Anne Coulter); “The Last Star Wars”; “A Female Midlife Crisis?”; “Inside Bill’s New X-Box” (Bill Gates’s latest video game machine); “Lose That Spare Tire!” (weight-loss tips); “Being 13”; “The 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America”; “Hip Hop’s Class Act”; and “How to Stop a Heart Attack.”
The magazine’s editors put special energy into their April 18 cover, “The Time 100.” Now in its second year, this annual feature salutes the hundred “most influential” people in the world, including most recently NBA forward Lebron James, country singer Melissa Etheridge, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, Ann Coulter (again!), journalist Malcolm Gladwell, and evangelical best-selling author Rick Warren. Time enlisted additional celebrities to write profiles of some of the chosen one hundred—Tom Brokaw on Jon Stewart, Bono on Jeffrey Sachs, Donald Trump on Martha Stewart, and Henry Kissinger on Condoleezza Rice (she’s handling the challenges facing her “with panache and conviction” and is enjoying “a nearly unprecedented level of authority”). To celebrate, Time invited the influentials and their chroniclers to a black-tie gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time-Warner Building.
A staff member of Time’s business department told me that the “100” issue is highly valued because of the amount of advertising it generates. In 2004, for instance, when Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was named a “Builder and Titan,” her company bought a two-page spread in the issue. Because Time’s parent company, Time Warner, must post strong quarterly earnings to please Wall Street, the pressure to turn out such moneymakers remains intense. By contrast, there’s little advertising to be had from writing about inner-city mothers, so the magazine seems unlikely to alter its coverage in any significant way.
Time’s “100” gala is only one of the many glitzy events on the journalists’ social calendar. The most popular is the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This year, hundreds of the nation’s top journalists showed up at the Washington Hilton to mix with White House officials, military brass, Cabinet chiefs, diplomats, and actors. Laura Bush’s naughty Desperate Housewives routine, in which she teased her husband for his early-to-bed habits and his attempt to milk a male horse, was shown over and over on the TV news; what wasn’t shown was journalists jumping to their feet and applauding wildly. Afterward, many of the journalists and their guests went to the hot post-dinner party, hosted by Bloomberg News. On his blog, The Nation’s David Corn described arriving with Newsweek’s Mike Isikoff, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and Times editor Jill Abramson. Seeing the long line, Corn feared he wouldn’t get in, but suddenly Arianna Huffington showed up and “whisked me into her entourage.” Huffington, he noted, asked everyone she encountered—Wesley Clark, John Podesta—if they’d like to participate in her new celebrity-rich mega-blog.
It was left to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show to imagine what the journalists and politicos at the dinner were saying to one another: “Deep down, we’re both entrenched oligarchies with a stake in maintaining the status quo—enjoy your scrod.”
A ruthlessly self-revealing look at journalists’ obsession with celebrity was provided earlier this year by Bernard Weinraub. Writing in The New York Times about his experience covering Hollywood for the paper between 1991 and 2005, he told of becoming friendly with Jeffrey Katzenberg (when he was head of Walt Disney Studios), of being dazzled by the ranch-style house of producer Dawn Steel, of resenting the huge financial gulf between him and the people he was covering. He recalled:
Waiting for a valet at the Bel-Air Hotel to bring my company-leased Ford, I once stood beside a journalist turned producer who said, “I used to drive a car like that.” Though I’m ashamed to say it, I was soon hunting for parking spots near Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the discomfort of having a valet drive up my leased two-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes.
During the 1990s, the Times reporters, Weinraub among them, breathlessly recorded every move of the agent Michael Ovitz. Today, it does the same for Harvey Weinstein. The paper’s coverage of movies, TV, pop music, and video games concentrates heavily on ratings, box-office receipts, moguls, boardroom struggles, media strategists, power agents, who’s up and who’s down. The paper pays comparatively little attention to the social or political effects of pop culture, including how middle Americans regard the often sensational and violent entertainment that nightly invades their homes. As in the case of factory shutdowns, journalists at the elite papers are not in touch with such people and so rarely write about them.5
All of the problems affecting newspapers appear in even more acute form when it comes to TV. The loss of all three of the famous anchors of the broadcast networks has led to much anxiety about the future, and CBS’s decision to name Sean McManus, the president of its sports division, as its new news chief has done little to allay it. Yet even under Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather, the network news divisions had become stale and predictable. After September 11, there was much talk about how the networks had to recover their traditional mission and educate Americans about the rest of the world, yet one need only watch the evening news for a night or two to see how absurd were such expectations. On November 4, for instance, CBS’s Bob Schieffer spent a few fleeting moments commenting on some footage of the recent rioting by young Muslims in France before introducing a much longer segment on stolen cell phones and the anxiety they cause their owners. ABC’s World News Tonight’s most frequent feature, “Medicine on the Cutting Edge,” seems directed mainly at offering tips to its aging viewers about how they might hold out for a few more years—and at providing the drug companies a regular ad platform. In 2004, the three networks together devoted 1,174 minutes—nearly twenty full hours—to missing women, all of them white.
