Jan 1 2008

A Million Iraqi Dead?

The U.S. press buries the evidence

The Iraq War was sold to Americans in part as an intervention that would benefit Iraqis, “liberating” them from the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, after no weapons of mass destruction were found and the alleged links to Al-Qaeda were debunked, this supposed humanitarian mission became the central justification for the invasion. Today, it is a major pillar of what support remains among the U.S. public for continuing the occupation.

If Americans are to make informed judgments not only about the invasion of Iraq and whether the occupation should continue, but also about future wars our government may wish to start, then we need to have good information about the war’s impact on Iraqis.

But the major U.S. press rarely considers a most basic measure of that impact: how many Iraqis have been killed. When they do mention the toll, they consistently ignore or malign two major statistical studies, the first conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and published in the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet (10/11/06), and the other released by the British polling firm Opinion Research Business (9/07). Both indicate that over a million Iraqis have now been killed. Yet an Associated Press poll in February (2/24/07) that asked Americans how many Iraqis have died received a median response of less than 10,000.

The Johns Hopkins study estimated that, as of July 2006, 655,000 Iraqis had been killed, about 600,000 of them violently and at least 30 percent directly by coalition forces. It updated an earlier study (Lancet, 10/29/04) that estimated that 100,000 Iraqis had died during the first year of the war. An extrapolation of the Johns Hopkins estimate of violent deaths done by Just Foreign Policy (9/18/07) currently stands at over 1.1 million.

Both Johns Hopkins estimates of Iraqi deaths have been largely ignored by the U.S. media, as FAIR has noted (FAIR Action Alert, 3/21/05, 3/21/07; FAIR Media Advisory, 12/16/05).

The media’s neglect of these statistical studies is particularly striking when contrasted with their regular citation of similar studies whose results do not reflect badly on U.S. military policy. The Johns Hopkins studies employ the method accepted around the world to measure birth and death rates in the wake of natural and man-made disasters: a cluster survey. It is the same method that was used to estimate that 200,000 have been killed in Sudan’s Darfur region (Science, 9/15/06). Yet, while the Darfur figure has been cited over 1,000 times by major U.S. press outlets just within the last year (e.g., AP, 12/6/07; New York Times, 12/6/07; Miami Herald, 12/5/07), the estimate for Iraq is ignored.

The Darfur figure is considered so uncontroversial that a source for the number is almost never given. Often, it is not even called an estimate; for example, Associated Press reported (12/5/07), “More than 200,000 people have died.”

In contrast, when the Johns Hopkins figure on Iraqi deaths is provided, it is accompanied by criticism or strong disclaimers. A recent Associated Press article (12/3/07) reported that Iraqi civilian deaths are “estimated at more than 75,000, with one controversial study last year contending there were as many as 655,000.” No major errors have been found in the Johns Hopkins study. It is “controversial” merely because its results are unacceptable.

The different treatment of death estimates in Darfur and Iraq reveals a pervasive bias in the U.S. media. Journalists question or outright ignore studies that reveal the humanitarian costs of U.S. military policy, while those estimates that reflect badly on official enemies, as in Darfur, take on the solidity of undisputed fact.

The same pattern emerged again in September 2007 when a respected British polling firm, Opinion Research Business (ORB), released a poll finding that 1.2 million Iraqis had been killed violently since the U.S. invasion. Given this poll’s close agreement with Just Foreign Policy’s extrapolation of the Johns Hopkins study (the Just Foreign Policy estimate is well within the margin of error of the ORB estimate), this provides compelling evidence that more than a million Iraqis have died. At least the possibility deserves to be reported and to be included when journalists give ranges of the estimates of Iraqi deaths.

However, with the exception of a story in the Los Angeles Times (9/14/07), a five-minute segment on National Public Radio (9/18/07) and one-paragraph briefs buried in Newsday (9/14/07), the Seattle Times (9/14/07) and the Houston Chronicle (9/14/07), major U.S. newsrooms did not report the ORB findings. They were not mentioned on any of the major TV networks or cable news channels.

Soon after the ORB poll was released, Just Foreign Policy sent out a media advisory (9/18/07) pointing out the agreement between the two independently reached results. A resulting exchange with an editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer provided an illuminating window into the attitude of many members of the U.S. media establishment. Deputy editorial director Kevin O’Brien responded:

So one group with an ax to grind comes out with an estimate, based on an extrapolation favorable to its political position. Then another group with the very same ax to grind comes out with an estimate, also based on an extrapolation favorable to its political position. And, lo and behold, both of those politically interested groups estimate the same thing. And then they call that happy little coincidence “confirmation.”

