Feb 1 2006

Counting the Iraqi Cost

Why did it take a non-journalist to ask?

Throughout the Iraq War, the mainstream media have shown little interest in documenting or quantifying the suffering of Iraqis. But a recent comment by George W. Bush provoked an unexpected round of discussion on the topic.

At the close of a public event on December 12, Bush took questions from the audience. The very first question was quite direct: “I’d like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis, I include civilians, military police, insurgents, translators.”

Bush’s response: “How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.”

Suddenly, major newspapers and broadcast outlets were engaged in an unusual discussion about the human toll of the war for Iraqis. Reporters began to cite the tally of civilian deaths by the website Iraq Body Count (IraqBodyCount.org) as a possible source for Bush’s claim (USA Today, 12/14/05; CNN, 12/12/05).

Often overlooked was the fact that Iraq Body Count’s research is limited to civilian deaths—not including insurgents or security forces, as specified by the questioner—and only those civilian deaths that were reported by the media. The resulting total, as the group’s website acknowledges, is therefore a low estimate: “It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media.”

A more scientific survey of total civilian deaths in Iraq that was published in the British medical journal Lancet (10/29/04) suggested a much higher death toll, with a median estimate of 98,000. But as FAIR pointed out (Action Alert, 3/21/05), media discussions of Iraqi casualties tend to avoid or dismiss that higher estimate. The Lancet study was largely ignored by the mainstream press when it was released (This American Life, 10/28/05), and remains largely outside the realm of discussion a year later.

Meanwhile, some in the media seemed eager to congratulate Bush for even addressing the issue. On NPR’s Morning Edition (12/13/05), Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said, “I give Mr. Bush credit for having given some information, and it shows that he’s conscious of this very human toll of the war, so I think it was a good thing that he responded.”

ABC reporter Claire Shipman (12/13/05) was also impressed, acknowledging that while “getting specific like that about extremely murky casualty figures can be a no-win political proposition,” it could prove beneficial to Bush: “Now some have suggested it’s a healthy sign that the president was so willing to get specific about the number of Iraqi dead, that it shows how closely he’s following the cost of the war.” Shipman went on to add: “So far, civilian casualties in Iraq don’t at all approach those of the other big wars of the last century.” (Nor did the number of people killed by Saddam Hussein approach the number killed by Hitler—which would be an equally absurd standard to apply.)

It’s noteworthy that most reporters simply ignored without comment the questioner’s interest not only in civilians but in all Iraqi deaths—as if Iraqi military deaths (on all sides of the conflict) are obviously too unimportant to tabulate. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the question is this: Why did it take a non-journalist to ask it? Why hadn’t reporters asked Bush this question before?

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan faces the press corps regularly, but with a few exceptions from syndicated columnist Helen Thomas and Corporate Crime Reporter’s Russell Mokhiber, he’s rarely had to answer questions about Iraqi deaths during his regular press briefings.

While correctly noting that the White House is not eager to address questions about Iraqi deaths, media reports conveniently ignored the corollary fact that the press corps has not been eager to ask them.