Decrying the decline of network news has long been a popular pastime. The movie Good Night, and Good Luck features a famous jeremiad that Edward R. Murrow delivered at a meeting of the Radio and TV News Directors Association in 1958, in which he assailed the broadcast industry for being “fat, comfortable, and complacent.” In 1988, the journalist Peter Boyer published a book titled Who Killed CBS? (The answer: CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter.) Tom Fenton’s more recent Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All, is especially revealing, drawing as it does on extensive firsthand experience. In 1970, when Fenton went to work for CBS, in Rome, the bureau there had three correspondents—part of a global network that included fourteen major foreign bureaus, ten mini-bureaus, and stringers in forty-four countries. Today, CBS has eight foreign correspondents and three bureaus. Four of the correspondents are based in London, where they are kept busy doing voice-overs for video feeds from the Associated Press and Reuters—the form that most international news on the networks now takes.
During his years at CBS, Fenton writes, he took pride in finding important stories:
That was my job, my fun, my life—until the megacorporations that have taken over the major American television news companies squeezed the life out of foreign news reporting.
Of the many people in the business he spoke with while researching his book, he writes, “almost everyone” agreed that the networks “are doing an inadequate job reporting world news.” Among the exceptions were Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather, none of whom, he writes, “seemed to share my intensity of concern at the lack of foreign news and context on their shows.” Fenton writes angrily about the immense sums the anchors were pulling down while their bureaus were being shuttered. Noting Tom Brokaw’s plans to retire as anchor and do more investigative reporting, he asks, “What was stopping him from sending his correspondents out to do that for the last fifteen years or so?” (The answer is hinted at in Fenton’s brief acknowledgment that foreign stories cost twice as much to produce as domestic ones.)
In Fenton’s view, the press has grown so lax that “anyone with the merest enterprise can have a field day cherry-picking gigantic unreported stories.” He quotes Seymour Hersh as saying he couldn’t believe all the overlooked stories he was able to report on simply because The New Yorker allowed him to write what he wanted. Fenton lists some major stories that remain neglected, including the influence of Saudi money on US policies toward the Middle East, the links between the big oil companies and the White House, and the largely ignored dark side of Kurdish activities in Iraq.
“Nowhere has the news media’s ignorant performance been more egregious than in its handling of the Kurds,” he writes, “a catalogue of sorry incompetence and dangerous misinformation that continues to this day.” He mentions the murderous feuds between the two Kurdish strongmen Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, and the “tribulations and suffering” of minorities like the Turcomans and Assyrian Christians living under the “strong arm of Kurdish rule.” The Kurds have always been cast as good guys, and no American news organization, he writes, “wants to burden us with such complex and challenging details. You never know what might happen—viewers might switch to another channel.”
Iraq remains by far the most important story for the US press, showing its strengths as well as its many weaknesses—especially the way in which political realities shape, define, and ultimately limit what Americans see and read. The nation’s principal news organizations deserve praise for remaining committed to covering the war in the face of lethal risks, huge costs, and public apathy. Normally The Washington Post has four correspondents in the country, backed by more than two dozen Iraqis, as well as three armored cars costing $100,000. The New York Times bureau costs $1.5 million a year to maintain. And many excellent reports have resulted. In June, for instance, The Wall Street Journal ran a revealing front-page story by Farnaz Fassihi about how the violence between Muslim groups in Iraq had destroyed a longtime friendship between two Baghdad neighbors, one Sunni and the other Shiite. In October, in The Washington Post, Steven Fainaru described how Kurdish political parties were repatriating thousands of Kurds in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, setting off fighting between Kurdish settlers and local Arabs. And in The New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise described how the growing chaos in Iraq was eroding the living standards of middle-class Iraqis, turning their frustration “into hopelessness.”
