May 1 2003

Brushing Aside the Pentagon’s ‘Accidents’

U.S. media minimized, sanitized Iraq War's civilian toll

It’s no secret that U.S. media outlets–particularly television news shows–did not devote anywhere near the same attention to civilian casualties and suffering in the Iraq war that overseas outlets did. But the nuances of how U.S. media framed war’s impact on civilians are worth a closer look. Generally, the problem was not a total blackout of civilian suffering, but that the few stories that appeared tended to minimize and rationalize it.

Death and disaster were often discussed as impediments to political strategy, rather than as matters of concern in and of themselves. Overall, reporting served to sanitize the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq, and obscured the fact that large-scale war is always a humanitarian disaster, even when it’s billed as a humane “liberation.”

Heading for the “showdown”

In the months leading up to the Iraq war, Americans were deluged with reports about the “showdown” with Iraq, yet little was said about the most basic and predictable fact of war: People would be killed and civilian infrastructure destroyed, with devastating consequences for public health long after the fighting stops.

Television was an egregious offender on this front. From January through mid-March, according to a search of the Nexis database (1/1/03=3/12/03), neither ABC, CBS nor NBC‘s nightly national newscasts aired a single detailed report about what long-term impact a war might have on humanitarian conditions in Iraq. This omission was especially striking in light of the numerous humanitarian and relief agencies that issued urgent warnings about the impending crisis. All three networks ignored a 25-page briefing paper from Human Rights Watch (2/13/03), for example, though it warned that a U.S. attack could precipitate a “humanitarian disaster” impacting hundreds of thousands of people (FAIR Action Alert, 3/14/03).

It’s worth noting that ABC 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 was the quandary confronting the U.S.; as correspondent Chris Bury put it, “how exactly does an invading force juggle its military and humanitarian hats?”

Reporter John Donvan presented valuable information about war’s potentially “catastrophic” impact, but still seemed to feel compelled to portray the human costs as an unfortunate side effect and ultimately not the United States’ fault–though “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.” The report ended by saying that humanitarian assistance would be necessary to ensure that the war would have a “positive impact,” 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 was not alone among major media outlets in asserting that civilian deaths can be considered accidental even if they are the expected consequence of Pentagon battle plans. In an NBC Nightly News story (2/19/03) about the Pentagon’s “growing worries” about civilian casualties, for example, Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski reported, without a trace of irony, that military officials predict that “thousands” of Iraqi civilians may “be killed entirely by accident in an intensive bombing campaign.”

“Precise” and “Surgical”

The view that all the U.S.’s weapons are “precise” would seem to be at odds with the notion that all civilian deaths caused by U.S. attacks are “accidents,” but both are equally popular with the U.S. press.

As noted in a FAIR Action Alert (3/26/03), reporters often showed a marked lack of skepticism about the Pentagon’s paeans to its high-tech weaponry. NBC News reports illustrated this tendency particularly well, as anchors and correspondents adopted the loaded military phrase “surgical strikes” as their own. NBC‘s Miklaszewski went further (3/21/03), asserting that “every weapon is precision guided–deadly accuracy designed to kill only the targets, not innocent civilians.”

Miklaszewski made no effort to square this claim of “deadly accuracy” with his earlier reporting that thousands of civilians would be killed “entirely by accident.” In any case, it’s hard to excuse journalists making definitive claims about “surgical” strikes in the absence of on-the-ground reports.

A double-standard was at work, too–stories about civilian deaths and destruction from bombing were generally treated with all possible skepticism, often framed as unverifiable claims made by the Iraqis: “The BBC and the Arab network Al Jazeera have devoted significant time to what Iraq suggested were innocent victims targeted in the bombings” (NBC Nightly News, 3/22/03).

