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Do Media Know That War Kills?

Despite daily reports about the "showdown" with Iraq, Americans hear very little from mainstream media about the most basic fact of war: People will be killed and civilian infrastructure will be destroyed, with devastating consequences for public health long after the fighting stops.

Since the beginning of the year, according to a search of the Nexis database (1/1/03-3/12/03), none of the three major television networks' nightly national newscasts-- ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News or NBC Nightly News-- have examined in detail what long-term impact war will have on humanitarian conditions in Iraq. They've also downplayed the immediate civilian deaths that will be caused by a U.S. attack.

The closest thing to a report on the likely humanitarian impact to appear this year on the nightly newscasts was a January 23 CBS Evening News story about the mood in Iraq. Noting that "many [Iraqis] are genuinely scared" of war, the report stated that "almost half" of the country "would starve without government food handouts." But CBS's report shifted responsibility for any humanitarian disaster away from the U.S., suggesting that what Iraqis fear "perhaps even more than an American military attack" is that domestic "hatred and revenge could tear [Iraq] apart" in the aftermath.

The networks' failure to integrate humanitarian concerns into their war coverage is especially striking in light of the numerous humanitarian and relief agencies that have issued urgent warnings about the impending crisis. Human Rights Watch, for instance, issued a 25-page briefing paper (2/13/03) warning of a "humanitarian disaster" impacting hundreds of thousands of people if the U.S. attacks Iraq. ABC, CBS and NBC did not cover HRW's findings.

Nor did they cover the announcement made (also 2/13/03) by the United Nations' undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Kenzo Oshima, that as many as 10 million people might need food assistance during and after an Iraq war, 50 percent of Iraq's population might be without potable water, and that between 600,000 and 1.45 million people might become refugees and asylum seekers.

Also unreported on ABC, CBS and NBC were the internal U.N. estimates revealed in leaked documents publicized by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq and the Center for Economic and Social Rights. The U.N. predicted that 30 percent of Iraq's children under five "would be at risk of death from malnutrition" in the event of war (CASI press release, 2/17/03), and that 500,000 people could "require medical treatment… as a result of direct or indirect injuries," with potentially 100,000 Iraqi civilians wounded "and another 400,000 hit by disease after the bombing of water and sewage facilities and the disruption of food supplies" (London Guardian, 1/29/03).

It's worth noting that the silence on ABC was not total; it did address some humanitarian issues on Nightline (2/24/03). In a segment about the "aftermath" of war, Nightline reported that "millions of Iraqis will need food, fresh water and medical care" and that "tens of thousands" of refugees may be created. But the central question posed was: "Who will take care of them? The American military or private humanitarian groups?" Seen through Nightline's lens, the main humanitarian problem would be the quandary confronting the U.S. as it both attacks Iraq and attempts to relieve the devastation it wreaks there; as correspondent Chris Bury put it in his introduction, "how exactly does an invading force juggle its military and humanitarian hats?"

Reporter John Donvan presented valuable information about the potentially "catastrophic" impact of war, but bracketed this with a tortured attempt to suggest that the U.S. would not be the real cause of civilian suffering: "And even if Saddam is the source of so many of the Iraqi people's problems, very likely it's the U.S. the world would choose to blame." Therefore, said Donvan, the U.S. was developing a relief plan, because "it is in American interests" and because "it's the right thing to do."

What could charitably be called Nightline's credulity was topped off by Donvan's closer. Humanitarian assistance is necessary to ensure that the war will have a "positive impact," he said, because "it is assumed that some Iraqi civilians, perhaps many, will be killed…. Not deliberately, but as a result of what is called collateral damage."

Unfortunately, Nightline is not alone among major media outlets in asserting that civilian deaths can be considered accidental even if the Pentagon predicts them ahead of time and factors them into its battle plans; it's a conceit that's widespread in the mainstream press.

NBC Nightly News, for instance, aired a story (2/19/03) about the Pentagon's "growing worries" about civilian casualties, in which it reported that military officials predict that thousands of Iraqi civilians may "be killed entirely by accident in an intensive bombing campaign." Correspondent Jim Miklaszewski offered details of the "devastating" air assault planned, and explained that "despite the most advanced technology" and "all the painstaking efforts the U.S. military," a large percentage of bombs "will stray off target, increasing the likelihood that civilians will die." Of course, predicted deaths from an aerial bombardment of a major city cannot be said to come about "entirely by accident."

Civilian casualties also came up in an earlier NBC Nightly News report (2/10/03) about the financial costs of war. Reporter Campbell Brown raised the question of "human costs, casualty numbers impossible to pinpoint," and addressed it with a soundbite from an academic analyst stating that "if there are going to be heavy civilian casualties, they'll mainly be caused by the Iraqis." Brown let this assertion stand without comment, and failed to contextualize it (with information about casualties from the Gulf War, for example, or about the people who can be expected to die as a result of damage to the public health infrastructure over the long term).

Commendably, CBS Evening News aired one segment on the prospect of "door-to-door urban warfare" in Iraq (1/13/03) that took a more grounded approach. CBS's Bryon Pitts reported that fighting in cities like Baghdad, "filled with women, children and unarmed men," would involve heavy casualties, both military and civilian. Offering a rare glimpse of an ordinary soldier's criticism of the planned urban fighting, Pitts interviewed a private who said, "If it was up to me, I don't want no part of it. You know, it's too dangerous, too deadly."

There have been other scattered mentions of civilian deaths on the three network nightly newscasts. All made brief mention (3/3/03) of Iraq's charges that U.S. and British warplanes killed six civilians near Basra in early March. CBS and NBC (2/16/03) reported on the anniversary of the U.S. destruction of the Amiriyah bomb shelter during the Gulf War, an attack which killed over 400 civilians. (CBS thoughtfully noted that "apart from the tragedy" involved, "the images of the civilian dead and wounded were a major public relations setback.") All three have also done stories about peace activists volunteering as "human shields;" these stories necessarily alluded to the activists' concerns about civilian casualties, but did not elaborate.

Overall, however, death and disaster have been discussed as troubling details rather than fundamental facts of war-- unless media can blame Saddam Hussein. One segment on ABC News' Good Morning America (2/20/03), for instance, focused on the evils that Hussein may wreak. ABC News reporter Claire Shipman opened with a strident emphasis on Hussein as "somebody who's happy to kill his own people." Explaining "what the Bush Administration most fears," Shipman asserted that Hussein might "starve thousands of his own people, destroy their infrastructures, even cities in order to slow down U.S. troops, and then blame the United States." This remark was followed by a soundbite from a spokesperson from the Center for Strategic & International Studies asserting that Hussein "is very likely to try and commit some kind of humanitarian disaster" in the event of war.

It's important for journalists to investigate the Iraqi regime's atrocities, but media must just as tirelessly investigate the U.S.'s role in Iraq's sufferings-- and not merely as actions committed "by accident." Journalists might remember, for example, that the U.S. deliberately targeted Iraq's water system during the Gulf War, even while predicting that this would lead to large-scale epidemics (The Progressive, 9/01). When media fail to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of deaths that U.S. policy has contributed to in Iraq, they obscure the plain fact that war is always, in its own right, a humanitarian disaster.
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