How bad was it? When I sat down at my computer on January 21, 2005, and counted all the stories indexed by Google News, I came up with a total just short of 11,000 negative stories to 407 positive stories, with 123 neutral ones.
This was the ratio on an average day of the Iraq war: 27 “bad news” stories about Iraq for every one reporting some positive developments from the Mesopotamian front of the war on terror.
I was neither shocked nor surprised. A few months earlier, in May 2004, I started compiling fortnightly round-ups of good news from Iraq. I was responding in my own way to the barrage of consistently and relentlessly negative mainstream media reporting that seemed to be at odds with the anecdotal on-the-ground experience, as conveyed back home by the military personnel and civilians engaged in rebuilding Iraq.
Surely, I thought, among all the violence, terrorism, corruption, mismanagement and political strife, so promiscuously reported on the pages of our newspapers and nightly news bulletins, there must be something positive going on in Iraq. And indeed, as I started looking around the Internet, there was, though the good news was more often than not under-reported, buried, or simply ignored by the mainstream media outlets.
For the next year and a half, and through its 35 installments, “Good news from Iraq” became somewhat of an institution on the conservative side of the blogosphere, filling a niche largely vacated by the media, and providing readers around the world with a corrective to the prevalent meta-narrative of Iraq as a quagmire and an unmitigated disaster. Some took my good news compilations as the clearest evidence of the pervasive anti-war and anti-Bush Administration bias among newsmakers, others merely as a reaffirmation of what their loved ones and friends stationed and working in Iraq have been telling them all along. For me personally, it was about restoring some balance – of course there was a lot of bad news coming out of Iraq, but to downplay the positive developments was a dereliction of the media’s duty. It was an entirely different question whether these in any way outweighed the negative ones, but that should have been up to well-informed news consumers to answer.
The exercise I undertook on January 21, 2005, was meant to satisfy my own curiosity about just how skewed the reporting was. The results of my snapshot survey have been at that time widely reported around the blogsophere, and subsequently quoted by Norman Podhoretz, among others.
In the meantime, I had to take a break from blogging, and the last, 35th installment of “Good News from Iraq” was published on September 12, 2005. A lot has happened since then, including an almost overwhelming rush to give up on Iraq, followed by the surge, followed by an apparent strong improvement in the security situation and the waning of Iraq as the major political issue (for those more cynical among us, the latter a consequence of the former).
Needless to say, I was curious to find out just how much there really was to everyone’s gut feelings about the change in reporting from and about Iraq.
So a day (and three years) later, on January 22, 2008, I again sat down at my computer and scanned through news from Iraq, as indexed by Google. Here are the results, and they are quite stunning.
Firstly, it is true that Iraq has largely disappeared from the media radar, especially by contrast with three years ago. Whereas that one day in January 2005, some 11,528 stories discussed various aspects of the situation in Iraq and the political response thereto, three years later, only 3,552 did.
Secondly, the balance between the negative and the positive reports has improved dramatically. On January 22, 2008, there have been 1,944 stories published that dwelt largely on bad news from Iraq: 687 about a terrorist attack at a funeral, 713 reporting the clashes with a Shia cult during the Ashura celebrations, 169 stories reporting on recent US military deaths in Iraq, 150 news items about Iraq in Democratic debates, with the remainder made up of other miscellaneous stories.
That was still a significant number, but the tally of positive news now stood at 1,160. Among them, 711 stories commenting on the decline in roadside bomb attacks, 98 reports about the UN envoy acknowledging the improving situation in Iraq, 46 stories about the new IMF report painting a quite positive picture of Iraqi economy, and various other lesser stories. There have also been 448 neutral news stories, largely relating to troop movements, as well as touting General Petraeus as a possible new commander of NATO.
In all, there was one good news story for every 1.67 bad news ones. Certainly makes for an improvement on the one to 27 ratio three years ago.
What does it all tells us? There has clearly been a very significant decline in reporting from Iraq. For some it will be an indication of the news exhaustion: after five years, people are simply tired of Iraq and the decrease in reporting merely reflects that fact that everyone has moved on to other issues. For others, it will be further evidence of the media bias: once the situation in Iraq has shown signs of unequivocal improvement, the media has stopped reporting, because the news simply stopped fitting into their favourite anti-war narrative. As for the changing ration of bad to good news, has the situation improved so drastically, or has the good news finally become too conspicuous to ignore? I will leave that to others to decide.
The future of Iraq is still uncertain, and one has to resist the temptation to claim victory, in contrast to so many others who have been declaring defeat virtually from the start. One thing is almost certain though: however Iraq will turn up, the mainstream media has become one of the casualties of that war. As the recent study by the Sacred Heart University has shown, less than 20% of Americans believe the media all or most of the time. Specifically, the study found that
Nearly three-quarters of all Americans surveyed, 70.7%, indicated they strongly or somewhat agreed that negative media reporting damages troop morale. Over half of all survey respondents, 59.8%, agreed (strongly or somewhat) that negative media coverage damages prospects for success in Iraq because it encourages terrorists, and about half, 49.1%, agreed (strongly or somewhat) that things are likely going better for the U.S. than the U.S. media portrays.
The more reflective among the media professionals might ponder on why they have become as trusted as a profession as used car salesmen, and then they might briefly remember the “one to 27 ratio.”
The “surge” in negative reporting from Iraq might have failed, but we are all poorer for it.
Arthur Chrenkoff is a retired blogger and the author of the supernatural alternate reality war thriller %%AMAZON=1593600801 Night Trains.%%