Some mainstream reporters, however, did document the war’s impact on civilians. Print outlets sometimes provided important information to contextualize the Pentagon’s “precision” claims; in one such story, the Los Angeles Times reported (3/25/03) that “deaths and injuries from misdirected or errant bombs, or from shrapnel and fragments that spray into nearby homes even when the munitions find their intended target, are making more and more people believe that the United States is heedless of the Iraqi public.”

Beware of “nasty images”

But for many outlets, speculating about the “propaganda war” was a more engaging pursuit than investigating the real, physical war. “In at least one respect, it doesn’t make much difference who bombed the two markets,” Newsweek wrote (4/7/03) in an article about Shaab and Shuala, two of the war’s most heavily reported and horrific attacks on civilians. “Either way, Iraqis are blaming the Americans, and Saddam Hussein is reinforcing his position among his people,” the magazine continued, emphasizing that “when it comes to manipulating the minds of his countrymen, Saddam Hussein is a malevolent genius.”

In this, Newsweek was updating a theme it had elaborated before the war even started, when it cautioned readers (3/17/03) that “Saddam is hardly above gassing his own people and pretending that the Americans…are to blame.” As though attempting to discredit ahead of time any documentary evidence that might emerge, the magazine warned that “even the most accurate American bombs could produce atrocious TV images” and that “many Arabs watching Al Jazeera would believe” Iraqi attempts to blame casualties on the U.S.

Newsweek‘s argument is almost nonsensical, but the bottom line is clear: Beware of ugly TV images, because even if they’re real, believing what you see only serves Saddam.

The Wall Street Journal (3/28/03) went further, actually calling for more civilian deaths in an editorial asserting that the U.S. had too many “scruples” about harming civilians. The Journal argued that a show of force was necessary to teach the Middle East that the U.S. meant business, and urged U.S. viewers to ignore the discomfort the deaths might cause them: “While in the near term we are likely to endure some nasty TV images, in the long run this U.S. determination will save both Iraqi and American lives.”

Ignoring the evidence

As it turned out, Americans were shielded from the nastiest of TV images, despite the fact that Iraqi deaths were undoubtedly in the thousands. (Counting only civilian deaths reported by at least two media outlets, the website Iraq Body Count put the minimum number of civilian dead, as of May 1, at 2,180.) And when viewers were forced to “endure” some knowledge of the dirty reality of the Iraq war, media more often than not spared them the burden of learning who was responsible for it. Media’s response to the Shuala attack is instructive. (See FAIR Action Alert, 4/4/03.)

On March 28, in an open-air market in the Shuala section of Baghdad, over 60 people were killed in what seemed to be a missile attack–the Los Angeles Times (3/29/03), for example, reported matter-of-factly that “a missile slammed into a crowded market area.” But many outlets, such as the New York Times (3/29/03), stressed that “it was impossible to determine the cause,” and framed the incidents as something that “threaten[s] to become yet another major problem for the Bush administration.”

Gruesome accounts of the carnage at Shuala appeared in major U.S. papers, and some rare images of actual civilian victims even made it to television. What was–and remains–missing from U.S. coverage of the story is any follow-up to determine who was responsible for the killings and how they occurred.

A London newspaper, however, did investigate further, and found evidence that appears to shed light on the story. Two days after the explosion (3/30/03), veteran journalist Robert Fisk reported in the Independent that he had found what appeared to be a missile fragment bearing a serial number at the scene of the explosion. In a follow-up article, the Independent‘s Cahal Milmo (4/2/03) traced the number to the Raytheon Corporation, writing that the weapon it corresponded to was “thought to be either a HARM anti-radar missile or a Paveway laser-guided bomb.”

Furthermore, the military told the paper that a U.S. Navy EA-6B Prowler jet “was in action over the Iraqi capital on Friday and fired at least one HARM missile to protect two American fighters from a surface-to-air missile battery.” The Independent also found that the damage at Shuala was consistent with a HARM, which has a tendency to go off-target.

As of May 1, according to a search of the Nexis database, not one major U.S. news outlet had reported the leads revealed by the Independent‘s investigation.