Just a few months before, at the start of the year, however, the tone of the coverage was very different. President Bush, fresh from his reelection, was enjoying broad public support, and he was making the most of Iraq’s January 30 election, which was widely proclaimed a success. The anti-Syria demonstrations in Lebanon and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority only added to the impression of the growing success of Bush’s foreign policy. Journalists rushed to praise his leadership and sagacity. “What Bush Got Right,” Newsweek declared on its March 14 cover. Recent developments in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East had “vindicated” the President, the magazine declared. “Across New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—and probably Europe and Asia as well—people are nervously asking themselves a question: ‘Could he possibly have been right?’ The short answer is yes.” Another article, headlined “Condi’s Clout Offensive,” hailed the new secretary of state, noting how she “has rushed onto the world stage with force and style, and with the fair wind of the Arab Democratic Spring at her back.” Rounding out the package was “To the Front,” a look at US soldiers who, having lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, “are doing the unthinkable: Going back into battle.”
On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was daily celebrating Iraq’s strides toward democracy. On April 6, for instance, after the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was selected as Iraq’s new president, Blitzer asked Robin Wright of The Washington Post and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution about him and his two deputies. Blitzer, addressing Wright, said, “They’re all pretty moderate and they’re pretty pro-American, is that fair?”
“Absolutely,” said Wright. “These are people who have been educated in the West, have had contacts with Western countries, particularly in the United States….”
Blitzer: Your sense is this is about as good, Ken Pollack, as the US, as the Bush administration, as the American public could have hoped for, at least as a start for this new Iraqi democracy.
Pollack: Absolutely. I think the Bush administration has to be pleased with the personnel.
Such leading questions provide a good example of Blitzer’s interviewing style, which seems designed to make sure his guests say nothing remotely spontaneous; the exchange also makes clear the deference that CNN, and the press as a whole, showed President Bush just after his reelection, during the first months of the year. Throughout this period, violence continued to plague Iraq, but stories about it were mostly consigned to the inside pages. US soldiers continued to die, but this news was mostly relegated to the “crawl” along the bottom of the cable news shows.
Then, in April, insurgent attacks began to increase, and Bush’s popularity began to slide. As oil prices rose and the Plame leak investigation got more attention, political space for tougher reporting began to open up. The stories about assassinations and ambushes that had earlier been buried began appearing on the front page, and Wolf Blitzer, newly emboldened, began questioning his guests about US exit strategies.
By late October, when the two-thousandth US serviceman died, the news was splashed across the nation’s front pages. “2,000 Dead: As Iraq Tours Stretch On, a Grim Mark,” declared The New York Times. As the Times’s Katharine Seelye pointed out a few days later, this milestone received far more press attention than had the earlier one of one thousand, in April 2004.
Still, there remained firm limits on what could be reported out of Iraq. Especially taboo were frank accounts of the actions of US troops in the field—particularly when those actions resulted in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
On the same day The Times ran its front-page story about the two thousand war dead, for instance, it ran another piece on page A12 about the rising toll of Iraqi civilians. Since the US military does not issue figures on this subject, Sabrina Tavernise relied on Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit Web site that keeps a record of casualty figures from news accounts. The site, she wrote, placed the number of dead civilians since the start of the US invasion at between 26,690 and 30,051. (Even the higher number was probably too low, the article noted, since many deaths do not find their way into news reports.) The Times deserves credit simply for running this story—for acknowledging that, as high a price as American soldiers have paid in the war, the one paid by Iraqi civilians has been much higher. Remarkably, though, in discussing the cause of those deaths, the article mentioned only insurgents. Not once did it raise the possibility that some of those deaths might have come at the hands of the “Coalition.”
This is typical. A survey of the Times’s coverage of Iraq in the month of October shows that, while regularly reporting civilian deaths caused by the insurgents, it rarely mentioned those inflicted by Americans; when it did, it was usually deep inside the paper, and heavily qualified. Thus, on October 18 the Times ran a brief article at the bottom of page A11 headlined “Scores Are Killed by American Airstrikes in Sunni Insurgent Stronghold West of Baghdad.” Citing military sources, the article noted in its lead that the air strikes had been launched “against insurgents” in the embattled city of Ramadi, “killing as many as 70 people.” A US Army colonel was cited as saying that a group of insurgents in four cars had been spotted “trying to roll artillery shells into a large crater in eastern Ramadi that had been caused when a roadside bomb exploded the day before, killing five US and two Iraqi soldiers.” At that point, according to the Times, “an F-15 fighter plane dropped a guided bomb on the area, killing all 20 men on the ground.” The Times went on to report the colonel’s claim that “no civilians had been killed in the strikes.” In one sentence, the article noted that Reuters, “citing hospital officials in Ramadi,” had reported “that civilians had been killed.” It did not elaborate. Instead, it went on to mention other incidents in Ramadi in which US helicopters and fighter planes had killed “insurgents.”
