'Civil war' and the real press scandal

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The excited news coverage surrounding the decision by NBC, as well as other media outlets, to finally label the bloody chaos inside Iraq for what it really is, a civil war, came tinged with a strange, self-congratulatory tone, as if the journalists involved had made some sort of momentous word choice. "[NBC] took an important step toward re-establishing some of the editorial independence of U.S. media organizations," TV Week announced in an editorial. Added Time: "[I]t was a signal moment in the war between the Bush White House and the media."

The excited news coverage surrounding the decision by NBC, as well as other media outlets, to finally label the bloody chaos inside Iraq for what it really is, a civil war, came tinged with a strange, self-congratulatory tone, as if the journalists involved had made some sort of momentous word choice. "[NBC] took an important step toward re-establishing some of the editorial independence of U.S. media organizations," TV Week announced in an editorial. Added Time: "[I]t was a signal moment in the war between the Bush White House and the media."

It reminded me of the media buzz that washed ashore after Hurricane Katrina, when grateful news consumers were supposed to applaud reporters because they had awoken from a five-year, self-induced, Bush-era slumber and summoned up enough courage, for at least a few weeks, to speak truth to power and report that what the Bush administration said and did were often two different things. In other words, we were supposed to cheer producers, reporters, and editors for doing their job. Not me.

And that's why I'm withholding my applause for journalists who have decided to accurately describe the turmoil inside Iraq. I detect very little courage in a semantic game being played at such a late date, particularly when the Republicans' ability to push back has been severely diminished. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter nailed it last week when he wrote, "Imagine if the GOP had retained control of the House and the Senate: You can bet that 'civil war' would still be verboten."

Like school kids poking their heads out to make sure the coast was absolutely clear, news executives, yet again, opted for the path of least resistance when dealing with the Bush White House. Indeed, the fact that a simple decision to use the phrase "civil war" passed for news itself simply highlights how timid the mainstream press corps has been during the Bush years. (There was a time, as Alter noted, when journalists didn't much care whether White Houses approved or disapproved of the adjectives they were using to describe a war.)

The phony "civil war" debate grabbed all the press attention (the media, after all, love to cover the media), but I think the real news scandal revolves around the fact that the media uniformly avoided using the phrase "civil war" prior to the invasion, as well as during its early stages. Meaning, news consumers today who are shocked that the country we were supposed to liberate has fallen into complete disrepair -- a killing field of sorts -- are shocked only because the mainstream news media back in 2002 and 2003, when the invasion was supposedly being debated in the press, completely refused to raise important questions about a possibility, let alone the likelihood, of civil war consuming parts of Iraq.

World leaders, academics, and even local Iraqis were all vocal about the very real possibility of a post-Saddam Hussein civil war, with Shiite and Sunni Muslims turning on one another. The on-the-ground dynamics inside Iraq that could lead to a civil war were obvious, but the timid press corps played dumb on a massive scale, refusing to delve into the specifics, leaving Americans in the dark about the real horrors that might await the unprecedented pre-emptive American invasion and the deadly power vacuum it could create inside Iraq.

That omission by the press -- the dereliction of duty, really -- was likely driven by the same internal forces that kept the corporate media from labeling the Iraqi vs. Iraqi chaos as a civil war. Namely, journalists were afraid of what Alter called the "White House-RNC-Fox industrial complex." In 2002 and 2003, the Bush White House cavalierly dismissed any talk about a civil war breaking out in Iraq, so the press, not wanting to be labeled with a Scarlet A (Anti-war) dismissed the notion as well. (Note that the European press at the time was far less reluctant to address the very real possibility of an Iraqi civil war.)

So the uncomfortable topic was simply set aside and not dealt with in a serious way, for fear it would appear defeatist or, worse, leftist. Just as articulate war critics were largely swept off the television airwaves as broadcasters got their pro-war footing in 2002 and 2003 (CNN made sure to get the Pentagon's OK for the retired military personnel the network was going to use as on-air analysts), so too were entire news stories. Is censorship too strong a word? I don't think so.

