As with the Lancet study released in 2004, the American corporate press has again resorted to burying and suppressing casualty figures that are embarrassing to the United States and occupation forces operating throughout Iraq. The most recent study on Iraqi casualties first surfaced in the news this Wednesday, although most Americans probably wouldnâ€™t know it considering the poor to non-existent coverage throughout the mainstream media. The survey (released in the Lancet Medical Journal), undertaken by researchers at Johns Hopkins and MIT, and in coordination with Baghdadâ€™s Mustansiriya University School, measured Iraqi deaths throughout the American occupation, estimating that approximately 655,000 Iraqis had likely perished, mainly as a result of the escalating violence throughout the country. The study approximated an average of about 3.2 deaths per 1,000 Iraqis in the year after the 2003 invasion, although that number rose to about 12 per 1,000 from June of 2005 to June of 2006.
The main reason for the American mediaâ€™s discounting of the Lancet report has more to do with its political implications than its methodological â€œflaws.â€ At a time when the U.S. claims to be fighting to stop civil war and the widespread breakout of violence in Iraq, the Lancet study suggests the United States occupation is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. The study used a standard methodology for estimating deaths in war zones. Surveying 1,840 households chosen at random throughout Iraqâ€™s 18 regions and 47 different neighborhoods, the study estimated (claiming 95% certainty) that the number of dead was between 426,369 and 793,663. All households reporting the loss of a family member were asked to produce a death certificate; in 92% of the cases, the family complied. The areas of study were chosen based upon population size, rather than levels of violence. Of course, high estimates of countrywide death counts using similar methodologies have also been undertaken in the Congo and Darfur, where the efforts received praise (or at least not intense skepticism) for providing an important indicator of the scale of the humanitarian disaster. So why the sudden outrage in the case of the Iraqi study? As critical viewers have no doubt noticed, it is the parties responsible â€“ in this case the United States and Britain â€“ which has been the major factor in the quick demise of media attention.
While the Bush administrationâ€™s December 2005 estimates that as many as 30,000 people died in Iraq received front page coverage in newspapers across the country, the Lancet studies (in 2004 and now in 2006) were predictably cast aside at a time when the U.S. and Britain are claiming humanitarianism as their primary justification for remaining in Iraq. Out of the three major American newspapers â€“ the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times â€“ none chose to feature the story on their websites. Similarly, none of the papers thought mass Iraqi deaths were worthy of front page coverage. When the story did appear on October 11, the New York Times buried it on page A16, whereas the LA Times and Post both located their stories on page A12. Even worse was regional coverage of the story. Midwest papers like the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times didnâ€™t bother to cover it at all in their October 11 issues. Fluff pieces such as Madonnaâ€™s adoption of a Malawian child, and the discovery of a 100,000 year old Camel twice the size of todayâ€™s average Camel both beat out the Lancet study in the Chicago Sun Times, which is itself a damning indictment of the priorities of American journalists and editors, and owners.
It may very well be the Tribuneâ€™s coverage, however, which was the most morally reprehensible. Although the story was ignored on October 11, it did make an appearance in the paper the next day, buried on page 12, under a headline which quoted President Bush discounting the story as lacking credibility. The story went on to claim that, while 601,000 of the estimated 655,000 deaths were the result of violence in Iraq, â€œthe remaining excess deaths were from natural causes [emphasis added] due to breakdown of infrastructure because of the war.â€ To suggest that the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis due to the conscious destruction of Iraqi infrastructure (undertaken in large part by the United States) is somehow â€œnaturalâ€ certainly speaks volumes about the American mediaâ€™s efforts to cover up U.S. war crimes.
For those claiming that media subservience to, and flattery of government is normal or somehow unavoidable during times of war, it is worth noting the stunning difference in mainstream British and Arab media coverage, as contrasted with that of the American press. Out of Britainâ€™s four major newspapers (the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph, and the Times), three of the four papers chose to feature the story on their websites, whereas two of the four (The Guardian and the Independent) ran the story on page one of their print editions. The tone of the reporting was also more adversarial, as the Independent subtitle claimed that â€œthis shocking figure reveals the true cost of the war,â€ whereas the Guardian website subheading read â€œwar claims one in 40 Iraqis.â€ Arab media coverage was of a similarly critical vein, as Al Jazeera also featured the story at the top of its English edition website, explaining that about 2.5% of Iraqâ€™s population was estimated to have been killed, according to the study.
Sycophantic coverage designed to flatter Western political leaders, then, was not pre-ordained by some higher power. British media outlets could just have easily chosen to bury the story, considering that Prime Minister Tony Blair, like Bush, rejected the story as lacking in credibility (the same goes for Al Jazeera, as Iraqi political leaders also rejected the report as exaggerated). Instead, these media outlets chose to challenge official propaganda about â€œhumanitarian intentâ€ in Iraq. The location of the Lancet story, deep within the pages of American newspapers, represents a conscious choice as well, this time to conceal U.S. fault in the mass death of Iraqis. Of course, highlighting the American mediaâ€™s flattery of power is not to suggest that the Lancet studies are without their limitations. The studies are, after all, estimates, rather than official, comprehensive body counts. This inevitably means that the 655,000 estimate may be too high or too low, considering a full and accurate death count is impossible in light of growing violence and social chaos. Whether the deaths number 100,000 or 900,000 is not the point though when it comes to evaluating the mediaâ€™s responsibility in reporting the Iraq conflict.
Certainly the Lancet studies deserves at least as much (if not more) attention as other casualty counts, such as the 30,000 figure cited by Bush, which received front page coverage. The decision to ignore and de-prioritize the study reveals corporate mediaâ€™s commitment to serving as a lapdog for the Bush administration, rather than an effective watchdog of the public interest in regards to fair and honest reporting of the Iraq conflict and Iraqi casualties.
Anthony DiMaggio teaches Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University, and is the Senior Editor for The Indy, an independent progressive newspaper based out of the Midwest.