The AP told a very different story. The “group of insurgents” that the military claimed had been hit by the F-15 was actually “a group of around two dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage of the US military vehicle” that had been attacked the previous day, the AP reported.
The military said in a statement that the crowd was setting another roadside bomb in the location of the blast that killed the Americans. F-15 warplanes hit them with a precision-guided bomb, killing 20 people, described by the statement as “terrorists.”
But several witnesses and one local leader said the people were civilians who had gathered to gawk at the wreckage of the US vehicle or pick pieces off of it—as often occurs after an American vehicle is hit.
The airstrike hit the crowd, killing 25 people, said Chiad Saad, a tribal leader, and several witnesses who refused to give their names….
Readers of the Times learned none of these details.
This is not an isolated case. Regularly reading the paper’s Iraq coverage during the last few months, I have found very little mention of civilians dying at the hands of US forces. No doubt the violence on Iraq’s streets keeps reporters from going to these sites to interview witnesses, but Times stories seldom notify readers that its reporters were unable to question witnesses to civilian casualties because of the danger they would face in going to the site of the attack. Yet the paper regularly publishes official military claims about dead insurgents without any independent confirmation. After both General Tommy Franks and Donald Rumsfeld declared in 2003 that “we don’t do body counts,” the US military has quietly begun doing just that. And the Times generally relays those counts without questioning them.
In any discussion of civilian casualties, it is important to distinguish between the insurgents, who deliberately target civilians, and the US military, which does not—which, in fact, goes out of its way to avoid them.6 Nonetheless, all indications point to a very high toll at the hands of the US. As seems to have been the case in Ramadi, many of the deaths have resulted from aerial bombardment. Since the start of the invasion, the United States has dropped 50,000 bombs on Iraq.7 About 30,000 were dropped during the five weeks of the war proper. Though most of the 50,000 bombs have been aimed at military targets, they have undoubtedly caused much “collateral damage,” and claimed an untold number of civilian lives.
But according to Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch, the toll from ground actions is probably much higher. Garlasco speaks with special authority; before he joined Human Rights Watch, in mid-April 2003, he worked for the Pentagon, helping to select targets for the air war in Iraq. During the ground war, he says, the military’s use of cluster bombs was especially lethal. In just a few days of fighting in the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, Human Rights Watch found that cluster bombs killed or injured more than five hundred civilians.
Since the end of the ground war, Garlasco says, many civilians have been killed in crossfire between US and insurgent forces. Others have been shot by US military convoys; soldiers in Humvees, seeking to avoid being hit by suicide bombers, not infrequently fire on cars that get too close, and many turn out to have civilians inside. According to Garlasco, private security contractors kill many civilians; they tend to be “loosey-goosey” in their approach, he says, “opening fire if people don’t get out of the way quickly enough.”
Probably the biggest source of civilian casualties, though, is Coalition checkpoints. These can go up anywhere at any time, and though they are supposed to be well marked, they are in practice often hard to detect, especially at night, and US soldiers—understandably wary of suicide bombers—often shoot first and ask questions later. Many innocent Iraqis have died in the process.8
Such killings came into public view in March, when the car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, rushing to the Baghdad airport after her release from captivity, was fired on by US troops; she was badly wounded and the Italian intelligence officer accompanying her was killed. Three days after the incident, The New York Times ran a revealing front-page story headlined “US Checkpoints Raise Ire in Iraq.” Next to the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, John Burns wrote,
no other aspect of the American military presence in Iraq has caused such widespread dismay and anger among Iraqis, judging by their frequent outbursts on the subject. Daily reports compiled by Western security companies chronicle many incidents in which Iraqis with no apparent connection to the insurgency are killed or wounded by American troops who have opened fire on suspicion that the Iraqis were engaged in a terrorist attack.
US and Iraqi officials said they had no figures on such casualties, Burns reported,
but any Westerner working in Iraq comes across numerous accounts of apparently innocent deaths and injuries among drivers and passengers who drew American fire, often in circumstances that have left the Iraqis puzzled, wondering what, if anything, they did wrong.
