Jun 1 2003

Depleted Coverage of Uranium Weapons

In the build-up to the war against Iraq, U.S. television spent much time speculating about whether Saddam Hussein might acquire uranium for weapons. But the same outlets showed little curiosity about the U.S. and Britain’s actual use of uranium weapons during the war.

Many U.S. and British munitions use a dense, toxic metal known as “depleted” uranium as ballast and to destroy armored vehicles. DU is uranium after most of the fissionable isotope has been extracted for use in nuclear weapons and power plants; it’s still radioactive, though less so than natural uranium. The U.S. military insists DU is not a major health threat, but many critics link its use to Gulf War Syndrome in U.S. veterans and to increased cancers and birth defects in Iraq. Some experts estimate 1,000 to 2,000 tons of DU was used in the most recent war in Iraq–roughly three to six times the amount dropped in the 1991 Gulf War (London Guardian, 4/25/03).

As explained in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (11/12/02)–one of the few U.S. outlets to seriously investigate DU–questions about its safety are particularly important because the uranium dust created by DU weapons “can be spread by the wind, inhaled and absorbed into the human body and absorbed by plants and animals, becoming part of the food chain.”

Yet the words “depleted uranium” have not been uttered once on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News or NBC Nightly News since the beginning of the year, according to a May 22 search of the Nexis database.

The three major networks’ other national news shows didn’t do much better. ABC‘s Nightline (2/18/03) and CBS‘s The Early Show (4/16/03) both aired reports about Gulf War Syndrome in which DU was mentioned as one of many possible causes of the illness. Apart from that, the networks’ only other mention of DU in Iraq came when CBS and NBC aired a live Pentagon briefing (3/26/03) during which Canadian and French reporters happened to ask about DU’s impact on civilians.

Cable news did little to fill in the gaps. CNN aired the same March 26 briefing that CBS and NBC did, and DU was twice mentioned during the network’s gee-whiz descriptions of the superiority of American weaponry (3/20/03, 3/27/03). DU also came up during a discussion of Gulf War Syndrome (2/28/03), and on CNN American Morning (4/4/03), when embedded reporter Walter Rodgers noted that when the unit he was with fired DU shells, “we had to pull back because those depleted uranium shells are not very good to stand around.”

Presumably, they’re not good to live around, either, but the only hint CNN viewers got that DU might pose a health risk to Iraqi civilians came when Dennis Halliday, former U.N. coordinator of Iraq’s Oil for Food program, raised the issue while being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer two months before the war (1/26/03).

As for Fox News Channel, Nexis shows only one mention this year of depleted uranium, on The Big Story With John Gibson (5/15/03), when Gibson asked Time reporter Michael Weisskopf “how big a problem” weaponry used by U.S. forces posed to post-war Iraq, including “the depleted uranium rounds that the Americans had evidently fired at one point.” Weisskopf’s response focused solely on the issue of unexploded munitions.

Similarly, on MSNBC, DU was mentioned as a technical detail of the U.S.’s “very interesting” guns (3/31/03), and was briefly raised by Dennis Halliday during an interview (1/16/03). It also came up twice, in passing, on the now-defunct Donahue show (once in an audience member’s question, 1/13/03, and once brought up by a guest, 2/20/03).

When MSNBC‘s Lester Holt interviewed NBCcameraperson Craig White about being an “embed” in Iraq (5/15/03), Holt asked him to recount a story of “honest-to-God heroism” involving burning ammunition trucks. DU was part of what made the story heroic: “One of the things we were worried about is that this was radiation, these were depleted uranium shells. Two days later when they checked the hulks of these [trucks], the Geiger counters went off the charts.” Holt’s shallow response–“Incredible stories. What were the best moments?”–is a good illustration of how far off the radar screen the controversy surrounding DU is for many mainstream journalists.