Please remove me from your mailing list and spare me your transparent propaganda.

Just Foreign Policy is opposed to a continuation of the occupation of Iraq, so it may be fair to say we have a political “ax to grind” (though the extrapolation from the scientific Johns Hopkins study was done honestly and carefully). But ORB is neither left-wing nor anti-war; its clients include the British Conservative Party (which supports the war in Iraq), the Bank of Scotland and Morgan Stanley Bank. Its chair has worked with Margaret Thatcher, Boris Yeltsin and Ronald Reagan.

When we pointed out ORB’s credentials, O’Brien replied:

Even assuming the best of credentials and the most scientific of intentions, the fact remains that nothing your advocacy group or their polling firm is doing or has done can confirm any death toll. Estimation is not confirmation. Extrapolation is not confirmation.

The editor’s comments betrayed an extraordinarily anti-scientific attitude. To say “estimation is not confirmation” is to deny the possible usefulness of statistical studies, which are relied on in everything from opinion polls to public health. As one commenter noted, “If you don’t believe in random sampling, next time the doctor orders a blood test, tell ’em to take it all.” In this Orwellian world, the only facts that rank as such are those that have been “confirmed,” presumably either by a direct eyewitness account from a Western reporter or by the U.S. government or the government it has set up in Iraq. In this world, an estimate of total Iraqi deaths is impossible.

After hundreds of people complained to the Plain Dealer, reader representative Ted Diadiun published a response (9/23/07) that defended the failure to report ORB’s poll. In fact, he wrote that it would have been “irresponsible” to reveal its existence. Over a week after the poll was released, he wrote to readers, “Chances are that you are unaware of this poll, because it has not been taken seriously by most responsible media in this country.”

Diadiun complained about the large discrepancy between the study’s result and “confirmed reporting.” But this is to be expected. The media in any country only report a fraction of all violent deaths. Demographer Patrick Ball has shown through work in Guatemala (State Violence in Guatemala, AAAS, 1999) that this is particularly true when there is an unusually high level of violence. In Iraq, the media are limited to small zones of safe passage. The organization Iraq Body Count, which compiles the tally of media-reported deaths most often cited by the press, themselves acknowledge on their website: “It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media.”

Diadiun objected that “scant” information about the poll’s methodology was released, though the number of those interviewed face-to-face and detailed breakdowns of the responses were released. He also cited the concerns of the Associated Press‘s senior deputy international editor Steven Komarow about ORB’s “agenda.”

As stated, ORB is a firm whose long track record should give them the benefit of the doubt unless someone finds methodological or analytical mistakes in their work. It seems that simply asking the important question of how many Iraqis have been killed makes even an established group appear suspect. (According to Diadiun, the Associated Press‘s Komarow also believes the peer-reviewed Johns Hopkins study to have used “a technique that was not scientifically accepted”—those cluster samples that the Associated Press accepts so readily in Darfur and elsewhere.)

The same “agenda” concerns did not come up when ORB released a more positive poll (3/07) from Iraq earlier this year. While the poll showed that Iraqi satisfaction with the occupation had deteriorated badly and that most expected violence to decrease after a U.S. withdrawal, it also found that 49 percent of Iraqis said their life was better post-Saddam and only 26 percent said it was worse. This poll was reported in the U.S. by CNN (3/19/07), Fox News (3/19/07), the Washington Post (3/20/07), L.A. Times (3/20/07), USA Today (3/20/07), Chicago Tribune (3/20/07) and SunTimes (3/19/07), Seattle Times (3/20/07), Fort Lau-derdale Sun-Sentinel (3/20/07) and Newsday (3/20/07).

The media clearly hold bearers of negative news about the occupation to a much different standard than those of news that can be positively spun.

In closing his note to readers, Diadiun quoted Plain Dealer deputy managing editor Daryl Kannberg:

I would love to have reliable numbers to report, but the U.S. military isn’t in that business and the Iraqi government is unwilling or unable. So we try to find the best, most reliable information we can find. Those are the numbers we use.

The major press would gladly report numbers provided by governments about how many people they’ve killed, but independent statistical studies just can’t be trusted.

Patrick McElwee is a policy analyst and national co-coordinator of Just Foreign Policy, a membership organization dedicated to reforming U.S. foreign policy. He can be reached at patrick@justforeignpolicy.org.