Many, he said, “tell of being fired on with little or no warning.”
Burns’s account showed that it was possible to write such stories despite the pervasive violence, and despite the lack of official figures. While few such stories have appeared in this country, they are common abroad. “If you go to the Middle East, that’s all you hear about—the US killing civilians,” Marc Garlasco observes. “It’s on the news all the time.”
In this country, one can catch glimpses of this reality in documentaries like the recently released Occupation: Dreamland, in which directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, drawing on the six weeks they spent with an Army unit stationed outside Fallujah, show how the best-intentioned soldiers, faced with a hostile population speaking a strange language and worshiping an alien God, can routinely resort to actions designed to intimidate and humiliate. One can also find glimpses in The New York Times Magazine, which has been much bolder than the daily New York Times. In May, Peter Maass, writing in the Times Magazine, described how Iraqi commando units, trained by US counterinsurgency experts, are fighting a “dirty war” in which beatings, torture, and even executions are routine. And in October, Dexter Filkins, also in the Times Magazine, described the sobering case of Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, a West Point graduate who, under constant attacks in a volatile Sunni area, approved rough tactics against the local population, including forcing local Iraqi men to jump into a canal as punishment. One died as a result.
Only by reading and watching such accounts is it possible to fathom the depths of Iraqi hatred for the United States. It’s not the simple fact of occupation that’s at work, but the way that occupation is being carried out, and the daily indignities, humiliations, and deaths that accompany it. If reports of such actions appeared more frequently in the press, they could help raise questions about the strategy the US is pursuing in Iraq and encourage discussion of whether there’s a better way to deploy US troops.
Why are such reports so rare? The simple lack of language skills is one reason. Captain Zachary Miller, who commanded a company of US troops in eastern Baghdad in 2004 and who is now studying at the Kennedy School of Government, told me that of the fifty or so Western journalists who went out on patrol with his troops, hardly any spoke Arabic, and few bothered to bring interpreters. As a result, they were totally dependent on Miller and his fellow soldiers. “Normally, the reporters didn’t ask questions of the Iraqis,” he said. “They asked me.”
In addition, many US journalists feel queasy about quoting eyewitnesses who offer information that runs counter to statements put out by the US military. Journalists don’t like writing stories in which an Iraqi civilian’s word is pitted against that of a US officer, regardless of how much evidence there is to back up the civilian’s claims. The many tough pieces in the press about abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and secret detention facilities usually have official US sources and so are less open to challenge.
Even more important, though, I believe, are political realities. The abuses that US troops routinely commit in the field, and their responsibility for the deaths of many thousands of innocent Iraqis, are viewed by the American press as too sensitive for most Americans to see or read about. When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a US soldier fatally shooting a wounded Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, denounced as an antiwar activist, and sent death threats. Such incidents feed the deep-seated fear that many US journalists have of being accused of being anti-American, of not supporting the troops in the field. These subjects remain off-limits.
Of course, if the situation in Iraq were further to unravel, or if President Bush were to become more unpopular, the boundaries of the acceptable might expand further, and subjects such as these might begin appearing on our front pages. It’s regrettable, though, that editors and reporters have to wait for such developments. Of all the internal problems confronting the press, the reluctance to venture into politically sensitive matters, to report disturbing truths that might unsettle and provoke, remains by far the most troubling.
On November 8, I turned on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 to see how the host was doing in his new job. It was Election Day, and I was hoping to find some analysis of the results. Instead, I found Cooper leading a discussion on a new sex survey conducted by Men’s Fitness and Shape magazines. I learned that 82 percent of men think they’re good or excellent in bed, and that New Yorkers report they have more sex than the residents of any other state. At that moment, New Orleans and Katrina seemed to be in a galaxy far, far away.
—November 16, 2005
—This is the second of two articles.
'The Enemy Within': An Exchange February 9, 2006
Her comments on her case are available at JudithMiller.org. ↩
American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare (Viking, 2004); see the review by Christopher Jencks in this issue of The New York Review. ↩
For more on this subject, see my article “Off Course,” Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 2005. ↩
See, for example, Human Rights Watch, “A Face and a Name: Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq,” October 3, 2005. ↩
See the NPR show This American Life, “What’s in a Number?” October 28, 2005. ↩
Human Rights Watch has issued many reports about the civilian victims of US military actions, including “Civilian Deaths/Checkpoints,” October 2003, in which it observed that “the individual cases of civilian deaths documented in this report reveal a pattern by US forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal force.” ↩