A look back at the 2002 and 2003 war coverage -- both print and television-- reveals a breathtaking refusal to discuss in detail the possibility of a civil war, the kind that's now devouring Baghdad and costing Americans billions of dollars each month. And again, it's not like experts weren't sounding the alarms in real time:

  • "An invasion and occupation of Iraq could lead to a violent civil war." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, October 4, 2002.
  • "Are the American people willing to take casualties if there is a civil war in Iraq?" Sarah Lawrence College professor Fawaz Gerges, quoted in The Journal News of Westchester County, New York, December 19, 2002.
  • "If the Americans leave, there will be civil war. If they stay, there will be civil war." Iraqi Mohammed Hassan, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, January 12, 2003.
  • "Not only do the people of Iraq face devastation by the US and UK aggression on a scale not previously known to mankind, but they also face death and destruction by another war -- the civil war that would inevitably follow." Burhan al-Chalabi, chairman of the British Iraqi Foundation and a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, writing in The Guardian of London, March 25, 2003.
  • "The greatest danger remains that an attack into Baghdad would unleash a civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims." Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London, April 4, 2003.
  • "Jordan, Egypt Leaders To Meet Amid Concerns Over Civil War Risk in Iraq," Agence France Presse headline, April 13, 2003.

Truth is, the potential of a civil war in Iraq represented an obvious news angle that should have been covered again and again, both during the run-up to the war as well as during the time of invasion and occupation throughout 2003. Instead, the American press all but boycotted the very story that's now dominating the headlines from Iraq.

Just how effectively, and uniformly, the press embargoed the story is startling. Using the Nexis electronic database, I searched for newspaper articles and transcripts from television reports during 2002 and 2003 that mentioned "Iraq" at least three times and, of course, found an avalanche of matches. Then, in hopes of finding newspaper articles and television reports from 2002 and 2003 that examined the issue of a civil war in serious detail, rather than ones that may have simply included a passing reference, I searched Nexis for reports that mentioned both "Iraq" at least three times and "civil war" at least three times and found almost no matches that dealt with the battle for Iraq. (Even within that search, there were scores of reports that mentioned both "Iraq" and "civil war" several times but were actually reports about conflicts in other places, such as Liberia. Or they contained references to the American Civil War, for instance. The reports, though, were clearly not about the possibility of Iraq fracturing under the weight of internal warfare.)

Here are some specifics. According to Nexis, The New York Times published 8,760 columns and articles between 2002 and 2003 that mentioned "Iraq" three or more times, but only three of them mentioned "civil war" three or more times and pertained to Iraq. At The Washington Post, the story was virtually identical: 7,943 combined columns and articles about Iraq and just one that examined the topic of civil war there in any detail. (It was a George Will column, and the civil war references took up a total of three sentences.) For the Associated Press, it was a total of 11,478 dispatches from 2002 and 2003 with three or more "Iraq" references, but just one with three or more "civil war" references dealing with Iraq.

Things were just as dismal on the broadcast side. For instance, during the key years of 2002 and 2003, National Public Radio broadcast 5,310 detailed reports about Iraq, but just one examined in-depth the ramifications of a possible civil war there. The networks? Please. ABC: 3,507 Iraq reports, and none about civil war. CBS: 4,405, and none about civil war. NBC: 4,163, none about civil war.

Meanwhile, the all-news cable channels did their best to keep the civil-war story dark. At CNN, the channel aired 9,104 Iraq reports, and of those, just three included three or more references to civil war inside Iraq. That, according to Nexis. MSNBC: 1,838 Iraq reports, and none about civil war. Fox News: 3,428 Iraq reports, and just two that addressed civil war. (The actual number of Iraq reports from MSNBC and Fox News was no doubt higher because MSNBC transcripts are grouped by entire show, not individual reports, while not all of Fox News' shows are cataloged by Nexis.)

Add them all up (if you can stomach it) and the final results show that during 2002 and 2003, the two most important newspapers in the country, along with the Associated Press, television networks, public radio, and the all-news cable channels, published or broadcast nearly 60,000 reports that contained three or more mentions of "Iraq." Of those, exactly 11 contained three or more references to "civil war" and were directly related to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The lapdog press, dutifully following the White House's preferred narrative, refused to consider the issue to be a serious topic. So excuse me if I don't applaud when, 50 months after Iraq emerged as a major news story, the mainstream media finally discover the phrase "civil war."

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
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